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Friday, 13 July 2012

   Almost the whole of the next day i spent in bed, being brilliantly looked after, before getting away in glorious sunshine on Friday June 3rd, dedicated to St Charles Lwanga and companion martyrs. I left my host with a box of chocolates, and the Russian book about the Prophet Elijah, and we exchanged contact details. Additionally though, when his brother showed me to the railway line, which happened to be the best way of walking on to the next town, i gave him some money to cover their expenses. Train tracks of course demand great circumspection (don’t try this at home), but most of the time i could use a path running alongside; so the main problem was that i was only about 70% recovered, making the whole 35 kilometres to Shortandy unrealistic. For this reason, at about 6pm it was great to be offered a lift by four men in overalls who were checking the line. They had a kind of soviet equivalent of a jeep, and the young guy at the wheel clearly relished taking us along a very rudimentary and bumpy track; the nearest thing i've ever experienced to rally driving. Wonderfully, we arrived in time for 7pm Mass at the church of the Immaculate Conception, Shortandy, which turned out to be in the custody of Vincentians, the same order as had been in Kharkiv, Ukraine. At the cathedral in Astana i’d been told that they would be well-disposed to the idea of putting me up for the night, so after Mass i explained my circumstances. The presbytery was undergoing refurbishment, but it was decided that i could stay on another sofa, in a sort of children’s day room in the nuns’ quarters. They were wonderfully solicitous towards me, enabling me to wash and do laundry by heating some water, and proffered medication for my cold and a couple of little chocolate bars. In the morning i was brought a magnificent bowl of porridge[1], with scrambled egg, nice bread and super coffee. They even carried out a repair to my rucksack whose zip was playing up. By this stage i always made sure to congratulate Poles, especially Polish priests and religious, on the Beatification of Blessed John Paul II, and we had a conversation about Polish faithfulness generally.

   I was shown to Shortandy’s train station by one of the nuns, who assumed that actually i wasn’t going to try to walk to Akkol, the next town. Seeing as i was still a bit coldy, and an appropriate train was just about to leave, she turned out to be right. Reaching Akkol i went on the internet for a while, then was having a picnic lunch in a bus shelter (there were spots of rain), when a coach bound for Astana pulled up. I made a snap decision to embark, on the grounds that visa issues for the onward journey still needed to be dealt with.
   At the train station in Astana i checked back into the hotel/hostel, and chatted on the morning of Ascension Day to a roommate from France, doing an interesting-sounding tour of central Asian republics. Then there was Mass at the cathedral, followed by a visit to the Presidential Centre of Culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan, a frequently seen blue-domed building, perched on a roundabout just south of the centre. One of the best things is its free entry, though one can’t simply flounce in - i raised the suspicion of the guard at the entrance, and was required to empty out the contents of my rucksack for inspection. At the centre of one of the large rooms is a yurt. These big round mobile homes facilitated Kazakh nomadic tribal existence until the 19th century; a continuous roaming across the vast steppes and semi-desert, in search of new pasture for their livestock. Also notable are traditional costumes, furniture, armour, weapons, paraphernalia associated with falconry, and sundry gifts from foreign dignitaries to the leader of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Among these, equine figurines loom large; the ancient Botai people of Kazakhstan have a strong claim to have been the first to domesticate the horse, in around 3500 BC. Also prominent is a huge, very detailed globe, presented by President Francois Mitterand of France, but because it’s out of date (featuring the USSR), it possibly is not as carefully looked after as it deserves to be; the surface is worn away in certain areas where people have put their fingers.
   At about midnight, after spending some time in the internet cafe where i was by now a familiar face, i headed back to the cathedral in order to sleep next to the seminary again, but sadly the grass had been cut and i was no longer afforded adequate cover. I made do with a patch of ground in a nearby clump of bushes; not a place that yielded a very good sleep, what with various people loitering in the vicinity, the threat of rain, and a visit from a remarkably big and noisy moth. Still, at 7am it was good to attend Mass, celebrated by the Bishop, after which much of the day was spent catching up with sleep again in various places, though i did have a pleasant exchange with a young Muslim lady in a shop about our respective religions. She kindly donated a bulging bag of very tasty sweet biscuity things. I also finally tracked down the Russian embassy, and learnt that they would be dealing with visa enquiries on the next day. Later, as i was eating supper in a bus shelter, a fierce electric storm broke, followed by a rainbow, after which i had a short conversation with two young local guys, Asilbek and Rais, to whom i made a promise that i would include them in the account of the pilgrimage which i was hoping to write, Inshallah.

[1] "World Porridge Day" is a Mary's Meals initiative, celebrated worldwide on the 10th of October each year. In Malawi, where Mary’s Meals first came into existence, the nutrient-rich maize-based porridge Likuni Phala is established as the staple for a significant proportion of the 600,000 children fed by Mary’s Meals each year.

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