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Friday, 13 July 2012

IX Kazakhstan: The Tournament of Shadows

   Thanks be to God, i was leaving Russia and reaching Kazakhstan on Saturday the 28th May, a feast in honour of the Blessed martyrs John Shert, Thomas Ford and Robert Johnson; the ‘transfer window’, as it were, through which i could pass from one visa to the next. My destination was Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, because i knew my passport could be registered there, and i needed to find out about visas for the onward journey. A lady on the seat opposite was travelling to visit her young daughter, not having seen her for a year, and gave me several nice things to eat as a contribution to the pilgrimage. Providentially, when she left the train i was able to give her a little booklet of Orthodox prayers for mothers about their children, which i’d picked up in Astrakhan. Arriving just before 8pm, one of the first things i did in Astana’s spanking new train station was establish the Kazakh word for ‘thank you’ – ‘rakhmet’. Russian is spoken universally, and indeed there are numerous ethnic Russian Kazakhs who speak nothing else, but Kazakh is an entirely distinct Turkic language, like Tatar, with its own alphabet. After a go on the internet i ventured out into the warm evening, looking for possible sleeping places, but the cupboard was bare. A good option turned out to be a kind of hotel/hostel place back at the train station, similar to the one in Astrakhan.
Astana, Kazakhstan
   Next morning i covered a considerable distance by bus, through the gleaming commercial and administrative centre of Astana, to the recently built cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, arriving just in time for Sunday Mass. I picked up an English language leaflet about the national shrine of Our Lady in Kazakhstan, a village called Ozjornoje, in the north of the country, whence i was hoping to walk. In the afternoon i had a cup of tea at a subterranean cafe-bar called ‘O’Gorod’s’. The staff went out of their way to help me find out where exactly Ozjornoje is, and where i would need to go on the following morning for registration of my visa, as well as bringing me an extra cup of tea and a tasty dish of potatoes and mushrooms, free of charge. In accordance with custom there i put a message in the visitors’ book, and affixed a photo of the source of the river Thames, at Kemble, which i happened to have. That evening i enjoyed a recital from the Astana International Choir at the cathedral, then went to an internet cafe before settling down to sleep, hidden behind some long grass, alongside the wall of the seminary which is attached to the cathedral.
   On the morning of Monday 30th May 2011, dedicated to St Joan of Arc, it was good to rise early enough to attend 7am Mass, celebrated by a Polish priest, in the cathedral. He invited me to breakfast, where i met a Bishop and some seminarians – one of whom was due to be ordained as a priest on the very next day! I gave him a little icon reproduction of Our Lady which i’d bought in Kazan. Then however there was some frustration with passport procedures. Finding the relevant office eventually, i was told i needed to have the ‘inviting party’ with me - impossible, as the invitation came from the consular department of the Kazakh embassy in Kiev. Thankfully, making enquiries at a travel agency about this, i was directed to a rival company, who were able to make all necessary arrangements on my behalf for a modest fee. All being well, my registered passport would be ready for collection next day.
   That evening i spent some time in a 24 hour internet place, where the attendant gave me a free bottle of ice tea and a jumbo chicken salad sandwich. In the dark afterwards i wandered around for about an hour, trying to find a place to kip among the derelict buildings and ruins which exist incongruously side-by-side with pristine 21st century tower blocks. Until the late 1990s, when it was designated as the new capital and renamed Astana, this was apparently quite a down-at-heel provincial town, called Tselinograd in soviet times and Akmola in the first years of independence, whose ‘shell’ is still visible. The places i found were either unsuitable or occupied by other homeless people; a presence here, as one would expect in any big city. Unintentionally doing a big circle i came back to the internet place, went inside and ended up staying overnight, nodding off for a while on a row of chairs, a practice which the folks there were quite used to. Next day i caught up with sleep in a couple of unfrequented corners of central Astana, but also got a film developed with nice photos from Ukraine and Russia. A peculiar phenomenon at that time of year was the ubiquity of a kind of downy white fluff, presumably germinating some plant or other, which fell to the ground and even settled in a sort of blanket, like ‘summer snow’.

House where i recovered from flu, Tankiris
   Picking up my passport in late afternoon, after a final nap i began walking north in the direction of Ozjornoje. Along the rather ramshackle, muddy, dimly lit streets of Astana’s outskirts, it wasn’t easy to find a place to spend the night, but i made do with an old mattress in the back room of an apparently derelict house. The really odd thing next morning; on Wednesday 1st June, dedicated to St Justin, Martyr, i woke up with flu! My nose was streaming and i felt dreadful. The weather being very wet i couldn’t face getting up until about 11.30, but ran out of proper drinking water, so i resorted to putting paper cups outside to catch a few drops of rain. When at last i got away i discovered that the front room of the house was actually either recently or currently occupied, probably by vagrants, judging by articles of clothing and used beds. I retraced my steps from the previous evening for a kilometre, so as to get a hot drink in a sort of wedding reception place. These unseasonal symptoms, i realised, were going to necessitate a return to Astana, perhaps to the hostel place at the train station, so i got on the first available minibus. Sitting just behind the driver, i was soon engaged in a lengthy conversation with a Russian-Kazakh fellow of about my age on the front passenger seat, an evangelical Christian, who had been on missionary journeys to China. He had some business to attend to in Astana, but suggested i then come and get some rest and recuperation at his house, which i could hardly refuse. We met up and bought some groceries, for which i was happy to help pay, then got a lift with friends of his to his village called Tankiris. His abode was a very simple 3-room affair, without running water, which he shared with his brother, but he showed me into his room and bed, on which i crashed out for a bit, while he prepared some delicious soup and macaroni. I was impressed by his profound faith, and he explained that, even when apparently he had no money at all, the Lord never let him be without food.

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