Astana

Ideal stay: weekend trip
Temperature:
depending on season; winter very cold (-20) & summer quite hot (30°C)

..long time no hear..

Hey my dear READERS

I am so sorry – it has been a loooong time since I wrote my last post. I am sorry.
Life just happened in between and my priorities changed!

Actually I thought about my upcoming post and I prepared my notes for my favorite topic (at the moment): HAPPINESS.

But – somehow I felt the strong desire to rather tell you more about ASTANA and right after about ALMATY in Kazakhstan.

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..Here we go..

The first time I arrived in Astana (December) – I was shocked by the cold temperatures. Obviously it did not really help coming straight from Abu Dhabi & 32°C.

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I went to visit my best travel buddy and partner in crime, my boyfriend who recently moved there.
To be honest – Astana was not on my bucket list till then – but I really have to admit that I left with a heart full of gratitude and the desire of coming back.

DAY 1 (evening only)
My trip started off pretty well since he got Opera Tickets for us.
I dropped this wish in one of our conversations and was not really prepared for it.

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Surprise = check!

Prior making it to the Opera tho – I encountered the huge language barrier at the airport & in the taxi. Incredible. No one spoke English. I believe it is ok to say that I have been roaming around the world since quite a while but never – ever – came across THIS during my journey.
Taxi drivers rather strange than friendly – was not sure whether he was asleep or dead…?

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Somehow I managed to get my visa and left to the Opera House.

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Priority was obviously to hug my love since we have not seen each other for a while – but right after I got overwhelmed by the beauty of this traditional architectural masterpiece.

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We enjoyed our evening, indulged in those classic sounds and were looking forward to having a yummy dinner.

We drove to Arnau – a National restaurant – where we had horse meat accompanied with „bestbamark“ (noodles) and „boursaky“ (bread). Yes, horse meat.
Kazakh cuisine is traditionally focused on horse meat.

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I have to admit that it tasted a bit like venison – so def. not as bad as „expected“.
We talked, talked and talked – had tea to beat the cold outside and left quite late by taxi (don’t forget to bargain! – Google translator will help 😉 ).

DAY 2
He got up quite early in order to work and I enjoyed the sunrise above the city of Astana, looked up my route on Google maps and left to the bus station.

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The situation in the bus was quite weird: again, no one spoke English – so no one was able to tell you whether you were riding in the right or wrong direction; further the bus Driver and the ticket salesman played music with their cellphones and in between those tunes one of them announced the bus stops. The craziest part: it cost 90t only (20cent).

My first stop was – THE MALL: Khan Shatyr.
Coming from my sunny Abu Dhabi – I had no winter jacket, gloves, beanie nor proper shoes – reason why I first had to get all of this.

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After shopping I went to the Sky Beach Club which is located on the upper floor of the mall. It is comparable to Ski Dubai – just the opposite: Beach.

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Funny enough that it was packed by locals which apparently felt like escaping from the freezing cold outside (-22°C).

Weird facts: you can buy your gold fish from the machine & Kazakh look more or less all the same – at least to me…

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Equipped with my winter stuff I left the mall in search of the „I LOVE ASTANA“-sign.

..Spotted..

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The way towards the sign was quite slippery due to the frozen ground but it seemed that I was the only one bothering. All locals were covered in their fur fashion, did not talk to me and just mind their own business. Somehow sad yet „ok“ since every Nation has its own way of living.

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In front of the 97m-high Bayterek Monument Tower I spotted an exhibition for the EXPO 2018 – all countries were represented incl. the UAE. 🙂
Great to see a small piece of home in between this rather cold environment.

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My next stop was the Rafe Cafe which – as per google – offered the best hot chocolate.
Got to admit: yep. Indeed.
It was delicious – so chocolaty, thick and not fluid like usually. I enjoyed the cosy environment a little longer to escape from the devastating frostiness.

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Till now I have never experienced such a cold weather: The wind attacked my skin, nose, eyes & hands. It seemed that you were about to lose all your limbs. I was literally freezing my tail off.

When I recovered – I left the coffee shop, got to the bus station and somehow made it to the Pyramid and the mosque.

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..Yes, mosque..

 70% of Kazakhstans population is Muslim and 26% is Christian.

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Near the mosque I met a lady – randomly – who took me to a private exhibition.

Funny enough: We did not have any language in common but somehow communicated beyond words. After meeting her, I also met her sister and both were friendly enough to introduce me to the exhibition-head.

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The exhibition-head (famous) showed me all paintings, handmade embroidery etc. with pride and all of a sudden I felt integrated.
They offered me food, drinks, we took several pictures and had a blast.

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This experience was totally unexpected and opened my mind as well as heart. The best example that the universe leads you to beautiful things – if you embrace it, go with the flow and let it just happen.

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These two beautiful ladies brought me to my bus station; rode the bus with me (cuties – they wanted to make sure that I get home safely…) and hugged me prior leaving. Wow.

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With a heart full of gratitude I waited for my BF.

At around 20h we left for Dinner at Epokha – a restaurant which was kept in the „Soviet Union“-spirit. We enjoyed „pelmeni“ and „shashlik“ with potatoes while observing the “Cold war”-decor. Random.

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This place converted in a dance cafe around 22h – interesting to watch – but we were too tired to join them.

DAY 3
He had to get up early, again, I stayed a little longer in bed – snuggled up & watched the ice storm outside. Yes, ice storm.

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Due to those bad weather conditions I was only able to walk to the closest mall where I enjoyed a local crepe with cream.

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..Funny: since I was unable to read the menu – I took a Picture of it, sent it to my best Russian friend who then recommended a dish..

Subsequently I went downstairs to check on their local products at the supermarket. Well. I was surprised and def. shocked with the whole scenario.

..do the math..

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Deeply impressed I went back home. I enjoyed some series, chilled out, wrote some blog posts and waited for him to come home.

With a pretty cool Taxi we drove to the famous GQ Restaurant.

..he knows what I like..

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Yes, right. A classy rooftop restaurant with a splendid view over Astana – the capital of Kazakhstan.
We ate well, drank a glass of bubbly, fell in love with the bread and enjoyed the view.

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The taxi drive towards home was – for the first time – AMAZING! Why? Because we were able to communicate properly with the driver.
An English speaker? No. But a DOer. Why? He had a translator app which he actively used. He talked to it in Kazakh and the outcome was in English. Nice!
We were truly impressed, laughed and bombed him with many questions in regards to life over there, working conditions, language etc.etc.
We def. had the HAPPIEST ride – ever.

DAY 4
Last day.

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The plan was to enter the pyramid and the mosque but cold shock came in between. I am serious.
While standing at the bus station, I started feeling dizzy and very cold. We went back inside and I was barely able to move, my skin was red and I felt exhausted. The shower felt like being burned alive.. not a good idea – at all.
I fell asleep while being cuddled and when I woke up I felt slightly better.

We went to the Astana Mall for Lunch – a quick one.
And then it was already time for the “good bye” or at least a “see you later”.

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..see you later..

 

Beirut & Byblos, Lebanon

 

…surprising!

Ideal stay: 4days
Temperature: depending on season, between 12ºC and 32ºC

My other half and I were looking for a spot to travel to during a longer weekend so Beirut came to our mind. My Arab friends (incl. Lebanese) were so excited that I was going and I got kind of snowed under with recommendations – whereas my European friends immediately discouraged me from doing this trip.

Why is this? Yes, due to Media and the urge to quickly spread rumours about the unknown.

Beirut got nicknamed the “Paris of the Middle East” due to its cultural and intellectual life as well as French influences. Yes, it got partially destroyed during their civil war but has been rebuilt in the decades since.
So, as usual we took our credit card, booked the flights (Etihad: AUH-BEY) and started this journey!

We booked the early flight with Etihad at around 4am – which I do not recommend at all. A flight full of crying babies, noisy and hectic people all over – and us, surrounded by them, lacking sleep. Mabrook!
The proof of severe fatigue – self-painted picture made on the airplane board computer…

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DAY 1
At 6am we arrived at the old-fashioned airport and encountered straight away the typical, rather lazy but friendly, Lebanese at the Europcar stall. As usual, we rented a car.
It’s simply the best way to come around and explore the most within a tight time frame.

After a crazy drive, where we learned that in Beirut you get to ignore the red lights, we checked-in at the Four Points by Sheraton which is centrally located.

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We slept for a few hours and went for a late breakfast nearby. Once we were strengthened we went to Jeita Grotto. To reach the top Grotto you have to take the cableway to the top, which is included in the entrance fee of around 12$ for both Grottos. This dripstone cave was just stunning.

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We walked through the bigger one, took the kids train down to the smaller one – but this Grotto was even more incredible due to the water and the recommended boat trip in the Grotto.

Caution head!

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Our journey continued to the well-known “Cristo Rei”. In Portugal we have a similar one… Btw. I constantly commented “oh this looks like Portugal” – “ah like in Portugal” – so, Portugal-Lovers, you would def LOVE Beirut!

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So far the drive was quite tiring due to the crazy driving style of the Lebanese people. Before you plan your trip people will recommend you to take a taxi or “rent” a car with driver but if you are a good driver, willing to adapt to the local behaviour – you will be fine.

Rule Nr 1: Just don’t stop! You have to go with the flow… Everyone speeds? Speed, too.

Everyone rushes over red lights? Do it, too, otherwise the guy behind you will become your seatmate.

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To recover from this, we stopped at the wooden bakery which is well-known for its delicious Manakeesh. Normally I do not like “Zaatar” but this time – wow. It was soooo nice and yummy, we could not stop!

After this yummy stop we moved on to Harrissa where we searched for the Lady of Lebanon. Many come up the mountain by cablecar – we opted for our car.
Don’t worry – you will see some machine guns from time to time – but contrary to our “European Point of view” this is really to ensure safety.
Once we found her, we were just amazed. We walked all the stairs up and this is what we got:

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We waited there till…yes, Sunset! Like usual and felt just blessed to be part of this natural spectacle.

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Our evening ended with some drinks in the famous district Gemmayzeh – Mar Mikhael a road full of bars and restaurants which caters to everyone’s needs.

Good to know: If you ever take a taxi, like we did in the evening, ask for “servicienne” else the Taxi drivers will try to bullshit you with an expensive taxi price.

DAY 2
This morning started quite crazy. Well, it’s actually just us… We turned the music on and danced through the room while preparing for the day. It makes such a difference if you sleep properly in a bed during the night instead of spending the night in an overcrowded plane.

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Btw during this trip I fell in love with the song ‘one dance’ by Drake which from my point of view stands for ‘life is one dance’ – sometimes it’s a steps-sequence easy to memorize and sometimes off-beats due to rapid changing life rhythm.

We went for breakfast at Paul’s near Beirut Souks. To be honest, it was totally overpriced and not worth it but still great views from our outside seating.

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This new city centre is just incredible. It’s the perfect mix between traditional and modern flair. Bit like an Arabic city but has def also the “Parisian” atmosphere.

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In the middle of the city trouble of a cosmopolitan city I was lucky to spot a church and a mosque on the same street. This is the perfect example for tolerance and freedom of belief. There is no need to fight for “the right” – who judges right or wrong? You should not…

Good to know: It’s quite normal to select the reverse gear in the middle of the highway as well as it is regular business to turn 3 lanes into 5! I told you its quite chaotic over here…

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We dedicated this second day to “Byblos”. Byblos is only 30min drive away from the city centre of Beirut. We strolled down the ancient city… with its lovely souq.

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This country has a great cultural background and you come to learn things which you would have never thought. Byblos is justifiably crowned as UNESCO World Heritage.


We enjoyed our walk through the temple of obelisk and its stunning views over the eastern Mediterranean.

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After this great trip we drove back to Beirut city where we chased the sun through the lively corniche until the famous pigeon rocks.

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Again, “just like in Portugal”… I just love it! The whole ambiance, the crowd, the sights, the temperature – it was all just perfect. I could not imagine a better place to be on that particular day – just happy with and thankful for life.

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DAY 3
On our third day we woke up (again) in a great mood, excited to drive up the hill to Broumana. We checked-out from the Four Points and on our way to our next temporary-home, we stopped at a lovely Boulangerie.

Actually, it’s almost impossible to fail culinary-wise here in Lebanon. Everything is just yummy, fluffy and simply mhhhhh.

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We finally checked-in in one of the most beautiful places we have every stayed in:
Grand Hills, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Spa.
Hard to explain but I believe “wow” would do.

Incredible room with THE view. 

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Coming from the European world, stamped and shaped by the circulating rather negative rumours, I would have never thought to encounter such beauty in “disreputable Lebanon”.

Beautiful vineyards, natural mountains and first and foremost: gracious people.

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We took our time to reach the famous restaurant MOUNIR and enjoyed a “Radler” on our way. Contrary to popular belief, Lebanon has a quite balanced religious mix: 54% Muslims and 41% Christians.I always wonder where these rumours and associated prejudices come from…

For Dinner we went to the in-house restaurant but my highlight of the day was the surprise organized by #favtravelpartner – Sunset on the hotel’s roof. Incredible…

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B e a u t I f u l

Day 4
Unfortunately our last morning has come and this trip has come to an end.
These days were just revitalizing, astonishing and lovely.

I really enjoyed the time over here and am proud that we did this trip despite all negative influences…

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Start your day right

We enjoyed our last breakfast with a perfect view and headed to the airport.

To sum up, this trip was so much more than we expected and I do recommend it to everyone.

Yes, there are some parts which are still not very safe to travel to but Beirut and especially Byblos are awaiting you and your open mind!

The Lebanese style is much influenced by “go with the flow” and if you do so you will enjoy your time a lot!