Astana, Kazakhstan – Settle in for a reflective post today, as it’s our last day in Kazakhstan! In fact, this is being written from the airport as we wait to fly to Almaty, then Amsterdam, then New York, and finally D.C., followed by a rush-hour drive back to Richmond. This day may be a long one, but the travel time will have been more than worth it for the experiences we’ve gained over the past week.
We bid adieu to our friends from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last night, as they departed early this morning. We expected to spend the day the way we started the trip – just the 14 of us from the United States – touring this beautiful city. But things sometimes end up working out better than you plan, and today was definitely an example of that. Because of the many relationships, we’d build over the past week, nearly 20 of our local friends from Astana met up with us so that THEY could show us their city. Seeing how proud they are of where they come from was enriching and refreshing.
We began the day at an 8-story mall, complete with a dinosaur roller coaster and water park inside! We resisted the urge to stay and ‘play’ and instead ventured outside and strolled several miles up a road that I can only describe as a cross between the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It’s a beautiful walk way adorned with small market shops and various sculptures and artwork commissioned for the Expo. It’s a colorful, vibrant area that connects the important monuments of the city, including ‘the lollipop’ and the President’s Palace. As we walked along slowly, stopping to take pictures and appreciate the beauty of this young city, our Kazak friends shared stories about their lives here, their hopes for the future, and their changed impressions of Americans resulting from our week together.
One of the pieces of artwork on the avenue was a chalkboard wall that read “Before I die, I want to…” Passers-by can fill in the blank space, which was so full you had to write over others’ responses. However, some stuck out more clearly than others, including a very fitting one, which read “Before I die, I want to CHANGE THE SOCIETY.” Given the focus of our week, it was somewhat poetic to see that others before have visited this city spreading the message that we can all change society for the better.
Leaving our new friends was difficult, but our memories will last, and we know we will see some of them again in the Spring when we invite a delegation to the U.S. for the second phase of ENVEST. Reflecting on all that we’ve seen and done in such a short time makes my head spin, but I think it’s appropriate to say that none of us are leaving here the same as we came. We built relationships, embraced differences, and grew personally, all while playing the game that we love. At the end of the day, there’s not much more you could ask for. Until next time Astana!