I will never forget that first message from a friend…
For years Kazakhstan was popping up as a possible next destination. Honestly I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan and that was maybe part of the appeal. All I knew was that it was a country of nomads with a grim Soviet past. And like most of the Soviet countries it used to be hard to get a visa. But the region is slowly opening its doors to get a share in the tourism industry. Kazakhstan decided to start an experiment. EU member states can enter the country visa free for 30 days. Gone are the days of expensive visas, paperwork, bureaucracy and registrations with the local police. I decided that now was the time to go before Kazakhstan might change its mind about their experiment.
When I told people I was going to Kazakhstan I received more surprised reactions than last year when I was going to Iran. People have heard about Iran, but Kazakhstan was unknown to most of my colleagues. Some saw the movie Borat and thought it was a very dangerous and uncivilized place. Of course I ignored all advice not to go there, even though I was also not so sure what to expect. There is not much on the internet about backpacking in Kazakhstan. The most recent Lonely Planet was 5 years old. How come people know so little of this huge country that despite being the ninth largest country has the same population as the tiny Netherlands ?
This vastness of Kazakh space became concrete on my direct flight with KLM. It took 3 hours to reach Kazakhstan and another three hours to fly to the new capital Astana where I arrived around midnight. To escape the taxi drivers quoting ridiculous prices I followed other passengers to a grim-looking parking lot. I negotiated a price with a random guy who brought me to a dark corner. I felt a bit hesitant but it was past midnight and did not have much choice. It turned out this was his brothers car who was still trying to get people in the airport. When the brother appeared i remembered him quoting me four times the price there. He was very friendly and pointed out the major buildings in fluorescent colours at night.
What can i say about Astana. It is a strange city and I am still not sure whether I liked it or not. For sure it is the opposite of what you might have seen in Borat. Astana is super modern and one of the newest capitals in the world. Sometimes also dubbed the Dubai of Central Asia. To get a better understanding about Astana it might be good to talk about Nazarbayev. President of Kazakhstan since 1991 after Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union. There is no opposition and in 2011 he won more than 90% of the votes. For now it seems he is not going anywhere soon, despite his age.
Again it is surprising how little we hear in the West about this lucky guy. He is the dictator of the ninth biggest country in the world with large resources of oil and gas. On top of that most countries don’t care much and let him be. In fact most world leaders even seem to like him. One of Nazarbayevs projects is Astana. In 1997 he moved the capital to what was a small village called Akmole in the middle of nowhere. And with the large steppes of Kazakhstan you can take that quite literally. He built his vision of a modern capital showing off the power and wealth of Kazakhstan.
The result is a city full of large parks and boulevards surrounded by fancy and shiny new buildings and shopping malls. The Khan Shatyr is one of those malls, but it stands out from the others, because it is in the largest tent structure in the world. It contains a cinema, monorail and beach park with sand imported from the Maldives. All meant to give its people a decent standard of living and enough entertainment not to question the regime.
If you love modern architecture this is paradise. The most futuristic designs are built to withstand the +40 degrees in the summer and the -40 degrees in the winter. Astana is one of the coldest capitals in the world. If you love history and culture Astana is a nightmare. The city feels empty and soulless. As i was walking from Bayterek tower to the palace there are hardly any people outside except for workers keeping everything clean and well maintained. Then there are some people in military uniforms to make sure you don’t take pictures of government buildings.
Astana has potential and i can see that young Kazakhs might like it. Everything is there from free museums to concert halls and a good public transport network. And Nazarbayevs construction mission is not over yet. But to me it felt empty. I definitely preferred Almaty over Astana, but I can still recommend a visit to Astana. There are a lot of things to see and do in Astana and it will give you a much better understanding of Kazakhstan and its politics. If you have the time my advice is to spend 1 or 2 days in this city.
The Ultimate guide to Astana
Things to see and do
1. Khan Shatyr
The Khan Shatyr is an ordinary fancy shopping mall with the latest chain stores. On top of that, there is a monorail and a beach on the top floor with sand from the Maldives. Go inside and you could think you are in a shopping mall in Dubai. Not really my cup of tea. So what is really so special about this place? Kazakhs were once nomads riding their horses through the steppes of Kazakhstan and living in tents called yurts. The Khan Shatyr is built to resemble a yurt and is currently the largest tent structure in the world. The translucent tent is made out of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene to absorb heat so that inside there is a constant temperature in the twenties even if it is -30 outside.
2. Park of lovers
Opposite the Khan Shatyr you will find the park of lovers with the I love Astana sign. As you can expect this park is popular with Astana’s young couples. But there is more to the park. If you pay attention you will find some interesting art objects here. It is also the start of the 2 kilometer long Nurzhol Boulevard ending at the Ak Orda Presidential Palace. From here you have an interesting view on some of Astana’s futuristic buildings. In front of you is the large building of KazMunayGaz and KazTransOil serving as some kind of archway towards the Bayterek tower.
3. Bayterek Tower
The Bayterek tower is another architectural wonder mixed with Kazakh’s cultural identity. The observation tower symbolises the tree of life with the golden egg of Samruk. The mythical bird of Kazakh happiness. The observation deck is almost 100 meters above the ground and gives you a beautiful panoramic view over Astana. You can also make a wish by putting your hand inside the golden hand print of President Nazarbayev while looking at his palace.
4. Ak Orda Presidential Palace
the Ak Orda Presidential palace is the official workplace of President Nazarbayev. The building with a blue and gold dome stands at the end of the boulevard and was built by a construction company of the former president of Kosovo. If you walk in this area it is better to keep your camera in your pocket.
5. Presidential Park
Behind the Ak Orda palace is a rather empty park that you will have to cross if you want to walk to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the Independence Square
This pyramid was specifically built to host the yearly congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Inside there is also an opera house, museum and university of civilization. It prides Kazakh’s history of cultural and religious tolerance.
7. Independence Square & Kazak Eli Monument
Independence square is another place with some interesting architectural buildings and museums. There is the Palace of Independence that is used for official state functions but also has several museums (Modern Art Gallery, Gallery of applied history, Museum of City History Astana). The Kazakh National University of Arts looks like a stranded UFO. At the center of the Independence square is the Kazak Eli monument. The statue of the golden warrior on top was an 18-year-old Scythian warrior that was buried in a golden suit of armor near Almaty.
8. National Museum of Kazakhstan
Astana has plenty of museums showing pride in Kazakh’s history and President’s Nazarbayev’s contributions to Kazakh’s bright future. It would probably be impossible to visit them all and with the same propaganda themes the similarity between the museums is striking. If you have time for just one museum I can recommend the National Museum of Kazakhstan. It does a pretty good job of covering Kazakh’s history from ancient to modern times and the Hall of Ethnography gives a good insight into Kazakh’s nomadic culture.
9. Hazrat Sultan mosque & Nur Astana mosque
Kazakhstan is a muslim country and Astana has two brand new mosques. The Nur Astana mosque is from 2008 and the Hazrat Sultan mosque, the second biggest mosque in Central asia, opened in 2012. THe Hazrat Sultan mosque can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers and is worth a visit. Inside there are shops selling religious artefacts, beauty salons, barbers and a restaurant serving decent food.
10. Old Astana
On the right bank of the Yessil river lies the “Old Town”. The part that already existed before Astana became Kazakhstan’s capital. At that time there were just 275,000 people living. Personally I preferred this part of town much more than the futuristic skyscrapers on the left bank of the river. There still is a Soviet ambiance lingering around and in general the area is more lively. There are a lot of nice local restaurants with great food and some interesting things to see.
9. Military Historical museum of the Armed Forces
I was actually looking for the Presidential Cultural Centre that my travel guide said had an excellent free museum about Kazakh’s culture. The yurt shaped building no longer has a cultural centre but is now the Military Historical Museum of Armed Forces. It was still free tough and as I was there anyway I decided to have a look. It was just another museum priding Kazakh’s heroic past and present. Nevertheless I did learn more about Kazakh’s history of nomadic warriors. One hall was solely dedicated to the second World War and Kazakh’s participation in the Soviet army. This museum is definitely not a must see, but if you are in the area a quick visit can’t hurt.
10. Museum of the First President
Another free museum high on propaganda is the Museum of the First President. This museum is all about Nazarbayev’s contributions to the development of Kazakhstan. There is an extensive gift collection and a short exhibition about Nazarbayev’s childhood. Again this museum is not a must see, but an interesting place if you are in the area.
11. Fountain Circus
Astana’s circus looks like an alien spaceship ready to take off. It is near the Central Park and worth a look if you are in the area.
12. Central Park & Atameken
The Central Park is another rather empty park. Nearby is the Duman Entertainment Center with an oceanarium and a ferris wheel. The Atameken is also worth a visit to see all the major attractions of Kazakhstan in a miniature model.
13. Keremet Banya
One of my favourite things to do in Astana was a visit to the Keremet Banya. This large sauna complex is where the locals go to bathe. You can easily spent 2 to 3 hours here trying different sauna’s. Only in the Russian sauna are people allowed to use the oak leaf branches to hit each other. The other sauna’s are more quiet, but also more clean. There is also a nice pool to cool down. There are several ladies giving peelings and massages. For me this was one of thje more interesting experiences in Astana and I tought the banja here was more authentic than the Arasan baths in Almaty.
14. Alzhir Malinovka
I was stunned to learn about Kazakhstans history during the Soviet time. Collectivisations, deportations, famines and gulags meant that millions of people died in this vast country. Kazakhstan was Soviets trashcan for enemies of the state and their families. Alzhir was the labour camp for the wives of Traitors of the Motherland. About 8000 women from all over the Soviet Union were sent to this special gulag in the village of Akmol. Now there is a Memorial and an impressive Museum of Victims of Repression. It gives insight into the harsh life that the women faced in the camp. From Astana’s bus station near the old train station there are frequent buses to the village of Akmol.
15. Korghalzyn Nature Reserve
Korghalzyn is the largest National Park of Kazakhstan and lies 100 kilometers from Astana. The wetlands attract a number of different birdspecies including pelicans and pink flamengoes. The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan organizes excellent weekend tours with experienced nature guides. From Astana’s bus station near the old train station there are frequent buses and shared taxi’s to the village Korghalzyn where there is a visitors centre. Trying to arrange a guide from there to bring you to the reserve can be costly and will probably not be cheaper than booking a tour from Astana.
Places to Eat on a budget
1. Samovar (Kenesary Street 24)
A nice Russian restaurant very popular with locals. The food is good and prices are very reasonable. It is near the Museum of the First President.
2. Kusselita Coffee (Respublika Avenue 5)
On Respublika Avenue are several nice and cozy coffeeshops that also offer decent food options. Kusselita Coffee was one of my favourites with an excellent breakfast. It is near the Museum of the History of Armed Forces.
3. Eagilik Bookstore (Kenesary street 61/1)
Eagilik Books & Coffee is the best place to buy or rent english language books. They also have a nice coffeeshop with delicious cheesecakes and pastries. Just take one of the books from the store and read up on Kazakhstan’s history while drinking coffee with some cakes.
4. Izbushka (Khan Shatyr & Dostyk Street 1)
Izbushka offers excellent Russian fastfood for very cheap prices and is therefore very popular with locals. The blini’s are excellent and they have fresh lemonades. The main dishes are also good and the pictures will help you decide what to try. Izbushka translates as small hut in Russian and they have one branch in the foodcourt of the Khan Shatyr and a bigger canteenstyle restaurant at Dostyk Street
5. Dastarkhan (Dostyk street 12)
Another canteenstyle restaurant serving a combination of Russian, Kazakh and other Central Asian dishes. It’s cheap and serves decent food.
6. Rumi (Zelthoksan 2/2)
Rumi serves excellent Uzbek and Middle Eastern food in a nice atmosphere. It is not as cheap as Samovar, Izbushka and Dastarkhan, but prices are still reasonable.
Places to stay
1. Hostel Nochleg (Sarayshik 38)
Astana can be expensive if it comes to accomodation, but more and more hostels are opening up. I stayed in Hostel Nochleg and found it very good. Staff is very friendly and both breakfast and dinner are good value. All beds have curtains and own electricity sockets. The location near the Bayterek tower is also very convenient. It’s a 5 minute walk from the Bayterek tower and the bus station where bus number ten (train station – Respublika avenue – Bayterek – Khan Shatyr – airport) stops.
Astana has an excellent public transport network that is not too difficult to understand. Bus number ten is good to remember. This busline runs every 10-15 minutes from the Train station to the Airport making stops along Respublik Avenue (Old Town, Museum of the First President, Museum of the History of Armed Forces) and Konayev street (Bayterek, Khan Shatyr).
The bus station is next to the train station with frequent buses to Malinovka (45 minutes)/Korghalzyn (3 hours)
From the train station there are high speed night trains to most places in Kazakhstan, including Almaty (13 hours) and Shymkent (20 hours).