Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and the youngest capital in the world: only twenty years ago the still acting president decided to transform an unknown city in the wild Kazakh steppe into an imposing and modern city. Visiting such a young city was very interesting for us and a totally unexpected experience. In this blogpost you will read what we did at this weird but interesting place and why we liked it in a way.
Unfortunately we had to fly from Tbilisi to Astana because we couldn’t find any affordable transportation through the Caspian Sea. At first it was a huge setback for us regarding our slow travel policy and not at all sustainable. But within the flight we slowly lumped it and in the end we realized that it is interesting to see the ninth largest country in the world from above. And that’s how we recognized for the first time how strange it is to put a capital in a place like this: There was nothing at all - for such a long time we couldn’t see anything except flat and endless steppe just breached by a few rivers and small lakes. According to “The Guardian” it’s a radioactive agoraphobic vision of hell, where the Soviets hide their Gulags and their space programme.
We can’t help ourselves but we have to commit that we liked Astana in a way, even if we came with incredulous expectations. But at least we wanted to see this called weirdest capital of the world by our own eyes and it was worth it. However we think that you either love Astana or hate it. The city is different in a way and maybe not so easy to get because it is based on a vision of one man who rules the country for so many years now. We went to the park “u Mezaya” in front of the Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan where a small exhibition about the construction of Astana was placed and it was strange for us to see how a city became to life on the hand of one and the same man who gets just older on the pictures during the decades.
EXPO 2017 Area
A lot of construction is already done by now and Astana hosted the EXPO in 2017. And like every venue of the EXPO the city prepared itself very well to show the audience an open and well organized city. The same impression we got from Astana: Everything was signed, the infrastructure worked very well and the EXPO area works as a local recreation area where children and families spend their weekends. We visited it on a Sunday and it was quite busy, colorful and friendly. A funny thing there was that the Kazakh people like to rent electric mini cars for their kids. On one side these children hopefully will be used to drive an electric car in the future (preferential a German Audi like in this picture), on the other side it would be better for them to move on a balance bike. It was interesting to see all this regarding the EXPO’s theme “Future Energy - How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?”. In comparison to Ljubljana in Slovenia we couldn’t find any concession to that in Astana.
The only thing that attracts our attention in this regard was the bike station which was super interesting for us. Unfortunately and a little unbelievable in a sad way was that we couldn’t take part in this because everything was in Russian language only. So we explored the city by foot or by bus. We can’t say that it was inconvenient but by bike it would have been easier and much more fun because the places are super huge and at the end of the day we had aching feet.
Khan Shatyr shopping centre
If you are looking for a city center where shops, bars and cafes string together and you can sit down in pedestrian precinct to drink a coffee, you will be disappointed by Astana. And honestly we couldn’t find a place like this at all. This could be connected to the huge malls which you can find all over the city. Obviously the Kazakh people love to shop and meet in big and fancy buildings. That brings us to the super futuristic shopping mall - Khan Shatyr shopping centre designed by the famous architect Norman Robert Foster. In Astana he created the world’s largest marquee with a total area of 127,000 sq metres and a height along the spire of 150 metres, in Germany he designed the glass cupola of the Reichstag in Berlin.
In our opinion the mall looks like a gigantic spaceship which landed in this huge steppe area of Kazakhstan and that’s why it fits so pretty well in Astana. Because of the height it looks like hundreds of alien ants are going in and out during that day and during the night it becomes a blinky, flashy party tent in which every “Oktoberfest”-guest would like to have a beer in. And as strange as it seems from the outside even stranger things are happening in the inside: There is for example a “falling tower” in the middle of the shopping center or the sand for the beach area was imported from the Maldives (when you remember our blogpost about the Maldives it is really weird). But the Kazakh people are very proud of it and it seems that they like this kind of glamour - for us it was funny in a way and we couldn’t be very serious about it. But in the end it was a lot of fun for us and that we liked pretty much.
During our stay in Astana we were lucky because the weather was amazing - sunny, warm and bright. In a way the weather reflected our impressions of the city with all the shiny and exorbitant buildings.
When you leave the gigant glass-shopping-tent as an busy alien ant you can just stroll straight ahead till the Presidential palace with the odd blue dome and it’s golden end. You will pass interesting and imposing monuments which all have one recurrent thing in common: golden elements.
In the center of this kind of Nurzhol Boulevard, where Kazakhstani enjoy their evenings, stands the Bayterek tower. This tower was conceived by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself alleged on a napkin during a state diner and later designed by architect Akmurza Rustembekov.
We called it “GET - the Golden Egg Tree” because it was so unreal and bizarre to build an observation tower which symbolizes the Kazakh myth of the magic bird of happiness called Samruk who laid his golden egg on the tree of life which will keep it forever.
We didn’t get inside of it but it seems that also inside crazy things are going on. Tell us if its true when you will visit it. We had no purpose to go inside because we got the chance to take some pictures from above by our lovely “flybee” and she made a damn good job here. From above Astana looks even more pretty because then you can see how much effort all the gardening takes. Anyway Astana was very clean and anxious to make a dent.
Additional things to do in Astana
Like we mentioned it before we just strolled around the city and were glad to enjoy the architecture and weather. Beside the previous named things there are some more interesting things to do in Astana.
- Parc behind the Presidential Parc: We didn’t make it there because our feet were already burning but the gardening looks really nice and sophisticated there. We can imagine that it could be a peaceful place where you can sit down and enjoy a picnic at the Ishim River.
- Northern Lights Astana: From the Nurzhol Boulevard you will see three very shiny skyscrapers which shapes we really liked. This office and residential building opened in early 2010 and we adore the name of it. During our stay we could observe the window cleaning of it which was pretty impressive.
- Pyramid of Peace - or the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation: We didn’t make it there neither but it could be interesting when you are a fan of the architectural and artistic work of Norman Forster and Brian Clark.
- Nur-Astana Mosque and Beit Rachel Synagogue: You can take a look at both houses of prayers. Like everything in Astana these are the largest mosque and synagogue in Central Asia. We just made it to the Nur-Astana Mosque which is really pretty from the inside as well.
Food and Drink in Astana
To be honest it wasn’t so easy to find a nice restaurant or food in Astana which is not a European or American fast food chain. The restaurants are hidden in a way which makes it harder to find them. But we didn’t tried many restaurants in Astana because most of the time we cooked by ourselves. Anyway we found two nice places we would like to recommend for you.
- MODA: It’s a charming and fancy cafe-restaurant which serves excellent breakfast, tea, sweets and ice. You can’t get any alcohol in there but a really great selection of tea and ice. The atmosphere is modern and kind of hip. It is between the Presidential Palast and the Bayterek tower at the Nurzhol Boulevard.
- ANOR restaurant: We liked this place immediately even if it looks not very imposing from outside. It’s on the left side of the Ishim River in the older part of Astana. The atmosphere is cozy, the interior colorful and the waitress are very anxious. If you want you can find vegetarian food which is delicious. We recommend the filled tomatoes.
Astana in a nutshell
It’s really a weird city in many ways. But if you can forget for a second that Astana is a one-man’s vision city which is build in a deserted steppe within twenty years just to demonstrate the wealth of the Kazakh oil and gas industry you can enjoy a nice stay there. Everything is aligned to please your eyes - so make a break and go with the golden and shiny fake.