Three Weeks in Central Asia (Part 1): Kazakhstan is nice

Salemetsiz be! Privet!
Hello!
Welcome to Part 1 of my Central Asia posts, starting with Day 1 of my Kazakhstan trip and its very modern capital city, Nur-Sultan. If all you know about Kazakhstan is a certain extremely unflattering character (clue: read the title in his accent), then keep on reading.

Topping Lonely Planet’s recently-revealed Top 10 Regions to visit in 2020 is the Central Asian Silk Road. I was lucky enough to visit in 2018 and this trip rates as one of my best trips I’ve ever done!

I did my trip to the Silk Road in an organised tour using Central Asia travel experts, Kalpak Travel. They have a comprehensive three weeks all inclusive tour through Central Asia, the Silk Road and the Five Stans – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Group tours are recommended here as tourism is yet to be completely developed and English, though taught in schools, is rarely practiced by the locals. Check out the tour I did here.

They also use local guides; one guide per country, and a trip leader who accompanies us throughout the entire trip. Our trip leader, Mirza, joins us in Bishkek in Day 2. In Nur-Sultan, we were left in the more than capable hands of Gaukhar (instagram @dossova) who is very passionate about developing tourism in Kazakhstan and it definitely showed in her detailed and engaging explanations about all things Kazakhstan. She also has her own company FriendlyTours, which if you check out their Instagram page, will quickly show you why Kazakhstan must be your next destination!

Travel Details:

When: Nur-Sultan: 18 August – 20 August 2018

How: From Sydney I caught the 6am Sydney – Dubai Emirates flight (yes it is as awful as it sounds and Emirates isn’t the best of airlines anymore).
Once in Dubai I waited 7 hours before boarding a FlyDubai flight from Dubai to Nur-Sultan (tip purchase some lounge access!). FlyDubai is a UAE budget airline and leaves from Terminal 2 of Dubai – a very busy, hot, kind-of-unclean and not-glamorous-at-all terminal of Dubai airport that will make you think “am I really in Dubai?”
You’ll get into Nur-Sultan at 4:30am so be prepared to have no idea of when, where, why, who and how you are.

Accommodation: Hilton Garden Inn right in the middle of the city. Comfortable rooms, onsite restaurant and bar in a central location. It is roughly two blocks away from the city’s main attractions, which are all directly in line with each other.

Visa required: Nope. Australians, New Zealanders, most Europeans and citizens of the USA can enter Kazakhstan for 30 days without a visa.

Currency: Tenge. AU$1 = 263 Kazakhstani Tenges (US$1 = 386)(at the time of writing).

History and Facts

Kazakhstan means the ‘land of the wanderer’, from the Turkic word Kazakh meaning “wanderer”, and the Persian word stan meaning “land of”. I’m sure you can start to make a link with the other Five Stans.

The area of Kazakhstan has a complicated history of being fought over by many different Empires including the Huns, Mongols and finally the Russians. The first independent territory of Kazakhstan came in the form of a Khanate (i.e. ruled by a khan) after the collapse of the Mongols in the 15th Century, and by the mid 19th Century Russia had taken control of the region.

Kazakhstan remained within Russian borders throughout Russia’s transition to the Soviet Union. It eventually became one of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union. The Kazakh Soviet Republic was the location of one of the launch bases of Soviet Union’s space agency, which is still operational today. Its isolated north east region was also the site for the Soviet’s nuclear tests creating the “Atomic Lake” or the radioactive Lake Chagan.

Kazakhstan declared independence on 16 December 1990  – the last Soviet republic to do so. Ten days later the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist.

Behind the Presidential Palace looking towards the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation

Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country and the largest landlocked country in the world. As its territory extends over the Ural River (considered the border between Europe and Asia), Kazakhstan is a part of two continents. It is home to over 18 million people, making it quite sparsely populated. It’s also currently undergoing a transition from using the Cyrillic alphabet to using the Latin alphabet (what we use in English).

Nur-Sultan (Astana)

Obligatory photo at the I Love Astana sign. The sign now says “Nur-Sultan”

Kazakhstan’s capital city is Nur-Sultan, although when I visited it was named Astana. The capital city was moved here from Almaty in order to increase development in other regions of Kazakhstan and move the capital away from the Chinese border. In 1994, when it was decided to move the capital here a new city was built out of nothing – all that was here was a small village in the Kazakh steppe (large grassy flatlands). Now it stands as a futuristic oasis with buildings straight out of a sci-fi move in the middle of nowhere. It is the second coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures in winter plummeting to -40°C excluding the wind chill factor. Luckily, I went at the end of summer and it was a beautiful 27°C.

Astana in the building stages

The city went through a name change to Nur-Sultan in March 2019 in honour of outgoing Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev who led independent Kazakhstan since 1991.

I loved visiting this city and it ranks in my Top 15 of favourite cities throughout all my travels. A lot of the main attractions of Nur-Sultan are all central and located within walking distance of one another. I am always a big fan of walking around a city and on my first day in Astana it felt like I was the only one exploring the city – an indescribable contrast to cities like Barcelona, Paris, New York who constantly face over-tourism. However, there is a sightseeing hop on hop off bus which are always handy.

Highlights:

Khan Shatyr:
Ok – this is basically shopping mall/entertainment centre precinct with your essentials like Starbucks. But how many shopping malls have you been in that is in the shape of the world’s largest tent? Actually, its a yurt which was a typical nomadic dwelling. There’s also a rollercoaster … inside… the shopping centre… and a beach… because… why not? Plenty of restaurants in here, too, so if you’re stuck finding somewhere to eat you can give this a go.

Directly in front of the mall, across the road is Lover’s Park – a cute little park that marks the beginning of Nurzhol Boulevard. This pedestrian street is the national boulevard of Kazakhstan and following it from Khan Shatyr takes takes you right through the centre of Nur-Sultan, along some futuristic looking buildings and links some of the city’s best highlights. A walk down the boulevard during the night is definitely recommended as you can see the interesting architecture all lit up to be truly futuristic-looking.

Looking from Khan Shatyr; the start of Nurzhol Boulevard and the main sights of Nur-Sultan, Bayterek Tower and the Presidential Palace.

Baiterek (Bayterek) Tower:
This unusually shaped building offers an impressive view over Astana Nur-Sultan from the top. The design of the tower is part of local folklore relating to the golden egg of the mythical bird of happiness, Samruk.

The observation deck is at exactly 97m which is symbolic of the year 1997, the year Astana became the capital city of independent Kazakhstan.

The ticket up there will cost you 700 Kazakh Tenge, which is AU$2.65. So, a very reasonable price, and who knows – you might even become the star attraction, as Kazakh locals visit the tower and may just want a photo with you instead.

Presidential Palace:
Although you can’t visit it, it is much more photo worthy than the White House, especially that turquoise blue dome. Behind the palace is a small pedestrian street that lines the Ishim River. Perfect place for some water shots.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque:
The largest Mosque in Kazakhstan and one of the largest in Central Asia. This is a little further away, across the Ishim River but it is still in an almost direct line straight across the river from the Palace. You could still walk it if you are keen to get those steps up.
You can go inside, adhering to the strict dress code and formalities of Mosques i.e. head wear and separate entrances for women.

Next to the mosque is Independence Square which is well worth a wonder through as well and the National Museum of Kazakhstan. The museum is extensively detailed and highlights the facts, culture, history and nature of Kazakhstan all with beautifully displayed exhibitions.

Alzhir Memorial:
This is a little outside of the city, so you will need a car, or one of the frequent public buses can get you here. This memorial was the former site of a prison where women were sent and interred for being related to a “betrayer” of the Soviet Union. Women and children from all over the Soviet Union and some other Communist countries were sent here to a prison camp if their husbands, brothers, fathers or sons were found to be criminals – or simply not liked by the Soviet Union.
There are some descriptions in English but if you are looking for a guide it is better to inquire beforehand. Audio guides are available.

Expo Centre:
Nur-Sultan was host to the 2017 Exposition with the theme of Future Energy. The specifically built site has a strange orb-shaped building as its centrepiece – looks like Klaatu’s orb from the movie the Day the Earth Stood Still, if you ask me. Around 5 km from the city centre. this area is worth checking out for its very futuristic style of architecture.

Food

The most memorable restaurant we went to was “Eternal Sky” or “Vechnoe Nebo” restaurant. It is a beautifully decorated restaurant, with a panoramic view of the main sites of Nur-Sultan and where you can sample several Kazakh and Central Asian delicacies. A word of warning to some people regarding local dishes; firstly Central Asia is big on meat and very healthy portion sizes of these meat dishes and secondly, some of these meat dishes include horse meat. Can confirm I tried it, can also confirm… yum!


Chronologically, after we finished our stay in Nur-Sultan we boarded an Air Astana flight to Kyrgyzstan. But we aren’t done with Kazakhstan just yet. Stay tuned for my return!

Have you been to Astana/Nur-Sultan or Kazakhstan? Or are planning a trip there? Let me know your thoughts below.
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