I flew into Astana (now known as Nur-Sultan), the new capital of Kazakhstan, last night after a day in Baku. This required a scheduled one hour layover in Almaty — Kazakhstan’s most populous city and former capital — which actually ended up turning into 15 minutes for me because the flight from Baku to Almaty was delayed by 40 minutes.
And during those precious tick-tocking 15 minutes, I had to obnoxiously run ahead of everyone in line, go through Kazakhstan’s new free visa on arrival pilot program for Americans, get my passport stamped into the country, run outside and upstairs to the domestic terminal, go through a very arcane airport security process (the airport staff pretends to glance at my domestic ticket and then assumes I should be at the international terminal as I look too foreign, from which then I had to run back after I saw myself incorrectly back in a passport line), cut in front of a lot of people bunching up in what doesn’t seem like much of a queue through security, before I get flagged by an Air Astana attendant who then berates me for being late to my gate (as if I were responsible for their delayed flights!).
She helpfully, however, takes my ticket and gets it expedited, while I run down a very long hallway to make it to my Astana flight at the last minute.
So I made it. Yes. But my checked luggage (only one carry-on is allowed for Air Astana) did not.
I already had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t be able to transfer my checked backpack within my 15 minute layover, and when I confirmed this after landing in Astana, I filed a report at their 5th floor office so that my backpack could arrive on the first flight from Almaty the next morning. Air Astana was very good at giving me a generic instruction sheet (although without a reference number to track on their website — they missed that part), my tag number, and an incident report to use for insurance.
I called a cell phone number on the generic instructions sheet a few hours later around midnight (the lost and found office in Almaty is 24/7, unlike Astana’s), giving them my tag number, and they reassured me my bag was still in Almaty and would be on the first flight out to Astana for an 8am arrival. When I called the Astana office (which opens at 8am) the next morning, they said they physically had the bag with them and all I had to do was to check back in with the 5th floor office. Easy breezy.
Satisfied, I went out on the town.
Founded in 1830 as a defensive settlement for the Siberian Cossacks, Astana was inexplicably and suddenly (for supposed reasons such as being “less earthquake prone” and “more central”) renamed as the new capital of Kazakhstan on December 10, 1997 and became a “planned city” much like Dubai, Washington DC and Brasilia; the city was essentially rebuilt from a sleepy settlement into a world class city within a few years. Today it’s also known as the world’s most remote and 2nd coldest capital city (with temperatures averaging between -11 and -22 degrees celsius), and — with billions of dollars put towards massive skyscraper-ing in the middle of a desert — the “Dubai of the Steppe.”
Designed by the Japanese, the city is similar to Baku in that it incorporates a lot of futurist-modern architecture meant to encourage the nation into the next generation of statehood and forward thinking. Almost everything you see in this city is only a few years old, and there are still tons more construction expected for the World Expo being held here in 2017. If there’s any time to go see a place before it changes dramatically in the next few years, it would be here.
I left the airport to be greeted by a nice evening snowstorm.
Driving into the city from the airport felt like a formal procession into the world of Tron; I could’ve sworn I heard ’80s synthesizer music playing in the background.
The way the lights and the roads seemingly stretch into infinity lasts for a good 20 minutes without missing a step.
No matter where you drive in central Astana, you’ll be pointed to main Ak Orda (aka Presidential Palace). You can’t miss it:
And of course you can’t look up in Astana without noticing their own Statue of Liberty, the iconic 105m tall Baitrek Tower distinctive for its lattice structure hold up a glass golden orb, symbolizing the golden egg (supposedly containing the meaning of life) laid by Kazakh’s mythical bird Samruk.
I slept in a little bit and hibernated a bit in the morning, seeing as how a brutal morning blizzard would be a good deterrent to sightseeing without my hat or gloves (thanks Air Astana).
Eventually around 11am the snowstorm died down and I went out to the furthest sites from town, about half a mile east from the New City and across from Ishim River. It can take you either 30 minutes to walk that far from Astana’s center to this part of town, or you can take a cab ride for 5 minutes.
My first stop was the glorious Hazret Sultan Mosque, built in 2012 and boasts the largest dome in the country.
They’re very liberal at the mosque, allowing anyone inside anytime and encouraging me to take as many photos as I wanted.
Afterwards we stopped by at the Palace of Peace & Accord, a glass and steel pyramid that opened in 2006 as the home for the triennial Congress of World & Traditional Religions and the geographical center of Astana’s future developing city by 2030. Inside is an opera hall that seats 1350 people.
Nearby is the Palace of Independence the houses a scale model of what Astana is planned to look like in 2030, and next to it the 91m tall Kazak Yeli Monument, which is meant to symbolize the destiny of the Kazakh people.
Driving back west towards the new city and the main part of Astana, you’ll notice the Central Concert Hall on your right, built to represent the petals of a flower:
Protecting Ak Orda/The Presidential Palace are two enormous curved wings of the House of Ministries, which also houses Samyrk-Kazyna, the HQ of Kazakhstan’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Further west stands 3 apartment towers with wavy sides known as the Northern Lights and beside it, office towers that look like overfilled books also known as the Emerald Towers.
More architectural delights/monstrosities, depending who you ask:
At the eastern edge of Astana’s new city is the Khan Shatyr, a 150m high tent-like structure made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), which allows the entire building to be translucent and absorb heat, producing summer-like temperatures inside even if outside is as cold as -30 degrees celsius (that’s -86 deg F!).
Inside is essentially a big shopping mall. On the top level, however, is the Sky Beach Club which features a sandy beach, palm trees, water slides, and a swimming pool for anyone who wants to forget they’re in the world’s most remote and second coldest capital city.
Within the new city is also another, smaller Nur Astana Mosque, having opened in 2005.
It’s way more crowded that its bigger, eastern cousin, but similarly liberal in that they pay you no mind if you’re the lone obnoxious tourist taking photos of everything.
Finally, to round out your sightseeing in Astana, take the elevator up to the top of the Baitrek Tower, ie the golden egg, which costs about 500 tenge per person.
We got there during lunch break (between 1 and 1:30pm) so we went ahead and ate (750 tenges per meal) with them as well:
After a quick meal, we headed up 105m to the inside of the orb, climbing up two additional flight of stairs to get to the very top. There visitors can place their hand in a print of President Nazabaev’s palm while looking at his Presidential Palace to the east.
While in the orb, you can take a few panoramas of the city and appreciate having conquered all of Astana’s lands in a single day.
Now it’s onwards to Uzbekistan.
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- At time of posting in Astana, Kazakhstan, it was -7 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 35km/hr | Cloud Cover: blizzard