From Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan To Almaty, Kazakhstan

From Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan To Almaty, Kazakhstan

After a few hours exploring all that Bishkek in the winter had to offer, we drove 20 minutes towards the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the busiest and largest border crossing in Central Asia.

It’s best that you do this border crossing on foot, a 5 minute walk to the first passport check, as opposed to waiting in car traffic which can take up to 3 hours.

 

 

Eventually you’ll cross a narrow river, which is the official physical border between Kazkhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

 

 

Then you’ll come into a small enclosed structure with booths inside. Head into a door on your left if you have a foreign passport, which they’ll then take inside to stamp.

You now have officially left Kyrgyzstan; you can skip the booths and keep walking towards the Kazakh border control.

 

 

In the next enclosed structure, a guard will hand out a small form for you to fill out on the side. Fill in the basic questions on your identifying information and home address, wait in line, hand over the form and your passport to one of the booths inside, and smile for their camera. 

After they stamp you in, you’re now in Kazakhstan.

 

 

It’s about another 3-4 hour drive (depending on snow conditions), or a 2 hour drive in the summer, to Almaty.

 

 

Once arriving in Almaty, we dropped off our stuff at the hotel and began our city tour at Panfilov Park, a central hangout spot in Almaty.

 

 

Within the park on the east side is Zenkov Cathedral, once the tallest wooden cathedral in the world and Almaty’s oldest surviving tsar-era building.

 

 

A few paces further east is the sensational war memorial with an eternal flame honoring the soldiers of the 1917-20 Civil War and World War 2.

 

 

We then took the bus and walked through Republiska Alany, a huge square with the sensational Dawn Of Freedom Monument, honoring the 250 victims and injured during the Zheltoksan protests on December 17, 1986.

 

 

Then we headed up to Kok-Tobe hill, 1100m high topped by a 372m high TV tower. Although the cable car was closed, we took the 500 tenge shuttle bus that took us to the top. 

Although you can come here for the myriad of family-friendly carnival games, it’s also the place for sweeping views over Almaty and the mountains surrounding the city. Although our very foggy evening took away such a view, it nevertheless added to the surreal ambience of our last night together.

 

 

The park here amusingly boasts the life-sized bronze statues of The Beatles, claiming to be the world’s only sculpture of the four band members together:

 

 

Then the group said goodbye to 7 of us as we held our last night’s dinner at a fancy place featuring Kazakhstan’s national dish, Horsemeat and Noodles:

 

 

The next morning, the remaining 3 of us remaining strolled the local Green Bazaar as it was waking up to a sleepy Sunday morning. The behemoth is a multi-storied, multi-building complex that sells quite possibly everything ever invented under $50 USD or less.

 

 

Afterwards we jumped in our guides’, Ben and Eilidh, car for an informal spin around the city.

 

 

…including a visit to Presidential Park:

 

 

…and Hotel Kazakhstan, famous for being the primary hotel for Soviet aristocracy during the USSR’s heyday. Its considered a landmark in Almaty and distinctive for its crown top:

 

 

And as the day was winding down the fog (or pollution, seeing that it was a Sunday) began to clear, finally revealing the famous mountains we’ve been missing out on all this time.

 

 

As with the conclusion of another monsoon, I say goodbye to the group and head onwards alone to Tbilisi, Georgia.

 

- At time of posting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it was n/a - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: fog

 

Nur-Sultan / Astana Astronomica

Nur-Sultan / Astana Astronomica

 

If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.

 

 

Baitrek Tower just got served

 

 

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 directs me to the international terminal, which then I had to run back from when I saw myself 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 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.

 

The Airport

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.

Eventually, Astana.

 

 

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.

Emerald Towers on the left, Northern Lights on the right

More architectural delights/monstrosities:

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.

 

 

- At time of posting in Astana, Kazakhstan, it was -7 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 35km/hr | Cloud Cover: blizzard