Astana is one of the controversial "brand new" capitals built on an enormous scale - similar to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan or Baku in Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan's capital defies all the presumptions and stereotypes a person from the West might have - especially those set in place after the famous comedy film "Borat" (as a matter of fact, "Borat" was not even filmed in Kazakhstan). Astana couldn't be more different from what you probably imagine Kazakhstan to be like. You won't find carts pulled by cows along muddy streets nor any wooden shacks that are deteriorating and falling apart. Walking through the large main boulevard, you might think you're in one of Dubai's luxurious neighborhoods rather than in some country in the middle of nowhere that no one is interested about.
Is Astana worth visiting?
Astana is an interesting point on the map of Kazakhstan and, I believe, should definitely be visited - however not as the main destination. The most amazing attraction in Kazakhstan is its nature - especially in the south east where the yellow-golden-red desert scenery clashes suddenly with green mountainous landscapes dotted with blue-turquoise lakes. The natural wonders were our main goal. They are all located near the former capital - Almaty. The city of Almaty is not as attractive or unique as Astana, but it's an amazing gateway to the world class spectacular national parks that shouldn't be missed by those who love off the beaten path travel.
Therefore, we flew to Almaty and spent in the surrounding region most of the time. But we also wanted to see the crazily lavish, new capital (since 1997) - Astana. The name of the city actually means "capital" in the Kazakh language. Astana is located incredibly far from Almaty - around 1000 km (over 600 miles) but it's also quite easy to reach - especially by quite a comfortable, overnight sleeper train. We spent 2 days in Astana.
Astana - first impressions
Astana used to be an unimportant, insignificant town in the middle of the steppe and was called a very Soviet sounding name - Tselinograd. The temperatures in winter can fall down down to nearly -50 degrees Celcius (-55 degrees Fahrenheit) on some occasions and the merciless winds blow incessantly - the city has no natural barriers such as mountains or forests. Therefore, it was quite a controversial decision to move the capital to this location from the country's largest city - Almaty. But the president Nazarbayev who is accused of being a dictator was adamant and the new capital was to be built here.
When we got off the train at the main train station in Astana, we were surprised how nice the main terminal was. But it seems this is the case in most of the post-Soviet countries - their metro or train stations are spotless and often a piece of art. We were now in the old part of the city - far from the enormous boulevard filled with skyscrapers. The best way to get to the new city is to take Uber - cheap and effortless. It's not so difficult to reach it by bus either.
Looking at the old part of the city, one can clearly see the same, familiar style of the Communism-Era blocks. But the roads as well as the old architecture are maintained very neatly, the city is clean and looks pleasant. Note that the bustling life of ordinary citizens is oriented around the old Astana. The new part seems a bit deserted - a display of power and a "show off" for visitors.
Nevertheless, the new city is where the surprise lies. On arrival there, the first thing noticeable is that the newest part doesn't appear integrated with the old part - they seems to be glued by force like two jigsaw puzzle pieces that don't match. It virtually looks like Las Vegas right next to some old Soviet town.
The new, shiny skyscrapers and other weirdly shaped monuments are undoubtedly impressive. I came across a few online articles about Astana where the authors had depicted the city as being wacky, tacky and full of bad taste. But I must admit that I liked it - at least it was something unique, different and fresh. And I'm sure that if some of these architectural designs were in Europe - the whole assessment would be way different - we all know that the West does not like anything that has to do with the former Soviet Union. This is the reason why, I suppose, those Central Asian states are so unpopular in the West despite being so attractive and safe for travelers. You might say this is because of their dictatorial governments - but countries where the standards of life are even lower and the actions of authorities are not better (South East Asia) are crowded with tourists.
What to See in Astana
Astana is one of those places that are not visited by the tourists and not much is written about in the media - and if it is - it has a negative tone. Here, I'm going to show you the detailed map of all the interesting spots that we saw - all of them are accessible by foot in the strip between the two main streets - Sarayshyq street and Syghanaq street. Although, looking at the map, it seems that it's just one boulevard, the area is large and it will take a full day to see all the attractions and weird buildings. Most of Astana is ultra modern - although the architecture is quite mixed, as you will see in the photos below.
Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center
We started the visit from the Western side of the modern city - at the Khan Shatyr Shopping Mall (number 1 on the map) - it's here where the steppe ends and the new Astana starts. Usually, I am not interested in shopping centers and I wouldn't recommend one for you to see - normally, they are copies of one another and are so similar no matter where in the world you are. However, Khan Shatyr was different. The building has a shape of a huge nomadic tent, is incredibly attractive, especially at night (like most of Astana's buildings) and shines with different colors.
Another unique thing about the entertainment center is that on the top floor, you might find a sort of an amusement park and an artificial beach with the sand imported from the Maldives. Especially pleasant in winter, when the temperature outside is lower than -35 degrees Celsius.
KazMunayGas and Transport Tower
Right next to the Khan Shatyr mall, you can spot the KazMunayGas building (number 2 on the map) which is a kind of a gate to the city - enormous construction on a circular base is surrounded by multiple dancing fountains and ends with the Transport Tower (number 3) - the seat of the Ministry of Transport. This skyscrapes is sometimes called "a lighter" and it does resemble one. You can get a very nice cityscape photos from around here - especially after dark.
The Astana Opera (number 4 on the map) is brand new - although it appears to originate from a few centuries ago. The classical in style, monumental building was erected as recently as 2006. Apparently, it has one of the best accoustics on the world. The concert hall was designed by an Italian architect while the facade - partially by the country's president - Nazarbayev. The Opera is one of the few examples of an architecture style different to ultra modern.
Triumph of Astana
Yet another example of a different architecture type than modern is the Thimphu Astana tower (number 5 on the map). It can be easily visible in all its glory from the Astana Opera mentioned above. The tower is built in a socialist classicism style and looks like a copy of similar monumental skyscrapers in Moscow (click on the link to see my post about Moscow). The only thing is that the Triumph of Astana was not completed during the Communist Era but also in 2006. Although it doesn't seem so, it's one of Astana's tallest buildings (142 meters).
Nur Astana Mosque
Nur Astana Mosque (number 6 on the map) is one of the two spectacular mosques in the city. Kazakhstan is a Muslim country, however, it's very liberal. You will probably see more covered women in cosmopolitan cities in Europe than here. Alcohol is widely acceptable and the way of life is pretty western.
The mosque is third largest in Central Asia and was completed in 2005 as a gift from emir of Qatar. It's definitely worth a visit.
Northern Lights Towers
The Northern Lights Towers are the three distinctive towers located in the long main boulevard (number 7 on the map). The middle tower is the second tallest building in Astana - at 180 meters. I'm mentioning these towers here as we stayed in one of them - there are plenty of people renting the whole apartments to tourists for a very affordable price - for us, it worked out as low as 15 EUR per person per night! The views from the towers are amazing and we were right in the center of the new city.
However, here, around the towers, you can clearly see that Astana is indeed a hastily built city - and it seems some things still remain unfinished. From afar, everything seems perfect, however, when you take a closer look, the weeds seem to grow in between the paving slabs, and the towers themselves seem to be mostly empty inside. But as the city is brand new, those little imperfections should be soon fixed.
The Emerald Towers (number 8 on the map) are the fancy glass skyscrapers located on the other side of the boulevard. The Emerald Tower 1 is the tallest in the country at 210 meters. An enormously large display which encompasses the entire wall of one of the towers is switched on every evening after the sunset. It's pretty impressive - the light from the huge screen seems stronger than from the street lamps.
Baiterek Tower (number 9 on the map) - the main landmark of the city. It is for Astana what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris. Baiterek depicts a folk tale - a poplar tree on top of which a bird of life laid an egg - therefore, a golden globe adorns the metal, branch-like structure.
An observation deck is located in the golden sphere - it offers nice views over the city. However, what I disliked was the fact that the whole viewing platform is covered with golden glass which causes distortion - there is no window where you could take some clear photos.
You can find a hand print of the president (who himself designed the tower) on the top of the observation desk. You can place your hand on it too - it apparently brings luck.
The entrance fee is very affordable - around 2 EUR (2.50 USD).
It's impossible not to notice the two distinctive golden towers located on the eastern side of the main boulevard. In one of the towers, the National Academy of Education is located (number 10 on the map). This area is probably one of the most attractive spots for taking photos of Astana city center during the day. At night - my favorite part is near the KazMunayGas building.
The next, monumental structure you will see is the presidential Palace located on the left bank of the river Ishim (number 11 on the map). It was completed in 2004 and the architecture is typical of the government buildings in Central Asia - compare it with Ashgabat. A large blue/golden dome is installed on the white marble building.
Kazakhstan Concert Hall
Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall (number 12 on the map) is yet another example of the weirdly shaped, unique buildings - but in a good sense. More of them are located to the West from here and on the other bank of the river Ishim. The hall is meant to resemble petals of an opening flower and the facade consists of curved, turquoise-green walls.
To the south of the concert hall, you can find the Nazarbayev Center (number 13 on the map) which is, according to Wikipedia - a multi-functional scientific, analytical, humanitarian and educational public institution. The building houses numerous halls with museums, exhibitions and galleries that are intended to strengthen the research of history and promotion of the achievements of political and economic position of Kazakhstan in the world.
The building itself is very interesting as it resembles an eye. At night, it's illuminated with different colors. Next to it, you can also find a beautiful bridge over the river Ishim which also shines with all the colors after dark.
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
The uniquely shaped (as a pyramid) Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (number 14 on the map) lies on the eastern side of the river - across the bridge from the Nazarbayev Center mentioned above.
The pyramid, according to Wikipedia, was specially constructed to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. It expresses the spirit of Kazakhstan, where cultures, traditions and representatives of various nationalities coexist in peace and harmony.
Behind the Pyramid of Peace, the modern Astana comes to an end from the eastern side. Independence Square is the last large plaza in the modern city. There are three interesting things to see in the square. First is the Monument Kazkh Eli (number 15 on the map) which commemorates the independence of the country. The second is the Kazakh National Academy of Arts (number 16th on the map) which is sometimes called a "dog bowl" by the locals. Looking at it - it's difficult not to see the resemblance. The last is the Palace of Independence (number 17 on the map) - a flat glass structure in the shape of a trapezoid with a grid of white metal bars.
Hazrat Sultan Mosque
Hazrat Sultan Mosque (number 18 on the map) is the largest mosque in Central Asia. It's also one of the newest, completed as recently as 2012. The mosque is built in a classical Islamic style with Kazakh ornaments - it is as beauiful as the aforementioned Nur Astana Mosque.
Astana Music Hall
Now, we have basically toured the whole modern city of Astana. One the way back - we have noticed one more originally shaped building that resembles a huge vase. This building didn't seem to match all the other glass ultra modern structures. It turned out to be Astana Music Hall (number 19 on the map). The building houses a large music hall as well as a lavish restaurant - available for over 400 guests.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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