The first time I heard about Kazakhstan was probably from Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. I know it’s an incredibly stupid association, so I’ll blame my American ignorance for that one. My second run-in with Kazakhstan was from a former student. I can’t remember his name for the life of me, but I do remember he once downed 1L of vodka then proceeded to tell obscenities in English and Russian before he was taken away to be hosed down by his friends.
The plane ride was uneventful. Due to our restless night on our way to Seoul and a full day of eating in the Korean capital, we were tired. And fortunately for us, we had an empty plane!
Tired, stinky and watching a Korean man who spoke no English almost get deported because he had no visa was grueling. So once I saw a bed, I almost cried of happiness.
Our first taste to Kazakhstan was by a guy named Sergei. He was walking as we exited the hostel building. “English?” he asked. We said yes. “Me. Old boy from Tselinograd.” We smiled, not understanding what he meant until we found out that Tselinograd was the city’s old name before it was changed to Astana (‘capital’ in Kazakh). Then we proceeded to talk about music. He likes Nirvana. (Acceptable.) Then he said how great the Donald was and Putin was an amazing man. (This is where I forgot I’m in a former Soviet state.) Then we parted ways.
Our first meal in Kazakhstan was from a cafe called кафе (café) 999. It was a cafeteria setting with us doing a lot of pointing and them asking it of questions in Russian that we didn’t understand.
We first said that we wanted a rest and recover day. But by midday, we were ready to see things.
We jumped on bus #10 and made our way downtown. First off, Bayterek Tower. According to Wikipedia, the monument is meant to embody a folktale about a mythical tree of life and a magic bird of happiness: the bird, named Samruk, had laid its egg in the crevice between two branches of a poplar tree. The tower offers a view of the city, but it was closed to construction. Oh well…
We walked and walked. Astana has a nice setup. It had a beautiful park with lots of different sculptures. And in pictures, summer in the city is very green.
And then we got here. The Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent. Robb and I watched a documentary on the building of this structure. Khan Shatyr roughly translates as ‘the tent of the khan, or king.
Essentially, it’s a shopping mall. But it was pretty amazing to see how this massive tent was able to house all the shops, a monorail as a ‘beach’ on the top floor while snow falls outside.
Our hostel told us that since we were staying for more than 4 days in Astana, we needed to register with the migration office. So off we went by ourselves not knowing what to do. It was packed. We found forms, of course, all in Russian. We were told to go to two different lines. Then when one person finally saw us, they told us we didn’t need to do anything.
Since we were based in the old part of Astana, we ate where all the locals would eat. ‘Soviet cuisine’ is cafeteria style restaurants, usually open 24 hours and cooked by babushkas (old women). These places are great because it’s cheap and always different. And trying to communicate is always a plus.
We wandered to another part of the city to the Presidential Park and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
We had a personal guided tour with ‘Jerry’ a young girl fresh out of university. While she did her tour thing, we asked her personal questions. And she was very truthful in her responses, which was greatly appreciated. (She studied languages and can give tours in Russian, Kazakh, English and Sign Language. She’s been at the job for 6 months but doesn’t really like it. Her dream job is to be a flight attendant. She’s originally from Almaty but moved to Astana because of her mother.)
We spent the afternoon at the Asia Park (spoken with a Kazakh accent) mall where we leeched off free WiFi while drinking coffee from KFC. (You pay a premium on non-instant coffee here!)
We also learned heading back was to never travel during rush hour. We were packed like sardines on the bus.
Dinner was back at кафе 999 because it was late and we were tired. And we love the desserts there!
Central heating… I get it. In Astana, it can get to -24 deg C in the depths of winter. So to avoid frozen water pipes, the Kazakh government provides central heating. But when you are trying to sleep and it’s 30 deg inside, it’s unbearable. Something in the middle would be nice.
Our last full day was spent trying to gather documents to eat an Uzbek visa. It’s looking like a nightmare… But that’s for another story.
On our first night, we found ourselves outside when the sun went down and the temperature dropped to -13 degrees C. After that, we said we had to be back inside before sundown. We failed.
It will be interesting to see Astana in 2030 when the president we envision the end of his master plan. It’s definitely a city that has the advantage of being built with the future in mind. It does lack a bit of soul and the architecture is trying to make up for it. If I were to do it again, 1-2 days is perfect for Astana. But I still enjoyed my time.
Recommendations for Astana:
- Accommodations: Hostel ASTANA is really more of a homestay than a hostel. It’s located on the 19th floor of the building with great views of old Astana. And have a chat with Genghis Khan, the owner’s 9-year-old son. His English is ridiculously good.
- Getting around: Download 2GIS for Astana. This app was invaluable for navigating the public transport system. It can be used offline and uses GPS to locate bus routes.
- Coffee: Hot Spot Coffee was our coffee home. Coffee in a tea-drinking nation means expensive, but this place knew how to make coffee enjoyable. Eagilik was a good place for English book hunting but not coffee drinking.