Seen from above, Kazakhstan looks rather barren, monochrome and monotonous. But once I landed, it felt so warm and unique to me...
The average flight time from central Europe to Astana is around 5 hours - a medium-haul flight. Kazakhstan is 4 hours ahead of Central European Time.
Welcome to Astana
Astana airport has a brand new terminal built in 2017, to serve the visitors of the 2017 Expo 2017. The older terminal, however, has more charm and a slight communistic touch (main entrance pictured here).
The biggest tent structure in the world! It houses a lot (and I mean a lot!) of shops, entertainment venues, a swimming pool with a real sand beach, a monorail train and a vertical rollercoaster. Quite fancy for a tent...
Khan Shatyr (interior)
Finished in 2010, Khan Shatyr was planned by Norman Foster Architects. The coating is especially designed to withhold the -30°C in winter and +40°C in summer.
The birth of a capital
The capital Astana, whose name in Kazakh means "capital", is an artificial city similar to Canberra (Australia) or Brasilia (Brazil). At the end of 1997, Kazakhstan's president decided that the new city of Aqmola (one of the former names of Astana) should take over the new function of capital city, replacing Almaty. Aqmola was then renamed as Astana.
New meets new.
Since 1997, Astana has grown significantly. New, modern buildings define the skyline of the city. Tradition meets fashion. Astana doesn't have an Old City as many other cities around the world. By the way, "Astana" is pronounced with a stress on the last "A" in Kazakh language.
Astana State Circus
Family values are highly respected in most former USSR republics, including Kazakhstan. There is no shortage of entertainment and fun in Astana. In addition to the State Opera, the State Theatre and numerous other entertainment venues, the State Circus plays a major role in entertaining young and old alike. 2017 ushered in another highlight for the inhabitants of Astana: The Expo 2017 provided breathtaking views and meeting points.
The buildings in the centre of Astana are elaborate and modern. Typical example here is the KazMunayGaz head office opposite Khan Shatyr. In good weather conditions you can see the sunrise and the sunset through the large arc.
You can have a nice walk in the Lovers Park, just between the headquarters of KazMunayGaz and Khan Shatyr. It's one of the top attractions in Astana. Particularly beautiful at sunrise!
The best-known landmark of Astana is Bayterek Tower. The tower is located in the centre of the city and has a height of 105 meters. The construction took six years and was completed in 2002. The cupola, which is the dome at the top of the tower, is an air-conditioned viewing platform...
According to Turkic mythology, the tower is known as the Tree of Life. In the treetop, the mythical bird Samruk has laid an egg, which symbolizes all human strength. The spikes and the golden sphere (the nest and the egg) houses a viewing platform, which can be reached by an elevator from the base.
Inside the dome
Inside the dome, there is another smaller platform. It has a gilded handprint of the first (and present) president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Most of the Kazakh tourists in the cupola did not leave without touching the handprint.
Going from A to B in Astana
Astana does not have a metro system, but it has a very well developed bus and mini-bus (marshrutka) network, within the city and connecting the neighboring villages. Taxis, and of recent Uber, are very cheap. The latter is much cleaner, safer and more comfortable. The distances are enormous, so you should not shy away from public transport.
The Great Steppe
Once you leave the borders of Astana (or just go behind the Khan Shatyr) you will be intimidated by the vast distances in Kazakhstan. Astana (and all other big cities in Kazakhstan) is surrounded by the Great Steppe. The place used for the landing of the International Space Station capsules. The "nearest" town, Karaganda, is around 4-5 hours drive from Astana. Air travel is quite cheap in Kazakhstan (return tickets from 70 USD) and a day trip to Almaty is possible (flight time for one direction is 1.5 hours).
Young people of Kazakhstan also like technology and gadgets. I was approached by some teenagers on my very first day in a shopping mall. They spoke excellent English.
A Kazakh "photographer"
Kazakhs love selfies (who doesn't love them). Thanks to excellent mobile phone roaming networks (LTE/4G) throughout Astana, it is possible to transfer images and stream videos quickly. However, there is low network availability outside the major cities (GPRS) or not present at all.
People from Kazakhstan are very helpful and friendly. Talking with younger people in English is generally no problem. I also got along fine in Russian. The Kazakh language was too difficult for me personally. It sounds like a mixture of Turkish, Arabic and Russian.
Khazret Sultan Mosque, the second largest mosque in Central Asia. More than 70% of the Kazakh population is Muslim, mainly Sunni Muslims. Kazakhstan is the northernmost Muslim country in the world. The country is relatively tolerant of other religions.
Art and Culture
To the far left is the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan - The leader of the Nation (Nazarbayev Centre). To the front right: Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall. While all cultural activities such as opera, theatre or cinema are prohibited in neighboring countries such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan's culture is flourishing.
Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall
Designed by Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti (other projects from him include Catania Airport, Seafront of Reggio Calabria) the Central Concert Hall opened for the first time in 2009. The building has one major concert hall and two smaller halls.
Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall
The Concert hall is designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the Great Steppe. The blue painted glass gives a beautiful touch of the architecture.
Hello Mr. President
The Ak-Orda presidential palace in Astana, completed in 2004 with the Ishim river running behind the palace. The current president, who is also the first president of Kazakhstan, is Nursultan Nazarbayev. The law provides that the term of office may not be longer than 5 years (and can only be extended once). Nazarbayev is however excluded from this regulation. The cost of living is borne entirely by the state. Anyone over 40 years old, who has lived in Kazakhstan for more than 15 years and is perfectly proficient in the Kazakh language can be elected as President.
Water Green Boulevard
View to the Water-Green-Boulevard, the promenade in Astana. In the distance you can see the Bayterek Tower. The foreground is home to the Houses of Ministries with the two golden cones belonging to a Kazakh bank.
Prior to the rush hour
Kazakhstan is rich in natural gas and as a result, most cars run on gas instead of petrol. Therefore, traffic jams in Astana always smell of gas...
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
The Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation was built in 2006. The building (hard to recognize as such) was designed by Foster and Partners and contains several halls, conference rooms, the National History Museum and is about 63 meters high... The pyramid symbolizes civic and religious equality. It is effectively illuminated at night.
Marriage in Kazakhstan has its own traditions. Kazakh weddings are considered very lively and interesting. Tears flow frequently, emotions overwhelm guests, passionate dancing is basically mandatory and occasionally fists can fly. Before the wedding, the parents of both lovers (known as Neke Qiyu) negotiate and reach a kind of contract. Great importance is attached to documenting the wedding: several photographers follow the couple at every turn during the long ceremony: A MUST is to have several pictures/selfies of the famous buildings of Astana.
One of the main reasons I visited Astana was to see the Expo 2017 with its slogan "Future Energy". All in all: visually appealing pavilions, amazing ideas and presentations...
Expo 2017 area
The area for the Expo 2017 was especially designed for the world exhibition. It is between the airport and the city of Astana. Quite fancy and modern, unfortunately the volunteers were quite overwhelmed.
The future is now!
Probably the most memorable experience was that most countries offered some interesting hands-on events: from playing with transparent touch-screens to experimenting in light-sensitive rooms.
The German pavillion was, to me, one of the best pavillions (I might be a bit biased). Visitors got customized RFID sticks in their own language which could be "charged" with knowledge throughout the expositions. In the end the entire "knowledge stream" from the sticks went into a data vortex. Beautiful!
Over 101 countries took part at Expo 2017. Among others: Russia, Germany (great pavillion!), USA, Malaysia, China, Lithuania, Poland, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Monaco, Great Britain, Serbia, Japan... and even the Vatican! Nearly all countries had breath-taking presentations about the topic that concerns mankind most: future ways of generating energy without destroying the planet.
"Northern lights" residential complex behind Keruen Mall. Shopping is "in" and we should not be surprised when the Russian-style supermarket chain of Ramstore opens 40 check-out counters at once here.
Food is good
Due to the extreme weather conditions in Kazakhstan, especially in and around Astana (hot summers and cold winters), most people go out in the evenings in the summer when temperatures drop. Streets get flooded with cheering people, music, running, biking and skateboarding kids... Food courts offer cheap but good dining opportunities. From McDonalds's, to Burger King, to Hardee's, to local "fast food" chains, offering delicious Kazakh specialities.
The Water-Green-Boulevard had a lot of art installations while Expo 2017 was in progress. They consisted of mostly interactive designs. Well done!
Enjoying a casual stroll through the city while having a light snack bought from one of the street vendors. A very charming city!