Kazakhstan – Astana

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Overall thoughts, Accommodation, Travelling around, Things to do, Dinner, Lunch and cafes

Overall thoughts

Brief right bank/old town: Soviet, fairly poor, uninspiring, sculptures, Western influence seemingly gaining popularity (e.g., brand new Costa Coffee on Respublika Avenue), bland modern buildings, lots of old buses and cars.One of many statues on Respublika Avenue, Astana old town,

Brief left bank/new town: bizarre, soulless, like a building site, dusty, strange, fascinating, Presidential folly, shoddy finish to all things Astana, the capital city, on a week day afternoon – where are all the people?new, interesting, lots of fancy cars, tall and decadent seemingly unpopulated apartment blocks, contradictory, lots of broken things.

Not so brief: I can’t work out whether I’m glad I went to Astana or not. I know that if I’d been sent there for work, for example, I Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall, AstanaFrom the front of the pyramid. A sunny week day afternoon with hardly anyone else aroundwould have felt thoroughly despondent and isolated. Not only does it feel like you’re in the middle of an expanse of flat, desert-like wilderness, it actually is; that’s pretty much what the steppe is and it feels a long way from anything else. It was warm in April but there was at times a ferocious wind (on suggesting to a local that it was particularly windy, their face told me that what I was describing was a mere breeze) which sent clouds of grit and dust swirling and blowing furiously. The extremes of winter and summer must be nigh on unbearable. As we flew over the steppe to Astana airport, there were still patches of snow/ice around, and indeed it snowed and created ice as we were leaving, my having caught the sun in my t-shirt the day before.

From the air, I was excited as Astana could be seen in the distance and I could easily make out the different shaped buildings, e.g. the big yurt, the pyramid, bridges, the golden ball, massive mosques, etc. Then it seemed odd to see the dusty outskirts with big, expensive car dealerships amidst areas of corrugated iron housing. On the road from the airport to the centre, the roads were big, unnecessarily so, I felt. There were a lot of police around stopping people and people drove to the speed limit (cameras everywhere), but apparently that was because it was Orthodox Easter that day. There were building sites everywhere I looked.

Park next to the presidential palace, Astana. Lunch time in the business district – where are all the people?The modern buildings are new and exciting but kind of left me cold. A fair few buildings have tinted walls which emit a sense of South Korean Highvill apartments, taken from pyramid“you’re not welcome” and the standard of build quality and materials seems questionable, with an abundance of cracked paving slabs for example. Never have I been more aware of the concept of people being the givers of life to a building and a city. As for some of the new South Korean built apartment blocks by the pyramid, not only were they all still at least seemingly empty (some of the hundreds of flats within the blocks were finished), they looked bland, cold and a bit toy town plastic. Maybe it’s just not my style?

Admittedly, the snow hadn’t long cleared away so grass, flowers and greenery hadn’t had a chance to flourish, but it all looked and felt dead, lifeless. There Across the river from the bridge near the presidential palace heading to the pyramid. Again, where are all the people?weren’t enough people around, either on the weekend or during the week, so it felt a bit like an abandoned city. I found it ugly, this display of wealth through architecture, because it contrasted too starkly with the poverty that exists in the country, indeed on the right bank just across the river, and in the fact it felt like there should be about ten or more times as many people around as there were. It didn’t feel at all like a buzzing capital city. Almaty, the former capital, had more of a capital city vibe and I felt a lot more comfortable in Almaty than I did in Astana.

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It is interesting to see a city being created and bizarre to see it emerging from miles and miles of flat nothingness. The buildings we Business centre of Astana, middaywent inside were interesting, the Norman Foster pyramid being my favourite, but I could never escape from the feeling of who is at all for? It feels like the new part of Astana is an extension of the president’s already enormous palace (modelled on the White House but, of course, far bigger), a presidential playground. I can imagine it is fun to have a seemingly limitless budget to create a whole city from dust. It’s just a bitter pill to swallow when the rest of the country is struggling and it feels like the average Kazakh is working very hard in challenging conditions (industry without rigorous health and safety standards, for example) to fund a capital city that most will never visit or benefit from. It’s truly one of the most surreal and confusing places I’ve ever been.

As for the old town, where we stayed, it is much busier than the new town and just feels like a normal, working town. I didn’t particularly care for it, thoughChurch off Respublika Avenue, old town Astana it felt more real there than in the new town. If I was going to stay in Astana again (I don’t think I would), I would want to stay around Respublika Avenue (as that’s kind of the centre of the old town) or in walking distance of the new town … as I write this, the thought of going there again really doesn’t appeal.

Also, transportation isn’t great. The buses are not foreigner/non-Russian/Kazakh speaking friendly, there are not many taxis and roads and pavements aren’t particularly good for pedestrians, plus places are further away than they appear. If you speak Russian, you can at least use gypsy cabs (which I used with Russian-speakers I was with at times) and can ask people about buses.

Accommodation

View across San Marino Hotel roof over to the new city, AstanaHotel San Marino, Tashenova Street 17 (right bank/old town) (my score out of 10 with my partner’s score in brackets, uninfluenced by my score)

Nearby amenities: 2 (2)/10 (neighbouring restaurant and mini mart, Draft “pub” c 10 minute walk, otherwise just roads)

Safety perception: 5 (6)/10 (area fine, though very “local”, hotel fine but bedroom door not remotely sturdy)

Room: 5 (4)/10 (looks fine, clean and kettle. If window open and there is a breeze or wind, front door rattles so much it sounds like it will blow away, not all windows open, inadequate bedding (thin double duvet for super king size bed))

Sleep: 1 (4)/10 (too hot, opened window, then mosquitoes got in, then windy so had to shut door, then too hot. First night too hot, second night too hot and bitten by mosquitoes)

Bathroom: 5 (5)/10 (spacious but horrible Chinese shampoo sachets and a defective soap dispenser, no window and dark)

Breakfast: 1 (2)/10 (no menu, no English spoken or written, two Russian choices, which turn out to be (lumpy) porridge (kasha) or three fried/nuked eggs, and a plate of lurid yellow cheese, bright pink salami and bread, butter and jam most likely served without cutlery, for which you have to ask. Don’t order a cappuccino or any coffee that needs to be made at the fancy espresso machine – just don’t)

Staff: 4 (2)/10 (4 might be mean but no English spoken so hard to tell)

Likelihood of repeat stay: 1 (1)/10 (Dreadful sleep and dreadful breakfast make this a no, plus without being able to speak Russian it was not easy to figure out how to get anywhere without a very long and uninspiring walk, largely alongside busy main roads)

Travelling around

Bus (60 tge), taxi, gypsy cab/bomber (see “Kazakhstan – General”) and walking around centre of old town and centre of new town.

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Things to do

The bridge (sort of) between the presidential palace and the pyramid, a wobbly wind tunnel

Bear in mind that it takes longer than you expect to walk between key buildings and that there is a river between the palace and the pyramid, which wasn’t apparent when I set off on what I thought was a short walk (distances are deceiving in new Astana). The crossing of the river between the presidential palace and the presidential park requires a lengthy walk incorporating a bridge with more holes and cracks than you want to see along a road and pedestrian bridge over a murky river that, incidentally, also serves as a wind and dust tunnel.

I feel I should also add that I’ve just read some reviews on Trip Advisor about some of these places in Astana and a lot of other people are far more enthusiastic about Astana than I am. At least some of them went in summer. Maybe there are more people around then? Maybe a lot of things were broken/not working in April because of having been under snow for months, so maybe things work better and have been fixed? But don’t underestimate what a surreal place it is.

Bayterek (symbol of Astana – white tower with gold ball on top )

500 tge, largely ok if you have vertigo like me, 97 metres high to mark 1997 as the year Astana became the capital.

Good view of the layout of new Astana, though all seen through the tinted gold of the dome’s glass (some panes of which are shattered). My photos were also littered with construction debris, but maybe in a few years that will have gone and the view will be prettier. It’s also interesting to see the towers of Astana and The presidential palace from Bayterek, Astanathen uninhabited flatness beyond, spreading as far as you can see.

When you see the presidential palace, it’s five floors above ground and two below. It is massive.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation/Pyramid of Peace/Norman Foster pyramid

400 tge, including an English-speaking guide who took me round for c30 minutes – need the guide and it’s interesting.

All paths I walked along to try to get from the bridge/river to the pyramid, ie from the other side of the river where most of the new buildings are, the Presidential Park, did not lead directly to the pyramid. It took ages to get around the park and to find the entrance, which is facing the main road and a large white monument, Kazak Eli, part of Independence Square . It did not seem to be pedestrian friendly, most of Astana.Rehearsals on the stage within the palace of peace

Some of my favourite pyramid facts and features:

The lifts go up diagonally up the inside of the pyramid.

The theatre in the middle of the pyramid seats 1,200 people and has a box solely for the president.

Chris standing on top of the sun on top of the theatre, looking up to the top of the pyramid to make a wishThe ceiling of the theatre is the sun. The centre of the third floor is the top of the sun. You are supposed to stand in the middle of the raised sun and make a wish. As you look up, you see the top of the pyramid and, as it’s futuristic and white, it feels delightfully pure and clean.

There was an exhibition of gifts from foreign dignitaries, including some beautiful pieces from Mubarak of Egypt. One floor was also an art gallery, consisting of Kazakh art works and gifts, including Chagall and Picasso (prints or real?).

From the top/8th floor, you walk up the lower part of the top of the pyramid, which is a winter garden. Disappointingly, only 70% of theThe walkway up to the top of the pyramid, complete with real and plastic foliage plants are real; the rest are plastic. It is extraordinarily hot up there. The president and other dignitaries have their own glass elevator.

The circular table suspended from the top of the pyramid with seats where world religious leaders sit, doves on the glassAt the top, there is a white circle of a table and chairs, the middle of the table being a hole right down to the bottom of the pyramid. The glass above, the top of the pyramid, is decorated with doves.

The view is great. The mosque opposite is new and bigger than the original new town mosque. I’m sure I can’t have heard correctly that it can hold 10,000 people?

If you only go to one public building, go to this one and take your camera for some cool photos.

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Khan Shatyr/Royal Marquee/Norman Foster yurt/shopping and entertainment megaplexAdvertising poster for Khan Shatyr, the Norman Foster yurt

It’s essentially a massive shopping and entertainment centre, so free to enter. Even if you don’t want to go shopping (not cheap, largelyShops, entertainment, food; inside the yurt European brands), it’s worth going to experience it and see the structure.

The mall walkways are narrow and busy. I had bought a pair of Clarks shoes a couple of weeks before going to Kazakhstan so decided to go into Clarks to compare prices as they were fairly fresh in my mind. A pair of flats were c£84, which was just over double what very similar ones were in the UK.monorail inside the yurt, complete with dinosaur park behindThere is also an area of arcade games, a dinosaur park, a monorail and a big beach area at the top of the dome, complete with pool, slides and palm trees. It was very hot inside the yurt. I imagine it will be very cold in summer.

Saken Seyfullin Museum, old town AstanaMuseum of Saken Seifullin, Auezov Street 20a (old town/right bank)

Closed Mondays, when I tried to go, old wooden house, of itself interesting, the home of an influential Kazakh writer and activist who was executed in 1939.

Respublika Avenue, right bank, around Imanov Street.Old Astana, statue, Respublik StreetMemorial statues on Respublik, old town Astana

This is not an area you must see but I guess it’s the centre of old town Astana. There is a row of shops and restaurants, including a Costa Coffee, around this part of Respublika Avenue. There is also an interesting souvenir shop around that area, on the same side as Costa and right by a bus stop with a useful map that is the one that enabled me to get a bus from there to the new town centre.

Taxidermy beavers playing cards, a “discreet photo” I took in a souvenir shop in AstanaThe souvenir shop showcases a real variety of Kazakh handicrafts, including silver and pottery, though my favourite section was the taxidermy, including some stuffed beavers standing around a slice of tree trunk, playing cards … as I’m sure beavers do! However, be warned there are also stuffed wolves, wild cats and birds of prey.

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Dinner

Draft restaurant, old town AstanaDraft, Tashenova 27 (right bank, plus there is a branch on left bank)

Lively pub feel, menu in English on website, NOT in restaurant, though pictures in menu at restaurant.

http://www.draft.kz/menu/index/id/22.html

We had four large beers, a beer snack of chechil (“Churchill”, salty cheesy string, 490 tge), a large steak and sides (2,690 tge) and a sizzling plate of chicken stir fry (very nice, 1,690 tge). Fortunately, we’d read the menu in English online and had kind of chosen what we wanted before we got there and couldn’t read the Russian menu (hurrah for pictures though).
Baku, next to Hotel San Marino) (right bank)

I wouldn’t recommend this unless you wanted a cheap meal in a Muslim restaurant (so no alcohol and no pork), could speak and read Russian and/or Kazakh and were staying next door at the San Marino.

We had two large, freshly grilled lamb kebabs, salad, bread and two soft drinks for less than 3,000 tge (I can’t remember the exact price).

Italiano, 2 Kunaev Street (left bank)

Lunch and Cafes

Caramel Coffeehouse, Imanov Street 10a (right bank/old town, plus branch on left bank)

I had a pot of good, strong Assam tea, which didn’t come with milk. I asked for milk and, on the third attempt, I got some, albeit a small jug of hot milk. Cafe tried to look sophisticated and French but it was plastic and kitsch and somehow wrong, despite all the pictures of Paris on the wall.

Rafe Coffee & Food, Kunaev Street 14/Nurzhol (opposite gold towers and Sky Luxe Hotel, left bank/new town)

For 3,150 tge, I had a very nice lunch of a fresh apple, carrot and orange juice, a good cappuccino and a very tasty Caesar Salad with fried chicken. Their ice cream and desserts looked good.

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