After saying goodbye to Nuri from the hostel, I caught a bus to the airport to catch my 1.5 hour flight to the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.
Note: I literally just found this out while typing this but as of March 2019, Astana is now renamed to “Nur-Sultan”, after its long-time President/Dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev. I personally think it stinks but to be fair to him, he did lead Kazakhstan out of the remnants of former Soviet rule and into the 21st century. Astana, the name which I will stick with, is the symbol of this progress, planned and built with some of the most modern and almost futuristic architecture anywhere.
The bus from the airport brought me to the city center where I alighted near where the building which had a hostel I was scheduled to stay at. It was very difficult to find my hostel as the directions listed on the website weren’t very well-written. Eventually, I did manage to find my way to the hostel, which really was a condo unit with several rooms housing multiple bunk-beds. The proprietor of the place spoke enough English to help me get settled in and pay but she was reluctant to help me out when I had questions about the city. (This wasn’t your typical hostel where there will typically be a helpful front-desk presence to start most travelers off when it comes to suggestions on what to see or do or how to best get around town.) My hostel-mates were mostly locals who, like in Almaty, were living there on a temporary basis while in town in search of work, or in one case, a family of 4 from India who had to migrate to Astana for work and were all living in a room.
It was a challenge to find an exit from my building but once I did, I walked outside, took a look at my surroundings, and saw the iconic jewel of Astana from afar, the beautiful Baitarek Tower. I decided to begin my exploration there and off I walked toward it.
Along the way, I came upon what looked like a giant shopping mall. It was almost dinner time so I figured I’d stop in to see if it had a food court and it sure did. I don’t remember exactly what my options were there food-wise but I remember most places not having pictures to point at and so I randomly chose based on pointing to food the people in front of me in the line ordered and received. It wasn’t anything ethnically Kazakh or unique so I didn’t take any pictures nor did I remember what I actually had.
After finishing my meal and doing a spot of people-watching, I took a quick walk around the mall, identified it as a mall similar to those in the Western World, and then resumed my trek toward Baitarek Tower. As I got closer, I noticed a lot of people on the grounds. It is a popular attraction for tourists, as well as locals. It almost reminded me of Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers in how a building can draw so many visitors. Everyone was waiting for the doors to open so they could take the elevator up to the top for a bird’s eye panoramic view of Astana. I paid my fee to enter and off I went to join the line.
I will say that Astana at night is brilliant. I wish there weren’t glass windows that produced glare when trying to take a picture. One could make out several other iconic locales in Astana because they were prominently lit and show-cased. After spending about 30 minutes up there, I exited the Tower and decided to call it a night.
I was only booked to stay 1 night. After deciding to skip the 3rd largest city in Kazakhstan, Shymkent, I decided to book a direct flight to Tashkent (Uzbekistan). The flight was late in the evening so I had the entire next day to go walk around and see several other buildings that intrigued me during the course of my research about Astana. After all, the buildings were my main interest in visiting this city. Carrying all my gear, I walked toward the the Nur-Sultan Mosque, the 3rd largest in Central Asia. (I regret not making it to the largest one, Hazret Sultan Mosque, in a different part of town.) It wasn’t prayer time so it was quite empty.
After walking out, I was approached by a young Kazakh man. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking me but I eventually figured it was money. Again, my bright green backpack gave me away as a foreigner. This guy could speak a little bit of English. He pulled out his ID card to show me what he looked like about a (year?) ago and sure enough, the plump-faced person in the picture was now replaced by a rather skinny guy. So I asked him if he was hungry and he said yes. I told him to follow me because my next stop was Khan Shatyr, a mall with one of the most unique designs I’ve ever seen, a tent-like dome. I told this guy (I really wish I remembered his name but it was too long ago) that I’d buy him a meal there. I tried to have a conversation with him on the way and although I couldn’t quite understand everything he was trying to tell me, I did find out he lived with his parents outside the city center and I believe he said that he studied in a technical field of some kind prior to falling on hard times. In the mall, I visited the food court with him but surprisingly, the selection here was very limited. He picked fast food so I told him to order whatever he wanted for lunch and also to buy extra for dinner. I got a plate of laghman for myself and we sat down to eat. I told him that after this, I had to catch a bus to the airport and as we parted, I wished him well and I gave him a little cash to catch a bus home.
I had looked up the route that the bus # I was planning on taking would be using; it looked like a loop that included a pass of the Presidential Palace. I thought it was a good way to get a quick look at other parts of Astana before making my way to the airport, From a distance, I saw a pyramid structure on a hill and I decided that I’d have too much time at the airport and hence, I hopped off to go check it out. It was quite a walk from the bus stop to the actual structure but it was definitely very pretty. Plus, the hill-top view provided a look at the Astana skyline.
If you’re an architecture buff, Astana is worth a stop. However, as visually delightful as it is, there isn’t much history or culture to speak of and unlike Almaty, it lacks charm. But in the end, it’s an administrative city (or rather, shrine) to one of most notable strongmen in Kazakhstan’s history.