written by: Fabio Brunello
“You know that in July I am going to Kazakhstan for work?” “In Kazakhstaaaannn??? Well, then I come with you!”
As of this conversation, my wife Elisabetta and I start the discovery of this Country, really unknown for both of us. We prepare ourselves reading some travel guides (not so easy to find), watching Borat (a stupid movie far from reality) and mainly watching the web series Pascalistan, about the adventures of the Italian singer Pasquale Caprino, who’s a celebrity over there under the name of Son Pascal.
Kazakhstan – short historical background
Kazakhstan is a former soviet union republic, with remarkable economic growth thanks to oil and gas extraction. The country is vast and since we have only a long weekend, we focus on Astana, the new capital city, and on the Northern territories.
Astana became a capital city only 20 years ago, on a decision of president Nazarbayev (in charge of the Presidency since the beginning of the Nineties…), and it is a city of around 850 thousand inhabitants, second only to Almaty, the historical capital city in the South.
Astana – Nur-Sultan new capital city
Going to Astana (since 2019 Nur-Sultan), you see a city under construction, with new building popping up everywhere, but all following a precise master plan defined 30 years ago. The left bank is the modern part of the city, whereas the right bank is more traditional but also more enjoyable as social life. My suggestion is to sightsee the monuments of the new area, but to schedule also a visit on the other side, to get a better idea of how locals live.
Astana (Nur-Sultan) – what to see?
There is a plethora of buildings of strange shapes, some of them designed by worldwide-known architects like Norman Foster. I suggest a walk of around 1 km from the shopping centre Khan Shatyr to the Presidential Palace to admire most of the buildings you can see on all postcards and pictures from Astana. The most interesting is for sure Khan Shatyr, a family shopping mall. The structure is a huge tent – the biggest in the world – that can bear temperatures from -30°C in the winter to the hot summer. On the inside, there are classical shops with international brands like Levi’s and Adidas, but also a lot of unknown brands. There is also a food court with mainly fast-foods, many playgrounds for kids and finally – on the top floor – there is also a beach with a swimming pool!
The Bayterek Tower is the national symbol and it represents a tree with a golden egg on the top, that connect with a legend on the origin of the Kazakh nation. Other interesting buildings are a pyramid-shaped building (Palace of Peace and Reconciliation) and the national circus, a building that looks like a ufo.
Walking by the city
Walking by the city is very safe according to us, we didn’t encounter any issue even if we were among the few non-Kazakh or non-Russian people. I have actually to recognize that the local population did a very positive impression on us. They are very friendly and relaxed, and they care a lot about kids (that are many and who can find everywhere parks and playgrounds).
Our visit coincided with Astana Day (local bank holiday, on July 6th) and the city was vibrant with many markets, fireworks, concerts in different places: maybe this gave us a very positive view of the city, but we enjoyed it a lot!
Hotel availability is quite wide, we moved from the 400€ of Marriott to the 40€ of a small hotel where they speak only Kazakh and Russian, and we like them all (with the due differences) and feel warmly welcomed.
For the restaurant, we mainly tried street food as there was a big variety for the National holiday. For sure we can advise the restaurant Vechnoe Nebo (it means “Eternal Sky”), in the city centre on the 25th floor of the Moscow skyscraper. It offers a spectacular view of the city, excellent service, Turkic cuisine that covers the “–Stan” Countries (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Uygur cuisine). All of this for little money, for a great dinner for two we paid 33€ in total!
I did visit also the 2017 Expo, with the theme “the energies of the future”. Very interesting the Kazakh pavilion, with each floor dedicated to different sustainable energy (wind, solar, water, kinetic,…). The rest of the exhibition was very similar to other Expo’s, like Milan 2015, with a mixture of “touristic” stands and others more linked to the main theme.
Astana (Nur-Sultan) does not require more than one day and a half of the visit, so for the other 2 days, we organized a tour in the natural park of Borovoe/Burabay, through a local tour operator that provides a guide and driver. Borovoe, around 200km north of Astana, is usually described as Kazakh Switzerland, so we equipped ourselves with trekking shoes and technical clothing. Actually, we ended truly among mountains and lakes, but in a place full of tourists, locals and Russian, with a beach as full as Rimini or Ibiza in August!
This anyway allowed us to immerse in the local culture and have a real “Kazakh experience”, immersing ourselves in how locals enjoy their holiday, what they bring for a picnic, what they eat. “Manti” (big dumplings stuffed with meat and steam-cooked, like Chinese bao xian) and “samosa” (sort of sandwich with cheese or minced meat), bought at local shops on the street, are actually extremely tasty!
The morning after we did a beautiful walk around the lake, following a path in the forest, whereas the climbing on the mountain was abandoned quite soon since it looks quite dangerous and our guide was a nice girl of 23 years old, but without any experience on hiking or climbing!
Local family experience
The best moment of the trip was, however, a visit to a local family. They re-built a yurt (typical tent of the nomadic people in Central Asia) in the steppe to host tourists. We had the chance to have lunch with them, eating food prepared by our host. We could chat with her and her husband, a farmer with a passion for hunting with the eagle in the steppe! Social media craziness is also here, with our hosts ready to take a picture with us to post it immediately on their Facebook profile! Actually, the trends are more and more globalized, as also here you can find everywhere kids playing with the widget spinners and you can listen to Despacito in every radio station!
Our final thoughts about Kazahkstan
Kazakhstan, from this unknown place at the beginning, is for us now a warm-welcoming country. There are people that live in a good economic situation and have good hope for the future. A Country that wants to grow, full of kids and structures for kids (what a shame not having brought our kids, fearing it was unsafe for them). It is probably not the most beautiful Country from a historical or natural point of view, but it is for sure a beautiful discovery and it is worth a visit.
Fabio & Elisabetta