What do you think of when you hear Kazakhstan?

Astana things to do

  • OK, let’s get it over with: Borat. If nothing else, Sacha Baron Cohen did place Kazakhstan on the map.
  • Enormous flat steppes, once the secret home of Soviet gulags and a nuclear weapons testing zone.
  • Also, once the secret home of the Soviet space programme: this is where Yurij Gagarin, first human in space, took off from. Today, you can be like Yurij, you space tourist, you. Baikonur is the world’s only operative space launching station.
  • Wolves outnumber people.
  • If you remember Soviet times, and you’re into winter sports (I’m Norwegian, so that’s the default) you might recall Alma Ata (now named Almaty) as an important player on the skiing and speed-skating scene, especially.
  • Perhaps you know that Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world – and the largest landlocked country?
  • And maybe you remember it was the last of the 15 Soviet republics to declare independence back in 1991?

But what about Astana?

Astana: where to even begin?

Astana is the new capital of Kazakhstan. Or newish. All over town, I see signs commemorating 20 years as capital. 6 July. It appears I missed the celebratory fanfare and fireworks by 21 days.

It’s an odd city. Unusual. Although, as I walk around, I’m frequently reminded of Dubai. Cutting edge architecture, wide avenues, flashy cars – and space, lots of it. I’ve not yet visited that even more elusive Central Asian capital Ashgabat, but I suspect the atmosphere might be similar. (Will let you know, an opportunity will undoubtedly pop up.)

Here’s another slightly whimsical thought: with tempers simmered down, and tons of money invested (from China, perhaps), I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this is how Pyongyang will appear, a few decades into the future. Let’s talk in ’38.

20 years back in time, however, the government of newly independent Kazakhstan decided to relocate its capital from Almaty to Tselinograd, 12 hours north. To mark the occasion, a new name was in order, and Astana it was, meaning ‘capital city’ in Kazakh. Simples. And it has a nice ring to it. Astana! Could be a warrior queen from Alpha Centauri.

(Curiously, 20 years later, local telecom provider Kcell hasn’t caught up. My iPhone photos are quirkily labelled Tselinograd).

So, I’m rather liking the sound of Astana. But the look of it? The feel?

Astana is a mix of Soviet chic and space age shiny metal, courtesy of the winner of the 1998 competition to design the master plan of the new capital, Kisho Kurokawa. Other world-renown architects and urban planners were brought in as well, notably Mancunian Norman Foster, famous for designing the new airports in Hong Kong and Beijing, London’s Millennium Bridge, and heaps more eye-catching high-tech creations. Here in Astana, you’ll see him all over town.

Kurokawa’s principal idea was a transition from the ‘age of machines’ to the ‘age of life’, uniting history and the future. Is that the result? Well, other than the (Soviet) age of machines, there was perhaps not so much history to work with. And as for the ‘age of life’, Kurokawa may have referred to an architectural principle. I’m a mere layperson and have no such constrictions. To me, a city of life – or an age of life – means people. Alive. Boisterous. Outdoors.

Taking into account that Astana is one of the world’s coldest capitals (−40 °C and °F is not unheard of), perhaps life outdoors is a bit much to ask. In winter. But on this + 28 °C late July weekend, I see surprisingly few people out and about. Where is everyone?

Like Brasilia, Washington DC, Ankara, Canberra, Abuja, Sharm el Sheikh and for that matter, Dallas and Milton Keynes, Astana is a planned city. Which leaves the burning question: can you really plan a city? I don’t mean street scenes and buildings; obviously you can, I’m surrounded by one here. But can you plan a real, living, breathing city? Or are we, humankind, too unpredictable, too erratic, too individual, too contradictory, too deliciously chaotic… to fit in a plan? I hope we are. And that we will remain so.


have a look at the photo below! It’s part of the current outdoor exhibition Astana Around Us ’18. Looking around me, I can easily picture these cars on the ground here in a not-very-distant future. And I gotta say, that’s pretty exciting!

But then I always preferred the Jetsons to the Flintstones.

The central oval

The main tourist drag in Astana forms an oval between Ishim River and Khan Shatyr, this cosmic 150-metre high luminous tent/entertainment centre…

…comprising 14 hectares (that’s 35 acres) of squares and cobbled streets, an internal park, shops, amusement park rides, a children’s playground, a river with boats, and a beach on top. With sand imported from the Maldives!

I can’t help but be struck by nightmarish visions of a future where entire cities are built in like this. Where life has moved indoors, entirely. Watched too much sci-fi during my formative years, probably.

Leaving Khan Shatyr, I move along the oval, passing through an underpass with a piano (free for all), to Lovers’ Park with restaurants and fountains. I try a Georgian and an Italian restaurant in this area, both very good. In fact, I’m whiling away a few hours just now, scribbling in a swing chair at the latter.

Further along, more jaw-dropping architecture.


I quite like the Northern Lights buildings: beautifully curvaceous and simple – and it reminds me a bit of Oslo’s Barcode district:

Bayterek Tower

Then, Astana’s pièce de résistance, the golden orb bursting out from the big bang: Bayterek Tower (Norman Foster again), 105 metres tall, and the symbol of the city. Visible all round.

You can go to the top. I did; queued for nearly an hour to get in the doors. Then, once on top, I queued for nearly one hour more, to measure my freckly little hand against the famous golden, huge one of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He always wins.

I can’t be certain if all this queueing (mostly locals) means people visit to show respect for the Leader of the Nation, or if it’s merely a cool photo op.

After Bayterek Tower, I pass the two golden towers either side of Acorda, the presidential palace. Not sure of the symbolism here, but… all that glitter (Dubai!). Rumour has it, locals call them the beer cans. I appreciate the irreverence.

Acorda is the office of the be-all and end-all, Nursultan himself. The first, and so far, only president of Kazakhstan, in the last round (April 2015), a whopping 97.75% of the voter turnout wanted him to remain in office. OSCE has had observers present at 8 elections in the country and has this to say about them.

Outside the central oval, the crane seems to be the main bird. (That’s what Beijingers said about their city pre-2008 Olympics.) Much of Astana is a building site. A metro is being built, which will connect the city to the airport (Dubai!), meanwhile there are busses (easy to use), taxis (official and unofficial), and – your feet.

I walk and walk. And walk and walk and walk, feeling I’m not exactly the centre of attention. Not referring to me personally here, but as a human wanting to explore on foot. (Again, Dubai!) Vast distances and seemingly miles between each zebra crossing.

Unless you want to take life in your hands and just run across the wiiiiide avenues, there’s going to be some roundabout routes. I intended to walk the measly 3.3 kilometres between Bayterek Tower and the National Museum, but my phone said 17 107 steps. That should be about 12 kilometres. Granted, that included quite a few intentional detours to look at something interesting (I forget what), and a lot of backtracking where there was only one way in/out. All in all, though: in Astana, 3 km by car does not necessarily equal 3 km on foot.

Crossing the river, I pass by the flower-shaped Central Concert Hall…

…have a look at Acorda from the other side – fishermen in the foreground,

… then continue to the pyramidic (is that a word?) Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (Foster again!) …

… one of Astana’s stunning white mosques (Hazrat Sultan Mosque below):

… Shabyt – Palace of the Arts (Kazakh National University of Arts):

… and, not least, the enormous glass-and-marble National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the equally enormous Independence Square, with yet another reminder of the capital’s 20th anniversary.

Inside the museum, I’m welcomed by a golden, larger than life Nursultan, as well as a golden eagle hovering over us both, also larger than life. Soon, I’m feeling larger than life myself, and ponder whether to have a golden statue of myself erected… somewhere. (Not sitting in a chair, though. Maybe in the midst of a cartwheel…)

The museum covers the country’s nomadic culture, its various ethnic groups, and affords a glimpse of the oppressive Soviet years. There’s also a section on contemporary Kazakh art. The halls are spacious and exhibits are presented orderly. Entrance is 700 tenge (1.75 EUR/2 USD), with an additional 1000 tenge if you want to see the sparkly Golden Hall (treasury).

Khan Shatyr seen through the gate of the KazMunayGas HQ (Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil and gas company). Does it look familiar? Think Hotel Atlantis the Palm in (where else but) Dubai.

Would I recommend Astana? Yes, why not. You want to experience everywhere, don’t you? Like Dubai, it makes an interesting stop-over. And Air Astana is a nice airline. Two days/two nights is good.

Will I return? Almaty remains my favourite Central Asian city, and I can’t see that changing. But a few decades from now, for a brief spell, I wouldn’t mind landing my little spacecraft in the car park in the photo above. Let’s say 2038 for this one, as well. Could be sooner.