I don’t really know what I expected. Perhaps much like when I moved to Turkey I went without thinking about it, without a preconceived notion of what I might find.
Keep in mind that I was only in Almaty and Astana on business, but here is a short summary of my impressions of Kazakhstan: modern, orderly, decent driving (cars actually stop for pedestrians – incredible, really), not particularly friendly or unfriendly – indifferent, generally, but polite enough to a foreigner. Not a lot of English. Good food, especially breads. Absolutely nothing in common with Borat stereotypes, thank goodness. Very diverse and seemingly integrating well. If I had been whisked away blindfolded (don’t get any ideas, CIA, just making a point) and opened my eyes here, I’d have trouble figuring out where I was. Russia? Various parts of Asia? Turkey or Eastern Europe? As the Silk Road once passed through this neck of the woods, the diversity shouldn’t be surprising. Plus Stalin’s brutal rein saw many ethnic groups deported to here. There are 131 ethnicities.
The first thing I noticed as I rolled into the city in a 5 a.m. taxi from the airport was the architecture.
Kazakhs I met seemed to prefer Almaty, saying Astana hasn’t got a soul. Kazakhstan got its independence in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Almaty was the capital. Construction in Astana got under way and the capital moved there in 1997. Even the name is new. It was Akmola until 1998. But it sure is nice to look at.
The original Kazakhs were nomadic and often buried with their horses. Horses figure prominently in statues… and on the menu. Ahem.
The Ishim River runs right through the city and there is a Left Bank (south) and Right Bank (north) when people reference where things are. The new buildings and modern architecture are on the left, while much of the other side of the river is still old Soviet construction.
I stayed on the old side of town for the cheaper hotels. Thanks to nation’s oil and gas profits, there is a lot of business travel here and the prices and levels of the hotels are higher than one might expect. I stayed at Astana Art Hotel which was so-so and still around $70 USD including a simple breakfast and intermittent WiFi. (By the way, if you ever felt that HD photography falsely doctors up reality, have a look at the photo of Astana Art Hotel. It’s comical how disappointed one would be if they expected that when they stepped from the taxi!)
Here was a surprise. The old section has hot water/steam being piped throughout for heating purposes. Detroit, St. Louis and Vancouver also have this, by the way, but underground at least.
A statue without a horse. It happens.
This is Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, a 150-meter tall “tent”. The skin of it is transparent and my taxi driver said it is meant to recall a yurt, a traditional Turkic dwelling. By the way, though everyone speaks Russian, there is still a large population who can speak Kazakh, a Turkic language. I was able to recognize a few cognates from Turkish and Turks along on this trip seemed quite capable of communicating with Kazakhs using Turkish.
Truth be told, I had very little time outside of a taxi or at an education fair at the Rixos hotel. So I was stuck in the backseat desperately trying to shoot photos out the window, at traffic lights, etc.
In fact, it became a bit of a comic segment as my taxi driver weaved and raced to the airport before my departure. At one point I leaned far to the left to get a quick photo out that window, and tried to steady the camera with one flailing arm as my body slipped forward off the seat. Anyone going the opposite direction would have only seen a hand reaching up from below the door and waving a Nikon. Look! Horses!
The finish line: Astana’s International Airport. Free WiFi, a few places to eat, and without major traffic early on a Saturday, just a half hour south of where I was staying on the Right Bank/north of the river. I was warned it could have been more than twice that long on a weekday.