After gaining independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazakhstan government decided in 1997 to up and move the countries capital to the north. Exactly whey they chose the city of Akmola (which translates to ‘White Grave’) we have no idea, but we assume the governments PR team pushed for the swift name change in 1998 to Astana, ‘The Capital’.
It’s as if the town planners involved in crafting this grand new capital city were working in separate rooms the entire time. And with nobody’s work quite complete the General Contractors have waltzed in, swept up all the designs into one shabby bundle and just started building. We saw staircases that seemed to start and finish nowhere, pavements that made their way to impassable fences, pavements that didn’t exist at all forcing pedestrians to walk along a busy 6 lane motorway and roads so wide they seemed to go somewhere important but instead ended abruptly in an overgrown field of greenery. In the end it became a game to discover just how much bad planning there was across this wondrous new city.
A staircase seemingly added as an afterthought in an area of town where nobody would use it
Another well planned pavement
The city is packed full of larger than life buildings, which come together in a blend of styles to create what feels a bit like a giant ‘Disneyland for Architects’. There’s the occasional nod to existing famous buildings (the Louvre being one which comes to mind) and then there’s those that can only be described as Astana style. With three days in town we managed to hit up quite a lot of the best ones with a couple of craft beers thrown in for good measure. So here’s our Astana low down.
Astana is big but it’s also flat and there are plenty of city buses which can shuttle you from one side of town to the other. Taxis are also inexpensive and twice we actually had people pick us up and not allow us to pay them as they wanted to meet foreigners and practice their English.
Set in front of what seems to be a very very vast and very very empty assembly area, the cities Presidential Palace seems like home to a great overlord who is about to call all of the people of Kazakhstan to his gates to announce his plans to take over the world. Ok maybe not, but it’s a little creepy, particularly at night when the entire area is deserted.
With its colourful evening lighting this tower has a striking resemblance to the old children’s game of Kerplunk. Officially it represents a mythical egg in a tree and was built following ideas sketched onto a cocktail napkin by the countries president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Apparently. Either way it’s the symbol of the city and you’ll either love it (Matt) or hate it (Sarah). The trip to the top is worth the views even if just to see the perfectly manicured flower gardens and mostly empty boulevard leading up to the Presidential Palace.
Hazrat Sultan Mosque
The largest mosque in Kazakhstan, the impressive white minarets and marble interior make it worthwhile checking out while you’re here.
Nur Astana Mosque
The gold dome and impressive interior, not to mention it’s location between Bayterek Tower and Khan Shatyr, make this worth a stop too. Even if you are mosqued out after months in Central Asia.
Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall
A striking building not far from the Presidential Palace and on the way to the Astana Library. Head through the park on the left and wait until the footpaths and roads suddenly stop, leaving you stranded and confused.
You’ll have to arrive here for one of the public tours on offer otherwise you won’t be able to gain access as a tourist. Times are confusing so check before you go. Otherwise you can just enjoy the views of this noodle bowl shaped building from the outside.
If you find yourself in Astana in the middle of winter never fear. Head to the tent like Khan Shatyr, take a lift to the top floor, hand over USD$25 and you can enjoy the balmy 25-30°C on an artificial beach with sand imported from the Maldives at the Sky Beach Club. Complete with palm trees. And really overpriced drinks. Otherwise just wander the shops and entertainment level instead for free.
Still striking during the day, this trio of residential towers lights up the Astana skyline at night when rippling rainbows of light give a mesmerising display.
Palace of Peace and Accord
This 77m high pyramid sits all alone on a small hill, and looks a bit like a sad and lonely poor mans Louvre. Without the romantic backdrop of Paris architecture the design doesn’t seem to work. But the walk across the bridge and through the haphazardly designed park was worth it for the laughs we got.
A perfectly safe addition to the pathway…the top rocks are sitting loose
Housing the cities Palace of Arts, this one is affectionately known as The Dog Bowl. Easy to see why.
The Golden Towers
Like London’s famous skyline, most of Astana’s iconic buildings have been giving endearing nicknames by the locals, and the Golden Towers are no exception. The ‘Beer Cans’ stand as shiny golden sentinels leading up to the Ak Orda (Presidential Palace).
Catch some culture
If you’re here at the start of July you’ll catch the brilliant Astana Arts Festival. The boulevard stretching from Bayterek Tower towards Khan Shatyr was littered with art installations, street performers and mostly locals enjoying the festive atmosphere both day and night. There was nightly music performances beneath the Bayterek Tower as well as a Hip Hop and a Rock music festival (both ticketed events).
We also stumbled across a kite festival in full flight (pun intended) so it seems the start of July is a great time to be in town!
Drink craft beer
Address: Amangeldi Imanov Street 20
If you’re looking for Astana’s high heeled dressed to the nine’s clientele head to The Barley on a Friday night. Overpriced craft beer in a plush setting with live music and the beautiful people. Needless to say with our attire expecting a more relaxed vibe (and cheaper beer!) we didn’t linger long.
O’Hara Irish Pub
Address: Zheltoqsan St 2/2
A short walk brought us to this happening bar where the beer was still more expensive than we’d hoped but jeans, Converse and the occasional post work suit were the norm and the crowd were much more approachable and relaxed. We met some locals and had a great chat until a friendly local who’d picked us up earlier in the night (for free) again picked us up and drove us home. Just be careful when ordering craft beers, we thought we were ordering a local draft IPA and were instead given an expensive American import in a bottle.
Address: Talghar Street
Not far from the hostel on the other side of the maze of residential high rise buildings (seriously, it’s a maze) is a great little bar serving up 3L bowls of chilled weisse beer. It’s cheap, it’s friendly and the food isn’t too bad either. The staff are also willing to oblige when you and some mates from the hostel ask if you can eat the six slices of pizza left behind by diners on the next table. This was one of our fav little places in town.
Head to a House Party!
If you’re lucky like us you may end up at a house party in a nearby expats apartment drunkenly hiding on the balcony with half a dozen others while the cops try desperately to get people inside to hand over their passports. Unfortunately overindulgence of tequila with some others from the hostel resulted in some pretty severe hangovers and an entire porcelain sink detaching itself from the wall and smashing on the floor. We have no idea how that happened…
Where to stay
Hostel Nochleg, located in a residential area a 10 minute walk to the Bayterek Tower, is a massive place. Like many a hostel in the old Soviet Union it’s set in a maze of residential high rise building and it’s quite a feat just finding the place. However when you do you’ll find the staff are super friendly and helpful and facilities are clean. Just make sure you get big mumma on your side as she rules the kitchen, and with dinner provided for an extra cost it can be hard work trying to prepare you’re own food when she’s cooking. She actually took Sarah’s knife and chopping board away before she’d even started using it one night. So good luck with that. There’s bike rental, two huge kitchen areas, a smoking balcony, Playstation and a good social atmosphere. It was popular with locals visiting from around the country for the arts festival and we had some cultural experiences swapping local food cooked up by some older women here to sing with some good old Vegemite on toast.
Sharing food with some Kazakhstan women at the hostel
The only let down was being in a small cramped room with four others when the other rooms, which seemed to be reserved for locals, were incredibly spacious. There was also only two showers on our half of the hostel which usually meant waiting your turn.
Other than that we’d recommend it. Oh and make sure you meet the cat!
A local woman heading off to perform at the Arts Festival
Hostel cat at Nochleg
Shopping for Samsung’s
Not known for being a shopping mecca the one stop mall for it all is Assorti Keruen on Nurzhol Boulevard. A huge supermarket, where prices can be higher than elsewhere (we came home one day with a $7 zucchini), has everything you need for self catering or onward train journeys. Apart from this the mall provides everything else you need. We even picked up a new Samsung S7 with free sim, unlocked and not preloaded with apps, with a price tag a few hundred dollars cheaper than it would have been in Australia. Downstairs they’ll set you up with a cheap cover to go with it!
In our opinion Astana is great for a brief encounter if you’re headed for Russia, with two days more than enough to see the sights. Otherwise it’s a long way out of the way and other than the quirky architecture there wasn’t much else to see, just a weird city whose inhabitants are warm and friendly, even if the mirrored monstrosities glare at you from every corner.
Next up: Ten days on a transit visa through Russia to the wide expanses of Mongolia.