In recent months Astana, the modern capital of Kazakhstan, has been in the spotlight as the host city of Expo 2017 exhibition. Numerous airlines, including low cost ones, started flying to Astana and the country has ditched the visa regime for numerous countries (including most of the European Union, United States and Canada).
Now seems to be the best time to visit Astana and submerse into Astana tourism but is it really worth it?
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Why I’ve decided to visit Astana
I visited Astana, Kazakhstan in November 2015. I went for 2 weeks to Central Asia, flying to Almaty and going back from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. As it quickly turned out November isn’t the best time to explore the region.
My plans to discover the (supposedly) stunning nature around Almaty came to the halt as the day trips didn’t run at that time of the year, I don’t have a drivers license and the public transport to most of the highlights is nonexistent. There were chances that I might go for a trip to Charyn Canyon but I had to wait some 5 days for it and the departure was to be confirmed just a day before.
I could have stayed all this time in Almaty that I absolutely loved but I’ve thought it would be wise to see more of a country. After checking the train connection I was deciding between Turkistan and Shymkent or Astana.
Eventually I’ve decided to visit Astana, after all it’s the capital city of Kazakhstan and it’s always good to see those. After a minor drama at the train station (I was buying my ticket for over 3 hours and caused a mini riot ;)) I was all ready to go!
How to get from Almaty to Astana
The regular train from Almaty to Astana takes some 20 hours. I paid around 20USD for the bed in 4 bed compartment. There are also faster trains when the journey time is around 14 hours and the ticket is some 50USD. It might seem like a lot (both money and time) but Kazakhstan is huge, it’s 9th largest country in the world!
There are also frequent flights between those two cities and the prices can be affordable too if you are lucky / book in advance. I always use SkyScanner for my fligt searches and it never disappointed me!
The plan was simple (and a little bit crazy): spending 20 hours in the train, then some 27 hours in Astana and again 20 hours in the train back to Almaty . For me the train part was probably the highlight of the trip to Astana.
I shared the compartment with a lovely Kazakh family, I could read a lot, sleep a lot and simply relax. Even if 20 hours overwhelmed me a little bit at first the journey wasn’t that terrible and went by much faster than I expected.
Train travels in former Soviet Union is a completely different level of the adventure that I enjoy so much!
Astana – a young city and modern capital
Already before visiting Astana I knew it will be cold. And I mean really cold. While in Almaty I had pleasant above 0°C temperatures in the capital it was supposed to be -10°C, felt like -17°C. And I really think the forecast didn’t lie.
When my train approached Astana all the windows were frozen and I barely could see never-ending grassland that Astana was built on.
The city is a fairly young one, founded in 1830 and for years being just a random place on the map of Russia / Soviet Union / Kazakhstan. Everything has changed in 1997 when, for the political and practical reasons, the capital of the country was moved from Almaty to Astana. The city boomed, developing like crazy to eventually become one of the most modern places in this part of the world.
When I was looking at the map of the city I’ve thought that everything Astana tourism is about is fairly close to each other, a walking distance. As it quickly turned out I was wrong. Or maybe it was the horrible cold getting to my bones?
It felt like I’m walking and walking yet not really moving, all the modern skyscrapers are still far away!
Astana tourism – things to do in Astana
When you visit Astana you will most likely stick to the part of the city between the Presidental Palace and Khan Shatyr shopping mall and between Dostyq and Dinmukhamed Quonayev streets.
That’s where you can find all the best things to do in Astana. You simply go from one side of the city to another, in a straight line, and you can see everything. In the order from East to West you will see:
- The Presidential Palace – you will find it also on 10.000 tenge banknote
- Golden Towers – locals call them “beer cans”
- Singing fountains – obviously closed in November when I visited
- Bayterek tower – the new symbol of the city, seen on every banknote of Kazakh currency. The tower is supposed to show a mythical egg in a mythical tree known from the Kazakh folk legend. It’s possible to take the elevator all the way up to “the egg” to see the modern downtown in its whole glory. Unfortunately the window is yellow so you won’t get the best pictures but it’s still totally recommended to go up there!
- Nur-Astana Mosque – third largest mosque in Central Asia that can fit up to 5.000 worshipers.
- KazMunayGas Headquarters – in any other place this building would look outrageous (well, maybe except of Batumi, Georgia) but here it fits perfectly fine. You can clearly see that Kazakhstan is the country that gains big part of its income from gas
- Opera House – it looks like the most European building in the whole city
- Shopping Mall “Khan Shatyr” – looking like a huge tent it’s the highest structure of this kind in the world. Even if I’m not a huge fan of shopping centers this one definitely made a big impression on me!
There are even more peculiar things Astana tourism is proud of, I just didn’t get to the other side of the river to see them all because it was so freaking cold! Also, to be honest, by the time I’ve walked the lane described above I was a little bit fed up with Astana attractions. After all how much longer can you look at random modern buildings out of which only few looked really decent?
I’m pretty sure I’d have had more interest in Astana tourism if the weather wasn’t that bad. After all pictures of fountains and carpets made of flowers look pretty decent.
If you find yourself not bored with Astana by this point you should also see the Palace of Peace and Accord (in the shape of pyramid), Shabyt (‘Palace of the Arts’ in the shape of dog’s bowl), Metropolitan Circus (it literally looks like spaceship), Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall or apartment buildings that look like Gargamel’s castle.
If you’re interested in architecture you might actually find Astana pretty interesting as couple of those modern buildings were designed by world famous architect Norman Foster (the same person who designed The Gherkin in London, Torre Caja in Madrid or rebuilding of Berlin’s Reichstag).
Is it worth to visit Astana, Kazakhstan
To be honest I didn’t like the city all that much and I’m not planning to visit Astana again. The capital didn’t have any vibe at all, it could be just another random city you visit during your travels.
I also felt like the city was trying really hard to be the modern, Westernized metropolis, the capital of prosperous country yet deep down it’s still a small, insignificant village.
It’s interesting to see the modern architecture and how the brand new city was built in the middle of nowhere and you can spend a day there but that’s about it. Don’t expect any excitement or awesomeness – you can find those in Kazakhstan but not exactly in Astana.
Astana, however, can be a perfect getaway to Central Asia. When you look at the city as the transfer point, not the destination itself it can be an OK place to spend a day in and get ready for what Central Asia has to offer. I’m not writing off Astana, I myself might end up there again one day, after all I really enjoyed Kazakhstan. It’s just not the most exciting place in the world and I’m generous saying that statement.
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