Another early start to catch a flight up to Astana. With the train taking 20 hours and time being short as we draw near the end we’d opted for the 90 minute flight.
From the taxi as we approached the airport we could see a bunch of aircraft that literally look parked in someone’s backyard. We hoped none were ours.
We’d arrived just over an hour before our flight which was earlier than most locals; we had checked in and through all the screening and checks within 10 minutes. We’d assumed our seats on row 2 were because we were comparatively early but it turned out the NZ$175 cost for both of us (the cheapest we could find to buy online) had bought us business class seats. The aircon still dumped cold water and lumps of ice on us on takeoff, but with the engines that looked basically attached to the tail wing we were just glad to have taken off.
We were feeling super pleased with ourselves that we had worked out what bus to catch into the city from the airport. One of the biggest travel cost savings to be had is taking public transport from airports/stations instead of taxis, and signs when we had landed said it was 2,500 Tenge for a taxi. The bus cost us 90 Tenge each. The weather was bliss, around 25C. It was only 200m to walk to the bus and we got straight on one.
The journey started off well, we got talking to a young guy on the way to the bus. He spoke good English having spent 3 months in the U.S, and he adopted us for the journey into town. So we were stood leaning on the side of the bus chatting away. At some point during the journey I (Marie) started to not feel so flash, I’ve continued to have intermittent stomach cramps so had skipped breakfast and it was stuffy on the bus and I’m pretty physically tired. What started as stomach cramps soon became hot sweats and lightheadedness. I said to Emma we need to get off at the next stop and shortly after that everything started going blurry… I was fine after I sat on the floor. Emma and I debated whether I’d passed out. I was adamant I hadn’t (I never have before, in fact travellers stomach issues, aside medical issues don’t usually happen to me). Apparently I’d been slapped, shaken, had a woman fan me and a panicked bus conductor stop the bus and want to call an ambulance. I had to concede to Emma that maybe then I had. Luckily Emma remained calm and also didn’t let an ambulance be called. Also lucky was that it didn’t happen the other way round as I don’t deal with medical issues very well and probably would have disowned Emma and got off the bus (ok that’s a slight exaggeration, but only a little, I have in the past made her call her own ambulance twice). I got to my feet as the bus started to get busy and managed to stay on until our stop when despite offers of help I shouldered my 10kg rucksack and walked off. I’m made of tough stuff, though I wasn’t sorry the hotel we’d booked the day before wasn’t far away.
After taking a break and deciding that I felt pretty ok we headed out in the mid-afternoon to explore. We downloaded the Astana bus app, worked out what bus to take and headed to the nearest stop.
In 1997 Astana became Kazakhstan’s capital after the President unexpectedly shifted it from Almaty. It wasn’t a popular decision with government workers as they liked the Almaty lifestyle and Astana is literally surrounded by vast steppe and can be battered by strong winds. The decision is considered to be a strategic move and if you just look at the geography of where Almaty is tucked away down the bottom corner of this vast country and look at its neighbours you can see the sense in moving it north/more central.
As a result Astana is a planned city. The Kazakh Government made the most of the opportunity by striving to build a modern city as a showpiece for the country. With buildings designed by international architects with the brief of ‘go for it’ it has resulted in an eclectic futuristic cityscape.
Astana is also the second-coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), it reaches -35C in winter but there is nothing cold about it at the moment, the temperature had definitely increased since we arrived.
We caught the bus down to Nurzhol Bulvar (the central showpiece boulevard which is over 2km in length), hopping off when the iconic Bayterek monument came into sight; A 97m high white latticed tower crowned by a large glass orb it represents a Kazakh legend in which a mythical bird lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness in a tall tree, beyond human reach.
We took a steady walk from one end of the boulevard to the other, and had a late lunch/early dinner when there was a very brief shower – its only the second time we’ve seen raindrops, it came as a shock given it was blue skies, hot and sunny.
The Arts Festival is on so the boulevard had sculptures and installations along its length and we realised many would be lit up at night so we caught a bus back to the hotel, found our local corner shop, showered and headed back out again as it was going dark.
The installations paled next to the garishly lit bridges and buildings. Astana rivals Las Vegas at night! See here for an example https://vimeo.com/231513559. So after having a wander down the main section of the boulevard we decided to walk back to the hotel. The quirky building in the distance that we thought was not far from our hotel turned out to not even be the halfway point so it was a longer walk than expected and we had to stop off at a bar for refreshments but it was a really nice balmy evening and it’s a very safe city. Intentions of getting plenty of sleep went out the window as we were back late.
We hadn’t known Kazakhstan was hosting the World Expo until we were looking online at things to do in Astana and discovered it was on while we were there. At approx NZ$20 for a weekday ticket we figured we had to go and check it out and other travellers we’ve met going the other way said it is worth going. It is promoted all over Kazakhstan so the moment you enter the country you can’t miss it. In Almaty we’d also seen billboards advertising David Guetta playing at Expo. The date matched when we were there (which was incredibly random given it was a Tuesday) so we decided to see if tickets were still available. They not only were but they hadn’t put a separate charge on it meaning all you needed was an Expo ticket for that day. Score!!
The only catch was we couldn’t go out and go back in again on the same ticket and it didn’t kick off until 9pm. So we had a late breakfast and explored the main street of our local area and the side streets off it. Relaxing at a cafe when it got hot, before nuking my stomach again with another set of antibiotics (regardless of whether I eat or not I get stomach cramps and while not a problem per se it is getting wearing now and slowing us down. What is really annoying is that before this trip I worked out that I probably always get the stomach issues because I bite my nails – and no amount of hand sanitizer is going to offset that – so this trip I’ve stopped, no mean feat since I’ve bitten them forever, but that is how much I didn’t want to get sick).
We caught the bus down to Expo in the late afternoon. The Expo complex is going to become Astana’s new city centre when the Expo is over as they continue to build the city out.
The theme Kazakhstan chose is future energy (widely considered to be an interesting choice for a heavy oil and gas producer). The national Kazakh pavilion and different types of renewable energy were all showcased in the central building – the largest spherical building in the world. It was very cool, by far and away the best of what we visited, the building is amazing inside and the installations were awesome. The country pavilions we visited were a mixed bag and were basically just tourist promos for the country, though some made the effort to sell a few products. Although to be fair we didn’t visit the countries with queues, there were too many other options. Azerbaijan’s was our favourite.
David Guetta was fun and went down really well with the crowd (they like their dance music here), a video montage is here https://vimeo.com/231685663. The Russian DJ on before him was rubbish but the DJ on after was awesome. What a way to end, and spend our last night in Central Asia!
Naturally on our last day we had a late start. With a couple of hours up our sleeves we turned the opposite way out of the hotel to the day before and just walked the backstreets to see where people really live. It was perfectly us, just how we travel, and as if the universe matched it we found the older apartments blocks, playgrounds in between in that typical soviet style and we found a huge bazaar. We tried to etch to memory all the sights, sounds and smells; as you do in those last moments.
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