Story and photos by Mike Pickup
Kazakhstan. What images does that conjure up? Wild, lawless horsemen galloping across plains and living in hide tents?
Surprise! The chosen methods of transport are Toyota and Lexus, luxury hotels are readily available and the country is so safe that after a night out, locals confidently hitch rides home with total strangers.
However, you could be right about the plains. Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth largest overall, yet it’s home to just 17 million people. Almaty was its capital until 1997 when the mantle was passed to purpose-built Astana, and it was these two contrasting cities I visited.
My favourite place in this lovely city is tranquil Panfilov Park. It’s home to a memorial to soldiers lost in two world wars when Kazakhstan was still part of Russia. "Before independence from Russia you were not allowed to even walk on the grass" my guide told me, "but now people can sit and have picnics."
The must-see building in the park is, however, the magnificent Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral, the world’s largest wooden cathedral built using just a few nails. I ventured in to the busy but serene interior and admired the beautiful painted screens. Visitors are welcome and you can take pictures.
Having seen the city’s highlights I headed out to the nearby mountains just a bus ride away. Almaty narrowly lost out to Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics . The outdoor Medeo skating rink, at over 5,500ft above sea level, is the world’s highest, and around 200 world records have been broken there. Surrounding hills make it a winter sun trap. My guide told me, with a knowing glint in his eye, "girls skate in bikinis and it’s where many boys meet their future wives". I’m thinking speed skating meets speed dating.
I took a cable car from there to the ski resort of Shymbulak, whose guest list includes Prince Harry, then two more to the top of the runs at 10,500ft. With no time to acclimatise, I found myself quickly running out of breath at that height but the views were outstanding.
It’s a ninety minute flight from the old capital to the new. Astana, like Brazil's Brasilia, is purpose-built. Five hundred miles from anywhere and full of unique buildings, it was once described as the world’s weirdest capital. I think stunning is a better description.
Renowned architect Norman Foster is responsible for some of Astana's amazing structures, including the Khan Shatyr shopping mall whose design can only be described as a wonky cone. It was just round the corner from my Marriott hotel so I decided to pay a visit. There are three levels of shops, mostly familiar brands with nothing that tugged at my credit card, but for a small fee I donned plastic overshoes and went up to the fourth floor to take a look at the indoor Sky Beach Club, complete with sandy beach and sun beds. If you fancy a day at the beach in the world’s largest landlocked country, how bizarre is that, then a day here is around $30, a little more at week-ends.
A tour of Astana’s main buildings is a must. They include the Foster-designed pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Two sides are on roller bearings to allow for contraction and expansion as the temperature in Astana ranges from 35 degrees in summer to minus 40 in winter. I’m told even the bus shelters have solar panels for winter warmth. A tour inside the Palace is well worthwhile. Just across the road is an art gallery which is built in the shape of a huge doggy bowl.
Approaching the presidential palace I encountered some serious-looking guys wearing suits and ear pieces. Whilst they weren’t obstructive, I was mindful not to get too close to the palace, which looked like a cross between the White House and a mosque, but they seemed fine about taking photos. Far more striking is the neighbouring concert hall with spectacular turquoise angular walls.
Astana’s centrepiece structure is the 97 metre high Baiterek tower, resembling a soccer trophy. I took a gold plated lift to the top for some great views of the city. From there you can see the huge mosque which welcomes visitors of all faiths, as I later found out.
Museums are not really my thing but I was told that the ultra-modern National Museum had a gold room not to be missed. Quite correct. It has a collection of over four thousand items, including a gold suit of armour. Dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries BC, they were all in perfect condition. It looked more like an expensive Fifth Avenue jewellers.
Sadly I didn’t have time to visit the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It’s where the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, was launched and later, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Recent users have included American astronaut Peggy Whitson who, at 57, is the oldest woman in space. She also holds the record for spending more time in space than any other NASA astronaut. That visit will have to wait for another day.
Yes, Kazakhstan is nothing like you imagined.
Named best airline in central Asia and India for the last six years, national carrier Air Astana offers direct flights from London, Paris and Frankfurt to Astana. It also has direct links via its hubs in Astana and Almaty to countries throughout Asia, India, and the Middle East. For more information go to www.airastana.com/uk/en-US
Editor's Note re visiting Kazakstan:
To make visiting this exotic destination tempting to his readers, Mike was able to negotiate a generous special offer with Air Astana for a seven night package to Astana and Almaty from London. The package includes three nights in Almaty and three in Astana with all flights, transfers and hotels with breakfast from £816 (approx $1100) per person. This includes city tours of Almaty and Astana and a seasonal bonus tour. One night is spent on the outbound flight. For details, check the website or call Air Astana's London office at + 44 (0)20 7644 6121, Mon-Fri, 0900 – 1730, UK time.
Mike Pickup is a London, UK based travel writer. He covers all forms of travel including river and ocean cruising and is a professionally trained photographer. His markets include travel trade publications as well as consumer newspapers and magazines, with over one hundred published print features last year and many more online.
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