Quick geography test. How many of you can place Astana on an Atlas? It’s okay if you’re struggling. Twenty years ago, Kazakhstan’s capital city didn’t even exist.
In fact it used to be a small village in the middle of the Asian steppe called Akmola (which translates, rather ominously, to ‘white grave’). Next-door neighbours? A thousand kilometres of empty tundra and a few Saiga antelope.
Fast forward to 1997 and Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided to ditch Almaty (the old capital) and move everything here: government buildings, hotels, Soviet-style, eight-lane superhighways, shimmering skyscrapers and about one million people. (Nazarbayev is also the lifetime ‘Leader of the Nation’ and Commander In Chief of the armed forces. So when he tells you to build a skyscraper, you jolly well build it fast.)
In the last few years, Astana has risen from the dust of the plains to become ‘Singapore of the Steppe’. A collection of eye-watering futuristic buildings, public offices and the sort of six-star hotels you only get with oil money.
Here’s how to spend 24-hours in Central Asia’s least subtle city.
Getting from A to B in Astana is easy. It’s a ‘planned city’ (like Canberra or Washington D.C.) so road infrastructure is pretty good, even if the roads tend to be on the large side.
Uber and other ridesharing services like Yandex are available. Drivers probably won’t speak a word of English, but the route-map takes care of that problem. There’s also an excellent city taxi service; expect to pay around KZT500 for an average ride, providing you don’t cross the Ishim river. Getting around on foot is possible, but Astana specializes in large, empty, horizon-warping spaces; it’s generally faster to just hail a cab.
Pro tip: street names change often in Astana, so it’s better to tell your driver the name of a nearby landmark, government building or Trade Centre.
What to see
There’s no trick to this – just look up. Like Dubai and Singapore, Astana’s skyline is a study in the more-is-more school of architecture. When the city was being built, Nazarbayev hired acclaimed British architect Norman Foster to build the 150-metre Bayterek Tower and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
There’s a glowing transparent tent (the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre), glowing geometric pyramids (Foster’s Palace of Peace), the gold dome of the Nur-Astana Mosque, and Nazarbayev’s own Presidential Palace, which has a distinctive White House vibe. Even the corporate skyscrapers flair and strut. At night, everything lights up with LED, light shows and digital projections. The power bill must be terrifying.
Make sure you tick these off your list: Baiterek Tower, Ak Orda Presidential Palace, Kazakh Eli monument, New National Museum, Hazret Sultan Mosque, Palace of Peace & Reconciliation, and the Palace of Independence.
What to eat
A lot of young Kazakhstan locals like to hang out in the food courts and the various malls, but there’s some more interesting stuff if you’re willing to explore. Track down the Shoreditch Burger & Wok, a gentrified post-Soviet bistro (the faux ‘Brick Lane’ sign nearby suggests that hipsterdom is not far behind).
For more traditional fare, head down Turan Avenue, north of Lover’s Park. You’ll find a strip of restaurants serving up Beshbarmak (a horsemeat and pasta dish, and much tastier than it sounds), hot Boursaky bread and Shashlik kebabs. Avoid street kebab vendors, unless you have a notoriously iron stomach – quality and freshness aren’t always guaranteed.
Kazakhstan isn’t known as a gourmet paradise, but oil money plus tourism brings good food, and the city’s restaurant scene is definitely on the up. If you want something really fancy, check the hotel restaurants at the new St Regis and Ritz-Carlton.
Where to stay
When it comes to accommodation, Astana is somewhere you can really bling out. Most of the hotels built after 2005 have been your five-star, palm tree, golden waterfalls and imported marble type. The best are the big players like Rixos President, St Regis, Ritz-Carlton and The Hilton. A step below that you’ve got Ibis, Best Western and The Diplomat, plus a bunch of three- and four-star independent hotels. You can also hire an Airbnb apartment.
When we stay in Astana, we’re more concerned with location and the surrounding neighbourhood. Grand Park Esil, Ramada Plaza, Royal Park Hotel and the Kazzhol Hotel are all good for budget travellers. Just don’t expect heritage charm and subtlety.
Most accommodation in Astana sits east of the Ishim River, but as long as you’re relatively close to the Baiterek Tower, you can’t go too wrong.
Things to do
A bit like Dubai, there are things in Astana that only someone with obscene wealth would ever actually think of (like the futuristic ski jump facility, currently under construction). In the meantime, start with the National Museum – a bizarre spaceship-like structure, plastered with cult-like Nazarbayev effigies (he’s even on the carpet). Inside you’ll find the Hall Of Gold (exactly what it sounds like – look out for the Scythian burial mound trinkets), The Hall Of Ancient History, The Hall Of Independent Kazakhstan and The Hall Of Modern Art (worth the price of admission alone…).
You also need to check out the Artem bazaar, an old school market-type building, good for snacks and souvenirs, pamper yourself at the Elixir Bath Complex, a traditional bathhouse where you can get a massage, and explore the weird open-air Atameken Map, a 1.7 hectare museum thing with 200+ models and historical monuments. Sort of a mini pseudo-Kazakhstan.
Looking for a group tour in Kazakhstan? Check out our latest adventures.
Feature image by Jane Peimer via Shutterstock.