Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals *****
The new city
Spending several weeks in Almaty was a great experience, I loved the city, the people, the landscape, and the culture. While in Almaty, I'd heard some negative views from the locals towards Astana, but I was pretty excited to check out the capital city, a relatively new city that was founded less than 200 years ago, and only became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997.
It's a city that has a strange history, one mired in narcissism, cult of personality, and corruption - and it also holds the record for the most name changes of capital city in modern times.
There have been several reasons given as to why Astana was designated as a new capital city, from the desire to relieve congestion in Almaty, to a desire to move more ethnic Kazakhs to the northern border with Russia to secure the border, to a need for the former authoritarian President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to leave a lasting legacy (the name of the city was also changed to Nur-Sultan for many years, and the airport still holds his name).
You can catch a train, drive, or fly to Astana from Almaty - although given the expanse of the country, most tend to fly. The flight is just under two hours, crossing over Lake Balkhash, one of the largest lakes in the world - and one that looks spectacular from the sky.
Unlike the airport at Almaty, the one at Astana is more modern and more efficient, although it still feels a little rough around the edges and isn't particularly large. As a Sikh I had no issues flying into Astana or leaving. I also didn't have any issues walking around the city, in fact, as far as major cities go, this is certainly one of the safest I have visited, a little like major cities in the middle east.
The comparisons don't stop there. Flying into Astana you can see - much like cities such as Dubai - that it is a random city surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness. Leaving the airport you can the same broad, sanitised highways leading into a city that feels like a tacky billionaire's idea of what a city should look like, complete with strange "futuristic" structures, gaudy skyscrapers, zero culture or subtlety, and a place that looks more like Sim City than an actual place to live.
Yep - as much as I loved Almaty, I really wasn't a big fan of Astana. That being said, I spent a few days walking around the city and seeing and doing as much as I could.
Undoubtedly the centrepiece of Astana is the Bayterek Tower, standing at a height of 97 metres, this tower is perhaps the most prominent and one of the most visited landmarks in the city.
The name "Bayterek" translates to "tall poplar tree" in Kazakh, and the design of the tower reflects this inspiration. The tower's structure resembles a tree with a golden orb representing the sun at its crown. It symbolises the mythological Kazakh tree of life, where the tree connects the underworld, the earthly realm, and the heavens.
Construction of the Bayterek Tower began in 1999 and was completed in 2002. The design was conceived by renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster (he's done some incredible buildings around the world), who aimed to create a distinctive and symbolic structure for the rapidly developing city.
There is an observation deck within the tower, but much like many places in Astana, it isn't always open, and given that I was staying in a fairly tall hotel closeby, I decided to give climbing the tower a miss.
But if you want to see what I mean by narcissism, you only have to know the story about the golden handprint. At the top of the tower, there is the "golden handprint of the President." This feature refers to a golden hand-shaped print left by Kazakhstan's first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who placed his hand on a cast during the inauguration of the tower. It is believed that if visitors place their own hand in the imprint and make a wish, it will come true (I don't even know where to begin with this madness).
Surrounding the tower is a small, landscaped park, complete with fountains, sculptures, and footpaths. It's surrounded by large roads, so it's not exactly an oasis of peace and quiet, but it does serve as a place to sit down and have a look at the tower. I visited during the day and the evening, and much preferred later on at night when the tower and surrounding area was lit up.
Leaving the airport on the way to the city, one of the landmarks that you absolutely can't miss is the largest mosque in Central Asia, the Hazret Sultan Mosque. I've seen mosques in other cities, with some of the most impressive in Istanbul, but in terms of sheer scale, this is completely on another level.
The mosque was built in 2012, so it is still very new, and you can tell as soon as you get close up that it doesn't have the same history or stories as you see in mosques in the middle east. That being said the gleaming white facade is almost blinding in the Astana sun.
When you enter you need to take your shoes off, and walking through the corridors you immediately get a sense of scale and size here. The ceilings are incredibly high, there is marble everywhere. The mosque houses a library, conference rooms, and classrooms - there seem to be entrances everywhere to different rooms.
The prayer hall is huge, and again, on a scale I haven't quite experienced before. The interior design is breathtaking, featuring ornate chandeliers, exquisite marble flooring, and intricate carvings. The mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, is intricately decorated with traditional motifs.
Adjacent to the prayer hall is the spacious courtyard, providing additional space for worshippers during special events and gatherings. The courtyard is meticulously landscaped with beautiful gardens and fountains, offering a peaceful oasis for reflection and contemplation.
It's big and expensive, but there are some things money can't buy, and in that regard, it feels a little like Washington Cathedral - a design that aims to give the illusion of history, without having any history of its own.
I spoke about strange and futuristic landmarks, and they don't get much stranger or more futuristic than the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, also known as the Pyramid of Peace.
It's another landmark designed by Sir Norman Foster and completed in 2006, looking like a pyramid that wouldn't feel out of place in tv programmes like Stargate or Star Trek. In reality, it's just a conference hall.
Just like everything else in the city, the building wasn't open when I visited, and it was just another reason why Astana feels like a fake Sim City settlement. A place designed to look appealing without anything really going on within. The exterior is nice, a shiny metallic in the day that switches to a multi-coloured vibe during the evening. Nearby are equally strange futuristic buildings that only open for a few hours of the week like the Palace of the Arts which looks like a giant dog bowl.
Surrounding the Palace is the Park of the First President. I quite liked the park, it features serene pathways, green spaces, and artistic installations. As the name suggests, it is closely associated with the country's political and administrative centre, housing several significant government buildings and serving as a popular recreational space. I saw quite a few people running, walking their pets, or relaxing with their families.
One of the prominent features of the park is the Residence of the President, a grand building that serves as the official residence and workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. It's another strange building that just feels out of place, but the design is striking and it no doubts captures attention.
The park also features numerous sculptures, monuments, and art installations that pay tribute to Kazakhstan's history, culture, and notable figures. It hosts numerous events during the summer months - but for me it was just a nice place to spend a few hours relaxing on swings, climbing some observatory points, and just walking around the different sections.
On the other side of the city is the expo area, which hosted the 2017 Expo. The area is an eerie reminder of how some structures can quickly become white elephants - unused expensive showpieces that have little purpose after being built to do nothing more than "show-off".
The entire complex is a maze of alleyways surrounded by buildings that almost all look like the same - sharp, angular, metallic monoliths. Some building host colleges, others financial centres and workplaces, but there doesn't seem to be much happening. Most of the buildings sit empty, the couple of restaurants that are within the complex are completely empty (although it means you get served quickly).
Nur Alem, meaning "the Light of the World" in Kazakh, is the main centerpiece of the Expo area. It is an iconic building that stands at the heart of the complex. Shaped like a giant sphere, it symbolises the future of energy and sustainability - or the last drop of oil. Standing 100 metres tall, the structure is made up of eight floors, each showcasing various aspects of renewable energy and environmental technologies. I'll admit, as far as designs go, this one is captivating.
The only problem? You've guessed it - not open. From locals, I've heard that for the few hours of the week it is open, most of the exhibitions inside are either closed or not functional.
I'm telling you - this isn't a real city.
Would I recommend visiting Astana?
I'd give it a pass. For all the positives I have to say about Almaty, Astana is, for someone like me, pretty grim. It just feels like a fake city, like a worse version of Dubai. There isn't much going on, no matter how hard the politicians try to change this.
Locals in Almaty told me that residents in Astana are the children of elites. Many told me they are not very capable at their jobs and so not much gets done in the city. There is also a smaller population of people that commute each week from Almaty, flying back to their home city each Friday.
The people I met seemed nice enough, but there just doesn't seem to be much happening. The whole place is a hodgepodge of random landmarks and structures with no common theme. The city is in the middle of nowhere, bitterly cold in the winter and sweltering hot during the summer. It really does feel like nothing more than a legacy piece for an authoritarian present who is no longer in power.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.