As promised, the start of my ‘Throwback Travels’ series will start with Kazakhstan – one of the more ‘out-there’ countries I’ve visited by myself. I actually went for work in my old job – I was responsible for Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia – but as Kazakhstan was so vast and far, I managed to do a little sight-seeing too. Multi-tasking and all that.
Most Westerners will think ‘Kazakhstan’ and automatically think of a mankini-clad Sacha Baron Cohen repeating the phrase ‘verrry niiiiiiice’ surrounded by relics of the Soviet Union. And indeed, that’s pretty much all I heard when I told people I was going. But to everyone else’s surprise, Kazakhstan was not like that whatsoever. Keep reading to discover what it was REALLY like…
I flew into Astana on a red-eye 7 hour flight early in May 2015. British Airways have since stopped direct flights to Kazakhstan – possibly because there were only 20 Chinese businessmen and me on this particular flight, and I very much doubt it was a huge money-maker from their perspective. I got a taxi from outside the terminal which was my first no-no and resulted in quite a scary taxi ride after he demanded in broken English and Russian that the fare had to be doubled for no reason whatsoever. If you do fly to Astana and need to take a taxi, for all that is good and holy, PLEASE go to one of the official taxi stands BEFORE you collect your baggage and leave the carousels. From memory there’s one yellow stand that looked reputable – but please don’t be an idiot like me. I blame lack of sleep.
Little bit of background – Astana is the newish capital city of Kazakhstan, and came about because President Nazarbayev decided in 1997 that the old capital Almaty was no longer capital city material (or something). Anyway, he decided to build this city in the middle of nowhere, Vegas-style, and when I visited 23 years later, a large part of it was still under construction – although to Astana’s credit, what was there was pretty lovely.
I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that Kazakhstan is in the middle of a bit of a transformation from Soviet Chic to Large International Hub. Astana is home to the 2017 International Expo which has seen a considerable amount of money being piled into construction in the city, and partnered with the fact that it’s a relatively new city anyway means that there’s very little traditional KZ there – it’s all very flashy and new and impressive. Which is lovely, but did smack slightly of artificiality. It’s clear that Astana is KZ’s attempt at appealing to Western businesses and tourists for investment reasons, and I guess time will tell as to whether or not it’s successful, but it did taint my view of the city somewhat.
(picture of the main city square complete with the Bayterek Tower – unfortunately I only saw this from the inside of several aforementioned terrifying taxi cabs so had to rely on Google for the high quality image you see above)
I don’t have that much information about Astana as I was predominantly there for work, but I will say that the hotel I stayed at was lovely (the Jelsomino Boutique Hotel, which doesn’t appear to have a website…), and everyone was so kind to this solo British traveller whose knowledge of Russian was lacklustre at best. There were a few amusing episodes whereby I ordered penne arrabiata via room service only for it to contain some kind of mince (?), and the time they inexplicably put salty butter on top of my porridge at breakfast… never has Google Translate been utilised so heavily. Astana is a relatively expensive city in comparison to the rest of Kazakhstan, so bear this in mind if you decide to visit – I very nearly ran out of tenge (KZ currency).
I stayed in Astana for a few days before taking a domestic flight to Almaty via Air Astana, KZ’s national airline (which was bloody fantastic, by the way). There was an electrical storm in Almaty so landing proved interesting – more turbulence than I’ve had in my life, emergency announcements in Kazakh (which obviously I do not speak), lights flickering on and off, and me bursting into tears/having a massive freak out because I truly believed I was going to die in a Kazakh plane accident. Upon landing safely, I met with my PRE-BOOKED taxi driver (shout out to Welcome Taxi) who was amazing and drove me safely to my hotel (the Grand Sapphire Hotel on Dostyk Avenue), dodging the huge trees that had fallen down from the storm (I kid you not – it was a big storm!).
I much preferred Almaty to Astana – it felt much more European and had gorgeous scenery and buildings. The stark difference between the ‘old’ Kazakhstan which struggled hugely in the Soviet era, and the emerging Kazakhstan with high-rise buildings, flashy cars and beautifully-dressed people really stood out here, as you can see below.
(pictures I took around Almaty, including Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park which was made entirely of wood!)
The city was also very cheap compared to Astana – I vividly remember paying roughly £2/3 for some pasta in a restaurant, and to my shame I became obsessed with this luminous iced tea drink which cost a grand total of 33p per bottle (I’m not sure my internal organs have recovered yet). Almaty was considerably greener too, with beautiful mountains overlooking the city and huge parks such as Panfilov in the centre (above). There are some stunning attractions in Panfilov including Zenkov Cathedral which is a Russian Orthodox cathedral made entirely out of wood, and some beautiful WW2 monuments and tributes. Also, the place where I saw the most pigeons in my entire life.
All in all, Kazakhstan was strangely enjoyable. It’s a very odd country in a lot of ways, and I doubt I’ll ever get to go anywhere like it again, but I’m glad I went. I’m also very glad I spoke a little Russian, as literally no one speaks English, so that was an interesting experience (I managed to bargain with a taxi driver by just repeating the word пятьсот at him – ‘500’)…
SAFETY OUT OF FIVE – 3/5 – I didn’t feel wholly comfortable at times (in unmarked taxis as there didn’t seem to be any taxi companies, and when I was walking in Almaty I heard what I thought was a gun), but maybe this was because I was going to a completely alien country to what I’d known? I would still keep a watch out though – KZ doesn’t get many tourists so be prepared to use street smarts.
COST OUT OF FIVE – ££ – like I said, Astana is more expensive, but Almaty is dirt cheap when it comes to most things, including transport and food. Astana = UK prices, whereas Almaty = Eastern Europe prices.
RECOMMENDATIONS – Panfilov Park in Almaty is stunning, and full of very traditional KZ sights. It’s also free (obviously). It would have been lovely to have gone up into the mountains and hiked, which you can find more information and recommendations on here. Astana’s Bayterek Tower is worth going up (there’s a lift to the observation deck where you can also put your handprints inside Nazarbayev’s!) in order to survey the post-modern Lego set that is Astana.
Til next time!