The architectural wonders of Astana

From Tashkent I flew north, back to Kazakhstan to meet one of my best mates Mike and explore the Kazakh capital Astana – my final stop after five weeks travelling the CIS region.

I landed just after 3am, with Mike due an hour later – so I fought my way past the pushy taxi drivers and found a seat in the modern arrivals hall.

After Independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan rejoined the international area and set about designing an ambitious new capital city – aimed at being a regional financial and commerce hub.

The new President at the time (yes he’s still the President 26 years later and surprise surprise he’s changed the constitution to give himself the job for life)…set about employing the world’s most revered architects including Norman Foster and Kushiro Kurakowa to design his new city. It would be named Astana which literally means ‘capital’ and was completed in 1997, when status officially transferred from Almaty in the south to the new Astana in the north.

Back in 1997 the population was just 250,000 but today as the city expands – adding more and more government buildings and capitalising on its oil wealth, the population was surged to 1 million inhabitants of the roughly 18m people living in this, the world’s 10th largest country by land mass.

Mike landed slightly behind schedule and we jumped in an Uber to our hotel and were asleep within minutes of our heads hitting the pillow. Our alarms were set for 10am for a full days city tour with our guide Abu.

We woke up early and met Abu at reception, where I also asked about whether there had been any sign of my package from Kazakhstan containing LARS – alas nothing had ever arrived.

Our first stop with Abu was the Ishim River where we got our first look at just how vast and developed the city was – an how extreme the climate can be. During summer temperatures can reach 40c, while in winter they drop down to -30c. Today it was a reasonable 1c and grey, mild by many accounts but still a shock after the sunshine of Uzbekistan.

Our next next stop was at the Palace of Independence, which sits just behind Independence Square, a giant government conference centre which was built in 2008 to host major (but infrequent) political gatherings. We were given a guided tour of the building, including the Congress Hall which was adorned with paintings of the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev – including a fictitious ‘imagining’ of what the Presidents 2006 re-inauguration would have looked like if world leaders such as Blair, Putin, Chirac and Bush had attended.

On the second level was an impressive art gallery celebrating local Kazakh artists in a range of mediums from oil paintings to sculptures and works on animal skins. The highlight of the Palace however is on the darkly lit top floor, which is home to a massive illuminated scale model of the capital. If you’re into models then this will blow your mind.

Our next stop was a Norman Foster designed glass pyramid called the Palace of Peace. Astana proudly boasts that it is home to 130 nationalities and is a religiously tolerant city with three orthodox churches, a cathedral and a Jewish synagogue. Apart from being a museum attraction, the seemingly on other purpose for The Pyramid is that it plays host to the world religious congress every four years, with the pinnacle of the building designed as a circular meeting room with giant images of doves embossed on the glass windows…unfortunately the result is more Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds than United Nations.

Next we stopped at Astana’s most famous landmark The Baiterek, a giant flame and ball shaped monument that bears more than a passing resemblance to the football World Cup trophy. At the top of the monument you get impressive views across the city and down towards the main government offices.

From The Baiterek we walked down passed two large golden government office buildings which flank the main boulevard, passed the space ship like Parliament building and stopped at the blue-domes Presidential Palace. The Palace itself is hardly memorable but the swirling aqua marine National Theatre sat adjacent is an architectural gem.

Our last stop of the day was at a Norman Foster designed Khan Shatyr Entertainment mall at the far end of mall looking back down several miles towards the Presidential Palace. It is reportedly one of the world’s largest ‘tent’ style designs – albeit built of steel and not fabric.

After a long day exploring we opted for dinner in the number one ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor – a Belgium pub!

The next morning we opted for a lay in, making the most of the late check out before checking out and heading off for some sightseeing – it turned out to be an inspired decision.

Just as I was zipping up my bag to leave the room I had a call from reception – there was a delivery man waiting for me. Against all odds, LARS had somehow made it across the border from Tajikistan to Kazakhstan and it had only taken 17 days… I hurriedly opened the package like a kid at Christmas and discovered that apart from some minor damage to the gimbal alignment, he was in one piece!

To celebrate I’d have to take him out for a test flight, but first we opted for the long seven kilometre walk into town. The walk was made more difficult by plummeting temperatures and a light coating of snow on the ground.

We stopped briefly at the War Museum, posing for some photos in front of menacing looking Soviet era tanks and artillery before crossing the river into the new city. Our first port of call was lunch – however finding a coffee shop proved difficult so we opted for crepes and hot chocolates adjacent to The Baiterek.

The location gave me the perfect opportunity to send LARS over for some quick photos – quick not only to be discreet but also because my hands were freezing in the -3c winds.

From lunch we wandered back passed Parliament and the National Theatre and across the river to the park behind Palace of Peace pyramid. With great views of the Presidential Palace I sent LARS up for some photos, only to discover that the real gem, was that the parks footpaths were in the shape of a dove – something you’d never have realised from ground level.

With an hour left to fill before heading to the airport, we decided to visit the National Museum, a massive architectural gem adjacent to the Independence Square. Floating above the Grand lobby hall is a giant golden dove – while the museum itself hosts an eclectic collection of historic artefacts from the region alongside political and whole selection of pictures, portraits and propaganda featuring President Nazarbayev.

As we stepped outside to wait for our taxi, the light sleet started turning into tiny hail stones and then suddenly a heavy snow – within seconds the overcast sky had turned into a whiteout and visibility dropped to metres.

Thankfully our driver seemed to think this was normal as we swerved and dodged his way through the traffic and back to our hotel just in time to meet our airport transfer. Whereas in Britain this type of weather would have brought the whole transport network to a standstill – in Kazakhstan things ticked along as normal and before we knew it, we were on our way to Azerbaijan.

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