Mike Pickup travels to Kazakhstan and visits its two quite different capital cities and finds out that everything is not quite what he expected.
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 these two quite contrasting cities are well worth visiting.
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 you were not allowed to even walk on the grass” Anatov 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. Venture in to the busy but serene interior and admire the beautiful painted screens. Visitors are welcome and you can take pictures.
Surprisingly, Kazakhstan also makes chocolate so good that even the Swiss are nervously looking over their shoulders. The best known make is Rakhat who have been turning out great confectionery for over seventy-five years. They have five shops in Almaty and others across Kazakhstan. As a chocolate fan myself I sampled their range of standard, 65%, 70% and 80% cacao content chocolate and it was as good as any I have tasted.
When you’ve had enough of the city you can head 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. Anatov 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.
You can take a cable car from there to the ski resort of Shymbulak, whose guest list includes Prince Harry, then if you’re feeling adventurous, 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.
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.
British architect Norman Foster is responsible for some of Astana’s amazing structures which include the Khan Shatyr shopping mall whose design can only be described as a wonky cone. There are three levels of shops, mostly familiar brands with nothing that tugged at my credit card, but for a small fee you can don plastic overshoes and pop up to the fourth floor and 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 you are likely to encounter 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, and 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 football trophy. Take a gold plated lift to the top for some great views of the city. From there you will see the huge mosque which welcomes visitors of all faiths.
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 had 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 Bond-Street jewellers.
All images (c) Mike Pickup except the Astana featured image.
Tell me more about visiting Kazakhstan’s two capitals
Named best airline in central Asia and India for the last six years, national carrier Air Astana offers direct return flights between Heathrow and Astana from £495. Air Astana Holidays can add stop-over transfers and hotel accommodation, using international brands such as Holiday Inn, Hilton and Marriott, to make up a complete package. For example three nights in Almaty and three in Astana with all flights, transfers and hotels on a B&B basis costs from £816 per person. This includes city tours of Almaty and Astana and a seasonal bonus tour.