A look At Central Asia’s Largest Country, Including Cosmopolitan Almaty & Astana, a.k.a. The Dubai of the Steppes, The New Futuristic Capital On The Northern Windswept Kazakh Steppe
War Memorial, Panfilov Park, Almaty, Kazakhstan. February 13, 2015
Kazakhstan (February 12-22 2015)
Recapping a winter trip to Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest country, including cosmopolitan Almaty, the leafy former capital & Central Asia’s largest city, & Astana, a.k.a. the Dubai of the Steppes, the new futuristic capital on the northern windswept Kazakh steppe, the petrodollar boom showcase city for the whole Central Asian region.
Republic of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan maybe better known in popular culture as the home of the fictional Sacha Baron Cohen character Borat, but beyond that it’s known for its vast, endless array of winding, featureless steppe, realm of the ancient Kazakh nomads that spread out for hundreds of kilometres in all directions, & the abundant mineral reserves that lay beneath it all, & which the county is using to finance the future. This Goliath country is the largest of the former Soviet Central Asian states, the largest landlocked country in the world and the 9th largest overall – it’s more than twice the size of the 4 other ex-Soviet Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan & Tajikistan combined and bigger even than Western Europe. Once a land of nomadic tribes, the area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century & it became a Soviet Republic in 1936 before achieving independence in 1991; Kazakhstan was the last of the 5 Central Asian states to declare independence & cut its ties with Moscow. Boasting abundant oil, natural gas & mineral reserves, the country is the richest & most economically developed of the 5 ‘stans & at present is in the midst of a petrodollar building boom, constructing everything from high-speed railways to shiny metro systems to the building of a new capital city, Astana on the northern steppe, a showpiece city of futuristic architecture fit for the 21st Century & beyond. There’s no doubt Kazakhstan is going places & it’s people becoming more prosperous – the country is already labelled a middle-income country and is already classified with a high human development index.
– Lonely Planet
BORDER CROSSING & INTRODUCTION TO KAZAKHSTAN
Posts From The Kazak Road (Displayed In Chronological Order)
It’s good to be out of China. I’ve just arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, my first stop in Central Asia. A new city in a new region. It’s early days of course but I’ve a feeling I’m going to like Kazakhstan, the largest (by some way) of the 5 ex-Soviet Central Asian states. It was all very informal with the lady at the Kazakh immigration desk at the border crossing with China. Even though she had my passport in her hand she still asked me my age. ‘Thirty-nine‘ I said, in reply to which she said I didn’t look ‘that old’ before wishing me ‘good luck.’ Nice. Ten yards further on and the customs guy was delighted to see me, his ear to ear grin showing his mouth full of gold teeth. ‘Irlanda!’, he proclaimed after taking my passport to give it the customary once-over. This was swiftly followed by ‘Glasgow?’ – he corrected himself before I had the chance to, looking to me somewhat apologetically while going on to assure me he knew of Ireland by uttering the words ‘Robbie Keane’. Oh yes, Robbie’s a legend alright, even in these distant quarters.
More to come from Kazakhstan.
I’ve been in Kazakhstan for a while now. This is day 8 already, and because I have to sit around waiting for visas for the rest of the region I’ll be here for a few more days to come. That should give me ample time to get through the backlog of pictures I’ve accumulated from my time here thus far. First up, pictures from the first three days in the southern Kazakh city of Almaty, my first stop in the country and the Central Asian region.
Located in the extreme south of the country near the border with Kyrgyzstan, Almaty is home to about 10% of Kazakhstan’s 17 million population. The former capital during the Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) days, a status it lost to Astana on the northern steppes in December 1998, it is still, for now at least, Kazakhstan’s commercial, social & financial centre. It’s a big place (not Chinese city big, but big nonetheless), the largest city not only in Kazakhstan but also in the whole Central Asian region, and walking from place to place along its grid of long, broad, leafy avenues takes time. A cosmopolitan city, some claim it to be European-esque. Maybe it is but to me it’s 100% unmistakably Russian – the people on the streets are outwardly dour, the script confusingly Cyrillic & the architecture imposing, boxy, ugly & downright boring. Yep, it’s still typically soviet, even 24 years after independence.
I liked Almaty from the get-go. Maybe that was because it was somewhere new and, ahem, it wasn’t China. That said, it didn’t strike me as very photogenic right off the bat – it doesn’t boast many, if any, obvious standout sights or attractions. However, after a few days in the city its obvious charms become apparent. Here’s some of the best of what there is to see.
I only entered the Almaty Metro system because I was tired of walking on this particular day. And I’m sure glad I did.
Zelyony Bazar (Green Market)
Another city gem was/is this, the Zelyony Bazar, a.k.a. Green Market.
Almaty’s not done yet. More from the city in due course.
MEDEU & SHYMBULAK
One of the best things about Almaty is the city’s proximity to the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau range, the northernmost range of the region’s Tian Shan, a large system of mountain ranges that dominates this part of planet earth. The peaks make an impressive backdrop for the city, assuming you can see them. I wasn’t going to venture up into the hills until such time as I got a nice, clear day. I didn’t have to wait too long. I woke on my second full day in the country to glorious clear blue skies and thus hopped on the bus for the 20 minute ride from the city to the Zailiysky Alatau’s Malaya Almatinka valley. In summer it’s a popular hiking, picnicking & mountain biking destination. But this time of year, during the November to April ski season, it’s Almaty’s winter-sports playground.
Medeu & Shymbulak
The bus dropped me off at the lower cable car station in the Malaya Almatinka valley, not far from the Medeu ice rink.
The cable car deposits you at the 2,260-metre high base/main station of the Shymbulak Ski Resort, Central Asia’s premier ski facility with over 3,600 metres of runs for all levels of skiers. From the base station, 6 ski lifts, named Combi 1 & Combi 2, ferry skiers, and non-skiers, further up the slopes to the 2,840-metre high Middle Station, & even further still to the highest point of the resort, the 3,180-metre high Talgar Pass.
Well, and unlike Almaty, no one is going to mistake the Kazakh capital of Astana for a Soviet city, at least not the ‘new’ Astana. From what I’ve seen of Russia they don’t have anything like this place. But I guess that’s the whole point.
Northern Kazakhstan is the Kazakh heartland where the Eurasian steppe meets the Russian sub-Siberia. And it’s here you’ll find the city of Astana, situated slap-bang in the middle of the windswept northern Kazakh steppe, a.k.a the bona fide middle of nowhere. There has been a settlement here since as far back as 1830. The town grew, and grew, and grew, mostly on the northern bank of the city’s Ishim River, but remained a place that (understandably) didn’t garner much attention. That all changed in 1994 when the Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, named it out of the blue as the location for the shiny new capital. It officially took over the reins as capital from Almaty in December 1998 and frenzied building has been taking place ever since. Billions have been spent thus far, financed by Kazakhstan’s petrodollar boom, & billions more will be spent in the coming years & decades as the city continues its transformation into a 21st century hub of modernity, a bold showpiece capital for Central Asia boasting a profusion of futuristic architecture from world-renowned architects.
The Dubai of The Steppes
Some find Astana, the so-called Dubai of the Steppes, an impersonal place. I get that. It’s undeniably sterile with little to no sense of history or culture. Add to that the fact that there isn’t one historic or must-see sight. But none of that matters here. It’s the sheer concept of the place and the ambition to put it all together that is Astana’s drawing card, or at least it was for me (& that’s why I took 2 overnight high-speed train journeys to get here from Almaty, a 2,500 kilometre round trip). I spent 2 nights in the city, good for almost 3 full days of walking up and down Nurzhol Bulvar, checking out the architecture, & fending off hypothermia – most who venture here do so in the summer and while I advocate out of season travel and love the cold/ice/snow, -34 Degree Celsius temperatures combined with biting steppe winds might not be to everyone’s liking.
There is more to Astana than just Nurzhol Bulvar & it environs, even without venturing into the old centre north of the Ishim River, the original Astana. I did venture over the Ishim River a few times to see the glass-and-steel pyramid of the Palace of Peace & Accord, the Kazak Yeli Monument, the Hazret Sultan Mosque & the new uber-impressive marble & glass National Museum. All were either closed (the Palace), underwhelming (the monument) or just didn’t photograph well (the mosque & museum, although the biting cold might have curtailed my photography somewhat). So the Kazakh capital for me was indeed all about Nurzhol Bulvar & it environs. Here are a few more pictures, all captured on my last day in the city, the only blue sky day I was treated to but one that came with the aforementioned -34 Degree Celsius temperatures. I could tolerate the -17 & -12 degree temperatures of the previous, overcast days but on this particular day my camera stopped working a few times (and so did my fingers), my contact lenses almost shrivelled up, & I was unable to stay outside for more than 20 minutes without seeking shelter. I’d never experienced cold like it.
I had a few days to kill in Almaty post Astana. I was waiting for a visa to come through. It did and I left the city, & Kazakhstan, earlier today for pastures new, that being Bishkek, the capital of vowel-challenged Kyrgyzstan, my present location & Central Asia country number 2. More from this nirvana of Soviet concrete in good time but in the meantime here are a few parting shots from Kazakhstan that I took over the last few days while killing time in Almaty.