As you can probably guess from both the title and the time of year, its wintertime in Astana. And yes, to answer the question I already know is coming next, it is very cold living in what is essentially south Siberia (but without the trees). Since its usually grey, cloudy, and windy all day in addition to being cold I rarely go outside and explore the city. However, this was the first day in the month of so since I’ve been back from my holiday in the US that the sky was blue and not smoggy/hazy, so I decided to go exploring again even though it was -5ºF/-20ºC outside.
I didn’t exactly go anywhere new or exciting that I haven’t written about before, but the city looks pretty different in the snow. It was interesting to visit places that are packed with people in the summer that are completely dead in winter. For example, the viewpoint for the Presidential Palace usually has people walking around, especially in the park right before the stairs, but today it was only me and a security guard. I saw maybe ten people total walking outside in the park between Khan Shatyr and Ak Orda. I will say that I had to melt ice off of my face a few times, but it really didn’t feel that cold outside when walking in the sun. Most everywhere is plowed or shoveled down to the cement, though I did have to trudge through knee deep snow near the Pyramid when I was trying to find a good view. Anyway, here are some pics of Astana in the winter as a brief update before I catch up on writing about my trips to southern Kazakhstan and Turkey.
(Note: I wrote this on the day it took place but didn’t post it for the sake of keeping things in order)
Today I set out to explore the city on my own, with the primary goal of visiting the National Museum. I set off in the early afternoon so traffic would be mild and the buses not so crowded, since standing while taking a bus across the city is a pain in the butt. Both of my bus ride hopes were fulfilled when I got on, and everything went well until the bus made an unexpected detour in the opposite direction of where I was going because of some surprise construction work. I managed to get off at a bus stop well beyond the US Embassy and slowly made my way back toward the museum, and what was supposed to be a quick walk across the park to the entrance became a mile and a half of walking – but hey, what better way to get more acquainted with the city?
Since I had to take the long way around, I figured I may as well take my time and photograph the stunning Hazret Sultan Mosque, since I had all my camera gear with me and nowhere to be in a hurry. There were more flowers and greenery there since my previous visit a few weeks ago, and there were families walking around the park and taking photos of themselves with the mosque. If you look closely, you can see the elements of Kazakh traditional design within the architectural elements of the building. I find it fascinating how religious architecture in this city manages to incorporate local art into the designs on and within their walls.
I made my way toward the museum by walking across Independence Square, a giant plaza with a huge pillar in the center called the Kazakh Eli monument, a symbol of Kazakh independence and progress (information I found out while writing this post as I came across an infographic about the plaza when trying to figure out what the place was called). The plaza is so big and there are so few people in it at any given time that it almost feels almost eerie. The only other people who were there were other tourists who seemed to be on break from some kind of conference.
Eventually I made it to the brand new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which was opened in 2014 and has an impressive 4 floors of exhibits with eleven giant halls for exhibits. The museum employees speak English and there is even a student discount on the already low ticket prices (I paid less than $2 to see everything). It does cost an extra $1.50 to take photos in the museum, but when the ticket is only $2-4.50 total, it really isn’t that much extra for those who want to use a camera. I spent probably 3 hours in the museum, wandering through the exhibits which range from the Hall of Gold (which holds the famous Golden Man artifacts), History of Kazakhstan, and even modern Kazakh art. The collections are very well rounded for being only 2 years old, and I’ll probably return to see everything again in the near future.
After leaving the museum and realizing my immense hunger, I took the bus to Keruen Mall and grabbed a döner meal for $4 before wandering into the park which marks the center of Astana’s Left Bank. Since the Artfest entries were still up, I decided to wander around the park and see the newest pieces. As I was wandering around Bayterek, the grey cloudy skies opened up to a vibrant blue – which led me to make an impromptu visit to the observation tower in Bayterek. As I walked toward the entrance, I randomly heard the sound of Single Ladies by Beyonce playing in the park ahead of me, and when I looked up I saw a woman dressed as a Mongol Warrior dancing to the music, in what is so far the most bizarre thing I’ve witnessed in Astana.
After that confusing experience, I entered the tower and paid the 500 tenge ($1.50) entry fee and took the elevator to the top. The viewing area looks otherworldly, like a mix between a spaceship and a greenhouse. There are three floors inside the giant gold bar, the first with a small cafe in which you can enjoy a great, albeit gold tinted, view of the city. The second floor has more viewing space, while the third holds a gold cast of President Nazarbayev’s hand which you can touch and take photos with. It wasn’t too crowded for being a Saturday afternoon, which was great because that space was not all that big.
Once I headed back down from the tower, I wandered through the park toward Khan Shatyr mall, taking photos and enjoying the warm weather before winter descends on the steppe. After briefly entering the mall, I headed toward the bus stop back to the university, but stopping along the way at Nur Astana Mosque, a place I’ve seen every day (it is visible from the university) but had never actually walked up to and photographed. The lighting was perfect and made for great pictures with the gold of the dome being accented by the sunset. It made for a wonderful end to a nice summer day in the city.
My second weekend in Astana involved a lot more exploration of the city. After a successful first week of classes, I went out for an evening to walk through the central park at night to see the lights on the buildings and fountains. I managed to catch a dancing lights and fountain show in the park that I had no idea was going to take place, which was a nice surprise (this is really only worth mentioning because I took cool pictures). The most interesting part of the weekend, however, was spending an afternoon with a 2nd year student from my program who took me and another friend to see most sites on the right bank of the city.
After taking the bus from campus, we got off across the river from a small orthodox church. Not too far away was a rather plain looking Catholic church with a nice flower garden in front. As we continued walking, we went by a synagogue which was painted light blue and white and had a unique architectural style. We kept walking and talking as we made our way across the campus of Eurasian National University before taking a bus toward our next stop.
We got off the bus near the Eurasia shopping center and made out way to the brand new Assumption Orthodox Cathedral. This church was opened in 2010 and is currently under construction/renovation in it’s courtyard. The inside of this church is incredibly painted with icons and murals of church history. As we were admiring the church, we were approached by a man who was dressed as a church official who asked us in English if we were visiting with the U.S. Embassy. Apparently he was waiting for a group from the embassy so he could conduct a tour of the church, but since they were already twenty minutes late he decided to give us a tour instead. He explained in detail the ceremonies that take place during a normal service, as well as on special occasions like the Astana city holiday, Christmas, and Easter. He also took us to the balcony where the choir sings, which had an incredible view of the domes of the roof, as well as the basement level where services take place during the winter because of the cold. We talked about everything in the church for about an hour before we had to leave to find food. It was incredibly interesting to hear about how the Orthodox church functions here in Kazakhstan.
Since we were all really hungry, we hopped on a bus to Respublika Street and went to a cafe which served Georgian food. Since I had never even thought about Georgian cuisine before that moment, I was eager to try everything on the menu. At first I was overwhelmed by how high the prices were, until I put the numbers into my currency converter and realized all the main dishes were between $3-5 USD. Since the prices were low and I was starving, I ordered two main dishes. First was khachapuri, which is a cheese filled and topped flatbread that is like something between breadsticks and cheese pizza. The second was khinkhali, which are meat and broth filled dumplings that are apparently the most famous food from Georgia. I ordered the restaurant special version which was a combination of beef and horse meat. Everything was absolutely delicious but I was completely stuffed afterward.
Because we gorged ourselves on lunch, we took a walk along the riverbank and across the river to burn off some of the food. We crossed the river on a very modern looking bridge which brought us to the UFO shaped building that houses the city circus. Outside of this building is a series of statues that represent different stories from Kazakh folklore, which were really interesting. There was also a giant fountain and shrubbery carved into the shapes of animals, two of which were alpacas! Both my friend and I were unintentionally wearing alpaca shirts that day so encountering alpaca shrubs was really amusing. Our walk back took us once again to the central park in the centre of the left bank, where we picked up the bus back to campus, thus ending our weekend exploration.
This post is about 3 months late, but better late than never.
I arrived in Astana from Frankfurt just before midnight on August 10. After dealing with the long lines at the immigration counter, I officially entered Kazakhstan as a student. I was greeted at the arrivals hall by a local friend and her family – who brought me some wonderful snacks – and the director of my MA program, who took me to the university campus by taxi. The drive to the university was surprisingly short, as the campus is not too far from the airport, a good distance outside of the city center. Once I arrived, I was shown my dorm room on the top floor and left to try and catch some sleep (surprise, I didn’t get any – thanks, jet-lag).
The following morning I was introduced to one of the student advisors from my college who took me on a tour of the campus. The primary building on the campus is made up of nine blocks, each holding a separate academic college, with a large atrium connecting them which is full of fountains and palm trees. There is a library block, a few small cafes, a bookstore, and a cafeteria in this building as well. Beyond this building, there are a number of dormitory blocks for students and additional housing for faculty and staff. In between these dormitories is the Sports Centre, and scattered around the various blocks there are a few minimarkets and a doctor’s office. At some point there will be skywalks between the buildings which will make it a lot less miserable to get to classes in the winter when it’s -30º+ outside.
After walking around the campus, I was taken into the city to exchange some money, buy a SIM card, and get a feel for the city. We took a bus to Asia Park mall and then walked to the famous Khan Shatyr shopping mall, where I changed some money and admired the insane architectural design of the building – which is shaped like a giant tent. From here we walked along the central park of the Left Bank, the new part of the city which was designed in large part by President Nazarbayev. The park is quite beautiful, and there was an art festival exhibiting artwork all along the walkways toward the Presidential Palace. My favorite piece of art in the park is the Expo 2017 figures, each holding a globe painted with representations of their respective countries.
Halfway through the park is the ubiquitous landmark of Astana – Bayterek Tower. This tower, which was inspired by a design drawn by President Nazarbayev himself, is an observation platform and symbol for modern Astana. The sidewalks and benches around the monument are full of people selling ice cream and rides for kids, as well as the occasional performer. Walking further toward the river are a series of dancing fountains, which lead you toward Ak Orda (Ақ Орда in Kazakh), the Presidential Palace.
Once we walked the length of the park, we turned around and headed back toward Keruen mall (notice that this city has a ton of malls?) for lunch. Most food is incredibly cheap here compared to the US, so even in an expensive mall food court I had a full set meal lunch for $4. After lunch we went back to the university and I crashed – 10 hour time changes do a number on the body.
The next few days were fairly uneventful as I didn’t have an ID card to get in and out of campus. I had graduate orientation on Friday, where I met some of the faculty from my college and most of my cohort, but most of my time was spent in a jet-lag induced state of exhaustion.
One afternoon I managed get off the campus with the help of a friend, whose ID card I used to get through the entrance gates so I could walk around the city to fight jet-lag. I, along with another international student in my cohort, went to the giant central park in the new city centre of Astana. It was a nice sunny day, so we leisurely strolled through the Expo figures, taking time to admire the depictions of each country participating in next year’s event. Many of these figures are from countries which I have previously visited, so I made sure to photograph each of them individually – especially those of countries I studied in like Bolivia and Romania. Just beyond where these figures end, walking toward Bayterek tower, were performers dressed in “traditional” armor and held weapons while painted like statues. There were tons of local families posing with each of these statue people, each of whom would quickly switch positions right as the photo was being taken so that it looked as though they were attacking the people posing. There were some other pieces from the art festival that had been installed since my last visit as well, so as we walked we continued to admire these pieces as well.
We met another friend from our cohort at the mall off of this park, and from there we went to the right bank of Astana, which is the older part of the city where a majority of people actually live. We took the bus to Respublika Avenue, which is main thoroughfare through the old city and the centre of life in Astana. From here we cut across to the riverbank, which we walked along for an hour or so as the sun began to set. There were lots of people strolling along the riverbank, which has nice brick walking paths, park benches, and fishing access.
We made our way across one of the many bridges across the Ishim River and into Astana Park. This park has a giant clock tower that looks like the Eye of Sauron that surrounded by a bunch of painted life-sized horse statues. There were also fountains which came out of the ground around the clock tower that were full of children running, splashing, and even biking through. We continued walking toward a mall, where we got dinner, before continuing on toward the park where we first met. We made a final stop at the Astana Opera House – a giant Greek style theatre with imposing columns and statues of Kazakh musicians guarding it’s entrance. It lies in stark contrast to the bizarre architecture of the rest of the city centre.
The next day, after finally acquiring my student ID card (one of many technical difficulties I’ve experienced here so far), I was able to come and go freely on campus. Thanks to this, I was able to meet up with my friend Galiya who met me at the airport when I arrived. We met by the Presidential Palace and after a brief food stop in an old cafeteria, we walked across a bridge to the right bank to visit the rest of the famous sites in Astana. First was the Presidential Park, a giant park across the river from the Palace and surrounding the Pyramid, formally called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. This park has a huge fountain system that looks like an eagle when viewed on a satellite map. Just up the hill from the fountains is the Pyramid, in front of which are a few Instagram shaped boards that you can pose inside to promote tourism in Astana.
On the other side of the pyramid is Independence Square, which holds a giant pillar, some modern buildings, and a brand new mosque. We walked up to the monument in the centre of the square before turning toward Hazret Sultan mosque. This building is probably the most beautiful in Astana with its imposing yet delicate white marble exterior. The main entrance to the mosque is styled in a way similar to the entrance gates of the most famous Central Asian Islamic buildings from Turkestan and Samarkand. After I wandered about admiring the architecture, we continued walking down the street toward a mall where we grabbed dinner in a restaurant styled after a Soviet era kitchen, which was really interesting. I tried my first Russian dumplings (vareniki, apparently the same as pierogi according to Wikipedia) after having fun trying to read the Russian menu. After eating and hanging out in the mall for a little while longer, we parted ways and I went back to the university – ending my last day of freedom before classes began.