Nazarbayev University and my first week in Astana

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.

The main entrance to campus
Inside the atrium

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.

Khan Shatyr Mall
Looking into the main park of Astana from Khan Shatyr


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.

Sunset over campus from my window

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.


Who would’ve thought…
Street performer

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.

Monument of Kenesary Khan
Walking along the river
Boat going down the Ishim

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.

Little kid on a horse
The clocktower
Kids playing in the park fountains
Khan Shatyr at night
Astana Opera House

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.

View of Ak Orda from the bridge
Ferry going along the river
The Pyramid through a standing Instagram board

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.

Independence Square
Hazret Sultan Mosque
Side entrance
Main entrance
Bonus: Colorful Kazakh tenge bills