2018 Tian Shan travel: Part 7

2018 Tian Shan

August-September 2018 travel to Kazakhstan reviewed in 2021

Commentary from 2021

These two posts were a first, quick glance at Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The city was unbelievable – probably one of the most unique ones that I ever visited and those few quick photos below do not do enough justice to Astana’s peculiarity.

Astana’s roots come from the settlement of Akmoly over Ishim river in 1830. By 1893, Akmolinsk (as it was called by then) had some 6500 population. The Soviet era brought a change of its name, and in 1961 it was renamed to Tselinograd. If Macrotrends.net site is correct, then the city had 116,000 people by that year. After the USSR fell apart and Kazakh SSR became an independent country, the city was again renamed to Akmola. This is when Nursultan Nazarbayev started ruling the country in 1991. By 1994 its population was a mere 303,000 people. In 1998, the country officially moved the capital to this place and renamed it “Astana”, which means “capital”. Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from 1991 to 2019, after which, Astana’s name was renamed to Nur-Sultan, which is its name today. I still call it “Astana” in my blog, as its contents refer to 2018’s situation. Since then the population exploded to 1,068,000 in 2018 and 1,166,000 estimated for 2020.

First things first. Pictures below were taken in a rush, some by phone through a bus’s window. These were my absolute first steps in Kazakhstan. I realised that I was to a first country with a majority-Asian population since my trip to China. But where in China I could not understand anything people were saying, I did understand the population here, when people on streets were talking. My mind could not compute this for a moment. People were speaking Russian, a language that I more or less understood. I knew it will be the case, but it was something else to dive into this environment.

City centre

I followed a friend’s advice and installed 2Gis. A clever local smartphone app with good city maps and public transport schedules. I asked the bus driver to take me to the city centre. He did not know what am I talking about. He and some men explained to me: Astana has no city centre. At all. You could perhaps suggest Baiterek tower (on photos below), if you really forced it, but there is no traditional old town square. I knew this will not be a city like any other.

Is it me, or even ‘commieblocks’ are brand new and kinda pretty here?


Weather in Astana was crazy. I was there in half August/early September, so during late summer, I think it was some transitional period, because it was raining a ton, and the city was very windy. When I was leaving for southern Almaty, it was almost a storm in the city.

The city is actually quite pretty – but with weather so gray, it took some playing with saturation to get good weather colours out of actual pictures I took. With the picture above, I think I even overdid it. Yes, I definitely overdid it.


The city is unbelievably flat. And very new. And unbelievably clean. This gives you an impression that it’s completely made up, artificial, that someone put it here with colossal effort and cost perhaps five years ago. Incredible feeling, very unique. It feels like you’re in a new world place rather than in the centre of Asia.

Nursultan Nazarbayev airport in Astana (today called Nur-Sultan). You expect terrain to be flat around airports, of course, but the entire city is like this.
Flat, flat, flat. It’s like buildings were placed to suppress the strange feeling that city was built on some massive 3D artificial canvas, but it is just because it was built on the Eurasian steppe. I couldn’t shake off that feeling of being somewhere, I don’t know, in some virtual reality session with splendid graphics.


The hotel was nice, but about as odd as the city was in general, during my brief stay. On hotel booking website that I used, it was implied it is in the city centre (while planning, I had no clue there is no typical centre in the city). When I landed, it turned out the hotel is some 40 minutes away from the actual centre in a bus. But that was a good thing, I could see what outskirts were like. Usually those are the dirtiest, poorest parts of cities, but even the poor man’s garage’s corrugated sheets were brand new and all the screws on lamp posts looked manufactured the other day. For a city this large, over a million people? What’s this eerie feeling? Uncanny valley, this is what it feels like. What a unique place.

Original blog posts links:

Original posts from 19.08.2018 are copied below.

Arrived at Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

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