2018 Tian Shan travel: Part 13

2018 Tian Shan

August-September 2018 travel to Kazakhstan reviewed in 2021

Commentary from 2021

This post was a summary of my first impressions from Astana. It was a clash of stereotypes that were still inhabiting my ignorant brain back then with what I saw. Interesting to dive back into those days. Not the wording I would use anymore in 2021, but it is interesting in seeing how the worldview evolves when you confront your own imagination with reality.

This post’s featured picture (above) was a less picturesque snapshot of the city’s culture, with its own advertisements.

Naturally, I didn’t really see Nursultan city, back then called Astana. I arrived there just as a quick stop on my way to the travel target in Almaty city. By visiting Nursultan, I gained the chance to see the country from the window of the train. And so I did, after this post.

Original blog post link: https://2018tianshan.tumblr.com/post/177220183816/astana-thoughts

Original post from 21.08.2018 is copied below.

Astana – thoughts

Yesterday, on 19.08.2018, I arrived at Astana “Nursultan Nazarbaev” airport, therefore landing in Kazakhstan, central Asia. Today, early 21.08.2018, I am already packing, and preparing to get in the train to Almaty city, which is going to be the main base for my trip for the rest of it.

First impressions

Several first impressions:
1. Everyone looks Asian. Seems an obvious one, but I thought it was going to be 50% European 50% Asian or in some proportions like that. It is 95% Asian, 5% European instead. 1 in 50 looks Turkish. The very first impression, that was soon gone, was that I’m back in China, however, in China I couldn’t understand anyone and anything. Here they all speak a familiar language. Cool!
2. Kazakh language is very much alive. Judging by what I hear off the streets, some 60%-70% of Kazakhs use Kazakh language. It is a much more pleasant language than I imagined, too. 100% of people know also Russian, and while I’m not a native speaker of Russian (but I speak it), I can’t hear any odd accents, at least not yet.
3. City is incredibly clean. More about that later on.
4. Public transport is difficult to handle. Tickets are bought inside at the driver, unless you have a city card. There was no point in getting one for me since my stay is just 2 days. Ticket costs 180 tenge (0.43 euro at current rate). You always enter in the front, then exit through any other doors, so bus stops, people that want to exit wait, and only after people get in, people can get out. Buses can incredibly crowded because of that. I was warned that buses are home to dangerous folks (gopniks and the likes of them) – not true, so far at least. Buses have no direction named on them and it’s driving me nuts, easy to get in the bus and drive the wrong direction.5. Astana has no city centre. Asked about that the bus drivers have no idea what that is, instead asking about left- and right-bank side.
6. City looks very safe.
7. Kazakh restaurants. Or restaurants at all – I failed to find a specific street with open-air restaurants that you’d see in other cities. All others that I found had Turkish or Italian food (similar thing I’ve seen in Romania). Food is a piece of meat, usually lamb, with rice. They give no vegetables to it, but you will always get bread and people will raise brows if you refuse bread – similarly to Russia or Spain.
8. Islam…or Christian Orthodoxy, neither are much seen. Very few women wear hijab, and words “Alla” or “God” I have not hear anywhere yet.

Please remember, these are “first impressions”. Those get to either be less exciting later or simply get explained.


Astana is so incredibly clean that it looks made-up.

I have seen clean cities, but this is something else. Every screw, lug and nut in every city lamp in every district of the city looks like it was just shipped off its factory, every brick is licked clean until shiny, and it took quite some travelling to find any rust on, well, anything. Entire Astana, in 2017 housing 1 029 556 people, looks like it was made overnight, last night.

No wonder – when in 1994 capital of Kazakhstan was moved from the much older Almaty to Astana, the city did not even have 300 000 people. Fueled by fresh income from oil sales, the nation led by Nursultan Nazarbaev – president of the country leading it since 1991 – built itself an entire metropoly in the middle of a steppe. It looks made-up – and it is.

In its polished, licked-clean state the artificial city is very much genuine and thriving, all the structures seem to have use, and the city looks quite well planned. What it lacks, is the tube – city buses just don’t work in a city that in some 25 years exploded from 280 thousand people to 1 million anymore.

The feeling of the city being a theme park is greatly enhanced by unusual (from a European’s perspective) flatness – the city looks like even the ground, the hundreds of square kilometres of it, were flattened before it was built. This, however, is the property of the grand steppe about which we hear in schools, though usually in the context of the neighbouring Asian country, Mongolia.

While Astana does feel like a made-up Kazakh theme park, it is absolutely beautiful, and Kazakh national themes and symbols are some of the coolest I have ever seen – with vibrant blue and gold colours, eagles in traditional coat of arms and modern logotype styles, and various figurines on the streets. They are unique, they are powerful, and Kazakhs can be proud of them.

The city is a gigantic achievement of the country. I was told the place is for 1-2 days maximum and then you get bored, and that long is my stay here, but the city definitely has much more to offer, starting with its museums. I hope to get back here one day to complete the sightseeing.

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