Astana city guide

There are few cities that have changed their name as many times as Astana. The capital of Kazakhstan went by Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Akmola and most recently Nur-Sultan. Why? It’s not very interesting. It went by names which made sense, then it didn’t and now it does again. The Nur-Sultana part is after Nursultan Nazarbayev, a man who ruled the country for almost 3 decades. Safe to say, you don’t govern a country for 30 years if elections aren’t rigged. He “resigned” and the current president changed the name back to Astana. You can change the name, but you can never change a vibe of this place. Nursultan built a monument of a city, something that really sticks out. Especially in Kazakhstan, a country that people have a particular image of. Almaty fits, Astana…not so much. In fact, it has been designed from the ground up by a famous Japanese architect.

Astana sort of pops out in the middle of a vast, flat steppe. The complete middle of nowhere. It’s where they sent people to gulags during soviet regime. It’s where they used to test nuclear weapons. That kind of middle of nowhere. It also feels very empty, almost eerie. Remember that famous scene from Planet of the Apes? Where he randomly stumbles across the Statue of Liberty? That’s the vibe here. Instead of Lady Liberty, the first thing you’ll notice is the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the second largest in central Asia. It’s massive but not something that non-believers would be overly impressed with. Thankfully it does stand right in the middle of the Independence Square.

The Hazrat Sultan Mosque, on Astana's Independence Square by night

The Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Astana is the second largest mosque of central Asia

The Independence Square is where you’ll find most of Astana’s landmarks. Such as the very peculiar Pyramid of Peace. Supposedly, it’s where leaders of different religions periodically meet to discuss their view of the world. The ongoing theme though, is that it’s the seat of power of the Illuminati. No joke, people believe in this conspiracy theory. I bet it’s only because it’s a pyramid, lots of triangles and stuff. It looks clearly like the world governments headquarters. They rule the planet from Kazakhstan. I wouldn’t be surprised as the building contains a huge conference hall and AN OPERA house!

Bayterek Tower represents post-soviet Kazakhstan. The name literally means “tree” in Kazakh. The curious design symbolizes an egg on top of the tree of life. Think of it as connecting the past with the present and looking towards a new, bright future. It’s much bigger than it appears to be on photos. You can take the elevator to the top and watch the sunset from inside of the golden orb. Because it’s glass, it’s not actually gold. The National Museum is close. A very modern, architectural wonder if I do say so myself. Great museum too if you can handle the obvious propaganda. Sift through it and you’ll learn a lot about the history of ancient Kazakhstan and its place on the Silk Road. There are reproductions of old cottages and all sorts of educational scenes inside.

Astana and its Baiterek Tower seen from above

Astana's most notable landmark, the Baiterek Tower which symbolizes the Tree of Life.

ll of the above is the proverbial “new city”: the otherworldly architecture, all the office buildings and shopping malls. There’s always something interesting and the weirder a building looks, the more important it is. Even the library looks like a spaceship. Khan Shatyr is yet another over-the-top site in Astana. It’s a huge, transparent tent and it’s called an “entertainment centre. You can go to the movies, do some shopping, stuff like that. Nursultan threw his birthday party in Khan Shatyr, they even had Andrea Bocelli sing for Putin and the gang.

I should mention that Astana is very affordable to live in. It might seem like another Dubai but things are relatively cheap. It would be the perfect destination if only it wasn’t so hauntingly empty. It does get a little more crowded at night, as the Kazakhs sure know how to party. Make sure to visit one of restaurants that specialize in preparing horse meat, a local delicacy. There’s a restaurant chain that comes highly recommended, it’s called Rumi and they’re quite popular. Better yet, check in at one of the traditional yurts. People here were glamping way before it even became a thing.

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