Strange Places: Astana, Kazakhstan

So while we were driving out to the Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, it struck us that this Astana city is a rather unusual place; everything was brand new or in the process of being built, and there were no apparent historical districts, industrial districts, or anything else you generally find in a capital city; it seemed to us as if someone decided to build a Tomorrowland Disney park in the middle of the untracked Kazakhstan steppe.

Weellllll … that’s pretty much exactly what did happen.

Nurzhol Boulevard + Baiterek Tower

Astana: The world’s weirdest capital city

… Yet just 15 years ago the city didn’t really exist at all. 

In 1997 Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty in the southeast of the country to the newly-named Astana (previously it was called Akmola), which was then an empty patch of land by the Ishim River best known as a former gulag prison camp for the wives of Soviet traitors. 

Today the bulging, science fiction-like skyline has started to earn the country some international recognition…

Welcome to Astana, Kazakhstan: one of the strangest capital cities on Earth

Of all places, why put a city here? From the aeroplane window it’s more of the same: flat, empty and endlessly vast. At 30,000 feet, a few lonely lakes polka-dot the landscape. There is no evidence of human activity. There are scarcely any trees and few distinguishing landmarks. On and on it goes – Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe, and so unremittingly flat, it’s as if some gigantic plasterer has skimmed the land. Here wolves outnumber people. Little wonder the Soviets chose this vast emptiness to hide their Gulags and their space programme, and to test their nuclear weapons. Much of it radioactive, it’s an agoraphobic’s vision of hell.

And then, out of nowhere, Astana comes glistening into view, all shiny metal and glass, implausibly rising up from the Kazakh steppe like some post-modern lego set that has stumbled into the opening sequence of Dallas. Welcome to Astana, one of the strangest capital cities on earth…

It’s definitely not a World Heritage Site, and you’d be hard pressed to make a case for it by any conventional metrics of tourist destinations; but if you like futuristic architecture, or the just plain weird, this is a place you want to visit!

The lead photo above there is taken down Nurzhol Boulevard ending at the Baiterek Tower, that thing that looks like a cross between a lollipop and a tiki torch at the end there; it’s a representation of Kazakh legend:

Kazakh legends have it that on the World River bank, there grows the Tree of Life, called Bayterek. Samruk the holy bird of happiness is flying to it to lay a golden egg in the nest, located on its top. The egg symbolizes the Sun, granting life and hope. But beneath, there is Aydakhar, a wicked dragon, hiding among the roots, and wishing to eat the egg.

But just about every direction you look, there’s something striking.

This pyramid?

Palace of Peace And Reconciliation

That is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, as well as a concert theatre and the only place we know of that has an elevator that moves diagonally. Yes, diagonally.

This Lego block jumble?

National Museum of Kazakhstan

That is the National Museum of Kazakhstan, which has a giant gilded mechanical eagle in the lobby whose wings actually beat, and just keeps levelling up from there. Definitely make that a two-three hour must stop!

Here is the Nur-Astana Mosque, “The Great Marble Mosque of Kazakhstan,”

Nur-Astana Mosque

and note the swoopy skyscrapers in the background? Every building in the city it seems is unusual architecture like that!

Towards Khan Shatyr

Just a building of no particular note at the courtyard anchoring the end of Nurzhol Boulevard, through which you can see Khan Shatyr, a giant transparent tent of a shopping center.

We could go on here for a while, but you get the idea.

We’ll finish up with the most concentratedly Kazakhstan lunch we could find:

Kumis, Shubat, and Horse Salad

The bubbly bowl on the left? That’s Kumis, the traditional drink of Gengis Khan and Attila the Hun: fermented horse milk. And its appeal is … selective. Extremely selective. There aren’t many alcoholic beverages that trolls will ever say they’ve had enough of, but this visit to Kazakhstan, yeah I think we’re good on the kumis front.

The bowl on the right, that’s Shubat, fermented camel’s milk. That is … closer to a taste that one would generally associate with something actually drinkable, let us say. And supposedly possessed of a vast array of health benefits; order some from Kazakhstan now and get a head start on the next hipster superfood!

And the salad is, of course, horse meat. We’ve had the odd taste of horse meat before as sashimi and such, but in Kazakhstan, horse meat is a staple. Everything from airport sandwiches to steak dinners, if it has meat there’s an excellent chance it’s horse. Get outside the main cities, and you see herds of horses wandering the steppe just like beef cattle out on the range. Not sure whether the steppe doesn’t support beef cattle or it’s just a matter of taste, but horse is definitely the defining feature of Kazakh cuisine!

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  1. Hahaha not a big fan of kumis were you? Kudos for trying though. Loved the story, you have an entertaining writing style. Can’t wait to see what you’ll make of Cambodia. Mate of mine was there last week and ate scorpions, worms and a lot of things that I found weirder than fermented horse milk.

    1. Alex

      Actually made to Siem Reap for a weekend already last year, and made a point of visiting BUGS CAFE! Just haven’t gotten around to writing it up yet. Next week we’ll be spending in Phnom Penh and the south, and yep we trust we’ll have some culinary adventures to relate!

      1. Nice mate. I’m sure it will be a good read again. I’ll be watching your blog.

  2. […] our intriguing visit to Astana, it was back down to Almaty in the south, and heading 170 km northwest out into the Zhetysu to […]

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