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Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and after Almaty it is the largest city in the country with almost 900,000 inhabitants. It is located in the Akmola Province in the central north of the country. The city has been the capital only since 1997, before that time Almaty held that position. It makes it one of the newest capitals in the world and the name actually means 'capital city' in the Kazakh language. The surroundings of the capital are almost totally flat countryside, called the Kazakh steppe and has one of the coldest climates of all the capitals in the world. The city had different names, from Akmolinsk in the early 19th century to Tselinograd in 1961 and Akmola in 1991 when Kazakhstan became independent. Different stories arise why this city became the capital in 1997 but all in all a more central position was desired. The city is still developing fast, with more town planning on the way.
Sights and Activities
- Bayterek Tower (Бәйтерек, Bäyterek) - An example of the futuristic architecture in the newborn city. Nicknamed Chupa Chups by the locals due to its similarity to a giant lollipop, this 97-metre high building offers a great view of the city as well as an art gallery, an aquarium and a restaurant. There is a pleasant bar on one of the upper levels. In the centre of the top sphere, the ever so humble President Nazarbayev has made a golden palm print where visitors may put their own hands. Be warned at busier times the queue for the palm can be very long. The president designed the Baiterek himself and the original sketches can be seen in the national museum. KZT500 for Adults, KZT150 for 5-15 (with documentation), under 5s are free.
- Khan Shatyr - Is a giant transparent tent big enough to hold 10,000 people. The 150m-high tent has a 200m elliptical base covering an area larger than 10 football stadiums, and contains a park, a shopping and entertainment area with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, minigolf and an indoor beach resort. It even contains its own monorail with several stops. While Astana is one of the world's coldest capitals with temperatures down to -40 °C in the cold season, the transparent material lets sunshine in and helps to keep temperatures comfortable all year.
- National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Main bus routes stop outside) - 10:00am - 6:00pm (Closed on Monday). The national museum moved to this new location in 2014. The museum is huge and very modern with interactive displays in English, Russian and Kazakh. The displays take you through the history of Kazakhstan up to the modern day. It also hosts an art gallery with many temporary exhibitions, you might find yourself alone with some bored looking gallery attendants on some of the upper floors. The main entrance hall is huge with a golden eagle that flaps its wings to patriotic music at certain times in the day. One of the highlights is on the ground floor where an animated diorama of the planned Astana emerges out of the floor on the hour, be sure to get there early as it can get crowded. The golden hall display has a model of the golden man costume along with a range of other beautiful golden objects found around Kazakhstan. Don't miss Nazabayev's rough sketches for the presidential palace and Baiterek. T500 (additional T1,000 to visit the golden gallery).
- The Military Historical Museum of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Barayev 3 (Surrounded by scary looking roads, there are several underpasses to get you to this museum) - 10:00am-8:00pm (Closed on Mondays). Built like a yurt with a dome resembling a mosque. It contains exhibitions about the history of the military of Kazakhstan. There is large focus on the Great Patriotic War and a collection of memorabilia related to Nazabayev, including some of his official stationery, a tank commander's hat that he wore and a big official painting of him. Don't miss the upper levels that have some excellent war paintings or the soviet style paintings as you enter the building. Free.
- Atameken Map of Kazakhstan - An outdoor museum giving you an overview of the entire country in a miniature version. This 1.7-hectare exhibit features more than 200 mock-up pieces, creating Kazakh cities and historical memorials. During the summer months at least, there are normally English speaking guides available (optional obviously), should you wish to learn a little about the models, and there is a covered section which focuses on the newer constructions within the city of Astana itself. Taking photos sometimes requires an extra payment to be made - you may want to keep cameras in your bag until you pass out of sight of the front ticket office. There is a covered map of Astana on a platform overlooking the rest of the map, be sure to visit the exhibition underneath this, which offers dioramas of Kazakhstani industry, sport and culture.
- Palace of Peace and Reconciliation - The pyramid portion of the building is 62m high and sits on a 15m high earth-covered block. All of this construction is above ground level. The building holds a summit of all religions of the world every 2–3 years. Though the landscaping of the park rises up to cover the lower levels, these are not in fact basements. This building offers a great view of the city as well as two art galleries, an archaeological and ethnographic museum, opera hall, and a cafe.
- Duman - An entertainment complex consisting of an oceanarium, 3D theatre, dome area, souvenir shops and cafes. The aquarium is unique for being located over 3,000 kilometres away from the ocean! It has more than 2000 sea inhabitants, the representatives of 100 species of sea fauna from different parts of the world. You can also see "Mermaid" and sharks-feeding shows at the aquarium. In the Motion Theatre you can make an underwater trip under the command of captain Mac-Cloud during the World War II, to overcome the traps while rescuing the gorgeous princess, confined in the dungeon, go on a tour to the past to dinosaur age, escorted by a troll etc.
- Nur-Astana Mosque - The second largest mosque in Central Asia, completed in 2008. The dome area contains symbols from all over the world like the Statue of Liberty, the fragment of the great Chinese wall, the "Doriphor" statue, Parthenon and others.
- Kazakh Eli monument - Situated next to Pyramid (Palace of Peace) and has a small statue of the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It is about 100 metres tall and has a mythical golden bird Samryk on the top. Monument is made from white marble and surrounded by very beautiful fountains.
- Shabyt Palace - Shabyt is a palace of arts situated to the right of Kazakh Eli monument. It is a dish like building made from glass.
- Palace of Independence - Many political and business gatherings are held in this palace. The summit of the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) took place in December 2010 in this building; 56 countries were invited and it was one of the largest gatherings of Heads of State (bigger than Washington Nuclear Summit). Summits concerning ecology were held in October 2010 and 2011. edit
- Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan - This is situated north of the river on the junction of Abai Street and Bebeishelik Street. This magnificent building was the seat of power before the new presidential palace was built. There is an entrance on Abai Street where you will have your baggage searched and you will be scanned for metal. Once inside be sure to ask the people at the front door for an English guide book. Pictures are allowed on the ground floor (1st in Kazakh speak) and outside, but no where else. Most people will have to don covers for their shoes and all luggage must be stored in lockers. Entry is free. The building consists of displays outlining the struggle for independence, gifts and awards given to Nazarbayev including a machine gun from the Saudis, and state rooms preserved as they were when Nazarbayev was there. On the top floor there is a comprehensive photo display of Yeltsin, someone that Nazarbayev seems to have a lot of sympathy towards. Be sure to see the full sized recreation of the golden man. The museum is often on the empty side and don't be surprised to find yourself trailed by anxious (maybe bored) gallery staff. There isn't much for the kids here, it is more suited to those interested in the art of state diplomacy and the history of Nazarbayev. There is a small gift shop on the ground floor with the normal tourist paraphernalia.
Events and Festivals
Astana International Contest of Kazakh Song
In what can be considered a tribute to Kazakh music, the Contest of Kazakh song is held annually in September. Overseas performers from all over Poland, Uzbekistan and Germany compete to sing Kazakh songs in their native languages. The festival is a big event in Astana, with local choirs and children’s groups being called upon to accompany many of the contestants.
Astana is located in the northern part of the country, where steppe and semi-arid conditions prevale. The city has very little rain or snowfall during the year, generally between 100 and 150 mm of precipitation. Summers are hot, averaging 30 °C during the day from June to August but over 35 °C is possible. Nights are pleasantly cool, around 17 °C. Winters are bitterly cold, averaging between -10 °C and -15 °C but dropping as low as -35 °C on some nights.
Air Astana is the national airline of Kazakhstan and has flights to and from Astana International Airport (TSE). Delhi, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hanover, Moscow and Shannon (Irleand) are served from here. A number of other airlines serve the airports, mainly to and from Asian countries, like the neighbouring Stan States.
Air Astana has frequent flights to and from Almaty.
Astana has at least a few daily trains to and from Almaty. Additional service connects to Russia and Urumqi in western China.
Several good tarred roads lead to/from Astana, connecting the rest of the country with the capital.
Although trains are prefered to travel longer distances, some bus connections to regional towns can be of use to travellers.
There are plenty of taxis around: expect to pay KZT300-1000 for a trip within the city. Stand at the side of any road and thumb down a passing car, within 3 minutes you should have had a string of them. Tell them your destination and they will either drive off or gesture you in. It is useful to know numbers so you can set a price for the journey before starting. They are much cheaper than official taxis and you can expect to pay about half the price in one of these, prices start at about KZT500 for a cross river trip. Some drivers will practice their English on you, others will race around the streets like a maniac, slowing down for the obvious speed camera. Use this method with caution and try to travel in groups. In 2016 Uber launched in Astana.
By Public Transport
The public buses cost KZT60. Get on the bus and a conductor will come and ask for your fare and give you a ticket. Given the simplicity of the process, you don't need to speak the language to be able to do this but trying to pay with large notes can upset the conductors, try and have the correct change. The buses are efficient and comfortable, but they are often full. Some buses are from the 1990s, but there are also newer buses from the last 10 years that match any modern city in terms of the quality of the bus.
Much of central Astana can easily be explored on foot, but if you want to venture a little outside, it pays to take the occasional taxi.
In central Astana, there are bikes you can rent.
- Beshbarmak - a horse meat and pasta dish. Most restaurants that serve it will present a portion enough for two or three people.
- Boursaky - bread best served piping hot. A little like an unsweetened doughnut.
- Shashliq - unless you have a sturdy stomach, best to avoid unknown street vendors, but these kebabs are often cheap, and a good 'safe bet' if you recognise little else on the menu.
Along Turan street (formerly Sara Arka), there is a row of restaurants that while a bit expensive are quite good. They also have private rooms for parties, saunas, and even hotel rooms.
- Kumis - different varieties are available of this mare's milk, some are a little salty. Slightly fermented.
- Vodka - supermarkets stock a huge variety, ranging from $2 bottles that will strip your throat to $115 bottles that are more for giving as a present or showing off your wealth. Shots tend to be drunk, rather than utilising mixers - don't feel obliged to down each and every one if at a celebration.
- Cognac - what we would refer to as brandy, again a wide range in the shops and restaurants. Same rules apply regarding shots - with all the toasts made at parties and other gatherings, you may want to pace yourself.
There are more than 10 discos (night clubs) that are frequently referenced by locals: Chocolate, A8, Fusion, Ice, etc. Chocolate is in the same building as the SAS Radisson hotel, but may only be open on selected days (weekends). "Ice" (centrally located - ask locals for the address) has a nice atmosphere and is on two floors with a large dance area. Prices are towards the high end, no entrance fee on Thursday night.
You can find internet cafés in most cities and larger towns. Wifi is widely available though, ranging from upmarket hotels to hostels, coffee bars, restaurants and in some cities and areas free general wifi. Sometimes you need to register or ask for a code, but even then it's hassle free.
See also: International Telephone Calls
Kazakhstan's international phone number is +7.
Currently GSM Kazakhstan/Kcell is the cellular operator rendering services of GSM-900/1800 and UMTS/WCDMA 2100 MH standard. Coverage is good around the main cities. Network providers include K-MOBILE and Kazakhtelecom. There are roaming agreements with Vodafone, Orange, O2 and T-Mobile.
If you are planning to stay for a while in the country, buy a local cell phone. Otherwise, if you are staying shorter but tend to use your own cell phone, buy a local SIM card. Using your own SIM card means high costs for calling, but more so for using the internet on your cell phone.
International calls can be made at a reduced rate from 8:00pm to 8:00am local time.
Kazpost is the national postal service in the country, with fairly reliable and good services, though it might take some time to reach its international destination. Post offices are open generally from 9:00am to 6:00pm, but some larger ones in the main cities keep longer opening times. If you want to send packages internationally, you'd better use companies like FedEx, UPS, TNT or DHL, as they are faster and competitively priced.