Astana, Kazakhstan is one of the weirdest places I have ever visited. If you even just Google “Astana”, you will find several other people using the word “weird” as a word to describe the city of just over a million people in the middle of the Kazakh steppe. Despite it having a rather extensive history, most people know the modern Astana and not the Soviet city of Tselinograd.
In 1992, the government of Kazakhstan renamed Tselinograd Akmola and in December of 1997, Akmola became the new capital of Kazakhstan (Almaty previously held the honors). In May of 1998, Akmola was renamed Astana, a word that literally means ‘the capital city’ in the Kazakh language.
Astana, a planned city just like Washington D.C., Canberra, or Brasilia, was more or less build from the ground up. The city sits on the Ishim River / Esil River and you can find remnants of the old city on the right bank of the river… but the left bank is the bank that has gained international recognition.
The left bank is where the Baiterek tower is and where all the modern architecture calls home. The city ignited my curiosity years ago when I was reading up on the country of Kazakhstan and decided to travel there one day (I eventually moved there, but that is another story). Since I have traveled to Astana, I get heaps and heaps of questions from other travelers wondering if they should travel to Astana, Kazakstan. I decided to candidly write my experiences and opinions on my time spent in the Kazakh capital and hope you take the time to do some thorough research before heading there or having any expectations.
This post will tell you about my experiences in Astana, how it made me appreciate Almaty (and later move there!), and things to do in Astana if you so happen to find yourself there.
In this post...
How I Ended Up in Astana
If you’re from Astana, Kazakhstan and don’t have tough skin, you may want to stop reading this post now.
My trip to Central Asia was supposed to be mainly to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan was always a very high place on my mental travel bucket list because I’m obsessed with the food and I have a friend from there. Tashkent had cheap flights from Oslo, but Bishkek’s were cheaper, and Americans do not need a visa for Kyrgyzstan, which made it a better base at the time. So I planned to head to both in the month of travel I had allotted. (Update 2017: Americans and many other nationalities don’t need visas to Kazakhstan anymore if staying under 30 days).
After realizing I’d be spending a little over a day in Moscow and needing to pay for an expensive transit visa (they are $160 for Americans) in order to get out of the airport, my plans to head to Uzbekistan kind of diminished. For Americans traveling to Uzbekistan, you are required to have a letter of invitation and another $160 visa. The LOI can wind up being expensive because if you book through a tour company, you often need to book hotels through them, as well. And with my financial situation, I am in no position to be staying at nice hotels… only hostels.
When I realized all of that, I also discovered that two of my friends had just moved to Kazakhstan for their jobs. They moved to two completely different areas of the country. I figured that this trip would be an opportune time to visit them both and see a little bit of Kazakhstan in the process. Kazakhstan visas are also $160, but no LOI is required and I could stay wherever I wanted throughout the duration of the trip. In conclusion, the circumstances took me to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
One of my friends was in Kostanay and the other was in Almaty. Kostanay is a very remote city of around 200,000 up in the northern part of the country near the Siberian part of Russia. The cheapest way to get to Kostanay was to fly to Astana from Bishkek and then to take a 13+ hour train to the city. This was the first reason I had to pass through Astana. The second was on my way back from Kostanay before I headed to Karaganda (a city around 3 hours from Astana) to catch a flight down to Almaty.
For those of you who do not know, Kazakhstan is huge. It is the 9th largest country in the world and has very little in its vastness. The north of Kazakhstan (which is where Astana is) is known to be brutally cold in winter, with wind chills of -40C / -40F regularly as the wind blows across the Kazakh steppe. The south of Kazakhstan (which is where Almaty is), is a bit warmer and surrounded by tall mountains.
So, my itinerary in Kazakhstan ended up being Kostanay, Astana, Karaganda, and finally finishing off the Kazakhstan part of my trip with a full week in Almaty. I left other places out due to time and knowing that I’d like to travel back one day to see things during warmer months.
Kostanay and Karaganda were charming and places I really enjoyed my time at. That brings me to Astana and Almaty…
The two cities are on completely different planets. Almaty’s planet being one I’d like to live on and Astana’s planet being one I’d like to see sucked into a black hole forever.
My Time in Astana (& Why it Made Me Love Almaty)
Astana is, hands down, the worst city I have ever visited in my life. I hated my time there.
The cold had nothing to do with it. Quite frankly, Almaty has been colder than Astana was when I was there. Astana was just fake, rude, and uninviting. I visited both the left bank (the newer, Dubai– like part of Astana) and the right bank (the old part of the city). Both were uninspiring and left a lot to be desired, in my opinion.
I’ll admit, my time spent there before heading to Kostanay was filled with entertainment in the train station as I had to wait around 12 hours to catch my night train out of the place. In this train station, I witnessed an old beggar lady being kicked hard on the ground by a female police officer for what looked like the lady eating a block of cheese (my Russian skills are obviously pretty poor).
I also witnessed a woman pull out a training potty for her son in the middle of the train station, have him pee in it, and then she dumped the pee back in his diaper, missing the diaper with the majority of it. I had someone careen over to me violently to stop me from dare charging my phone in a power outlet (if only I had brought a portable solar panel charger with me, ugh). Needless to say, she never cleaned it up off the floor. I also was pushed and beaten trying to buy the train ticket in the first place by vodka-smelling, sweaty men. I left Astana appalled.
I got back to the city about four days later with a completely open mind and was ready to enjoy the place.
And I still didn’t like it. I asked people for restaurant recommendations and was treated to some overpriced, horrific food in the process. I still believe that people were playing a joke on me. There were a couple of local girls in my hostel who were nice, but the rudest people I’ve ever met when it came to the living situation.
I often asked people what there was to do in Astana besides go shopping, and was often told that there was an indoor ‘beach’ on the roof of Khan Shatyr, a large shopping mall. When I told them that wasn’t my thing, it was often addressed with, “But the sand has been imported from Dubai”. I later found out that the sand is from the Maldives, just to update you.
The city also thought it would be charming to replicate famous buildings around the world like Moscow’s famous Seven Sisters buildings. Or the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation resembling a pyramid. Or the Presidential Palace resembling Washington D.C.’s White House. Or the Kay Munay Gaz building resembling Atlantis in the Bahamas. And now there is major construction happening in the left bank to build a high tower like some of the ones gracing Dubai’s skyline.
My last day in Astana was spent making an intentional venture around the city to find three things I liked about it. I honestly came up blank. The only thing that came remotely close was my discovery of a business lounge in the train station that was free, had good beer and decent samsas, and didn’t yell at me for trying to charge my computer or phone with the outlets inside. It also acted as a refuge from the police officers harassing people in the main train station.
Astana had no soul. No heart. No charm. I don’t have any desire to return to the city. Unless I am sent on some type of work duty, which would be more or less out of my control.
I left Astana with such disgust that I just wasn’t sure if Kazakhstan as a whole could redeem itself. Thankfully, the job was left up to Almaty, the largest city by population and the former capital city.
Arriving in Almaty
Almaty rocks. In every way possible. I really, really love it here (I’m still here!) The people are kind and helpful, the buildings have stories to tell, and there are no indoor beaches with sand imported from Dubai or the Maldives, that I know of. Every meal I have had in Almaty has been delicious. Seeing the late sunrise reflect on the majestic mountains that decorate the city’s skyline makes me eager to wake up every single morning. And this city definitely knows a good cafe.
Almaty is one of those cities that actually inspires me to write. Not many places I’ve visited in the past year have had that impact on me. Many of my trips in 2013 have actually not even been written about on here because they have left me completely uninspired and apathetic after visiting. Thankfully, Almaty has broken the streak and has inspired me to even write about those cities that I, at once, couldn’t conjure up any words about.
Perhaps Almaty isn’t really all that great and I just arrived here at the right time, giving me the impression that it is grander than what it actually is. Or perhaps it is just a really incredible city. Whatever it is, Almaty has easily become one of my favorite cities in the world. It is developed enough to feel comfortable, but foreign enough to feel intriguing. It is large enough to feel like an important metropolis but small enough to walk around without getting dangerously lost.
Update: I ended up loving Almaty so much back when I traveled there that I opted to move there for three months at the end of 2016 when I didn’t have a visa for Schengen. I can confirm that the city is still incredible and deserves every bit of recognition and love that it receives.
Is Astana Worth Your Time?
I have never once on this blog attempted to steer people away from a destination. I’m a firm believer that people can have different experiences in different places and that you should make your own judgments about a place. However, it is very difficult for me to suggest Astana as a city for travelers to the region and it is for a few reasons:
The first reason is that Central Asia has no shortage of historical places and things to see. The region is historically one of the most important on the planet. If you’re curious about the modern state of Kazakhstan, perhaps a visit to Astana is a good idea. But if you’re seeking out Silk Road history, you should make your way to Shymkent and the south.
The second reason is its location. If you don’t have the means to fly to Astana, you will have to really put in some effort to travel there. The trains from Almaty can be an entire day long. That is an entire day that you can spend elsewhere. If Astana was a city located within an eight-hour journey of Almaty or other places in Central Asia, I would highly encourage the trip there as it offers contrasts and varying architecture. But would I take a 20-hour train there if I only have two weeks in the city? No way.
The third reason is the weather. When I was there, it was a comfortable -20C or even warmer. As I mentioned above, it can get to -40C and you’re on the steppe. The wind blows and can physically bring pain to your entire body. I was used to cold temperatures having lived in Oslo, so this factor didn’t really bother me, but if you’re not a winter traveler or love cold temperatures, maybe a trip to Astana during colder months isn’t for you. With that said, I found Almaty’s weather to be far worse temperature-wise than Astana’s. Perhaps it was the humidity…
In 2013, I would have said to steer clear of Astana at all costs. Having lived in Kazakhstan in 2016, however, I would encourage you to go if you have the time. I almost even booked a ticket back there for this November (and still might!) as Wizz Air is offering cheap deals from Budapest currently. I always said I wouldn’t go back, but the city has 2017 Expo and it seems to have done well with it and it appears to have infused a new life and optimism in the people of the city. Plus, there is nothing more I love than proving myself wrong about a place.
What To Do in Astana
So you have found yourself in Astana… now, what are you going to do there?
The city has quite a few buildings that worth noting for the architectural savvy traveler. The food has apparently come a lot way from when I was there. The parks are in abundance and museums are teaching travelers and their visitors about the history of the city. You can also check out the right bank, where the Soviet-side of the city still exists. Basically, there are definitely some things to do in Astana if you happen to find yourself there.
The most obvious thing to do in Astana is to check out the modern and futuristic architecture the city boasts. There is no shortage of cool buildings in the city, but the ones listed below are the ones I found to be most worthwhile.
Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center
This is a giant mall and entertainment center located in a building that looks like a tent. Ugh yes, I am suggesting you check out the mall. But this mall is different. It supports quite a few businesses, but the inside of it is interesting and the design is absolutely remarkable. There are rides inside, a nice food court, and even the indoor beach I mentioned above. The shopping mecca was a project announced by President Nursultan Nazarbayev on December 9, 2006, and the doors finally opened on July 5, 2010.
The third largest mosque in Central Asia, the Nur-Astana is a sight to behold with one’s own eyes. Something about the white color of it situated against the steppe and clear skies just make it standout. The mosque was a gift as a result of an agreement between Nursultan Nazarbayev and Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa. The capacity is 5,000 on the inside and another 2,000 on the outside… making it a must-see, even if just for size, when in Astana.
Ak Orda Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Astana is a grandiose palace that is the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. It was constructed quickly and opened in 2004. The palace can be found on the 10,000 Tenge note.
Northern Lights Astana
Some people will tell you to go to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation or to the Triumph of Astana over this building, but I really liked this one because of the way it glistened under pristine and blue skies. It was simple, yet visually complex and beautiful. This office and residential building opened in early 2010.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in Astana, this 97-meter high tower (and yes, you can visit its top!) is nicknamed “Chupa Chups” like the lollipop by local residents. The queue can be long, so make sure you plan ahead.
<Baiterek is on the left>
If you’re looking to get out of the city a bit, I ended up back in Astana during the autumn and can highly recommend a day trip or overnight trip to Borovoe. I absolutely loved this area of Kazakhstan and it was a nice retreat from the city life.
Where to Eat in Astana
Do not eat at the rotating restaurant no matter how many people tell you to go up there. The building was located right beside the residential building I was staying at and it was a major mistake. The restaurant is Chinese and Kazakh and the rotating nature of it made me feel ill. But not nearly as ill as the food made me ill after eating it. I ordered the national dish of Kazakhstan, beshbarmak, and it was just awful. Below are some recommended suggestions from other sources:
The Ultimate Guide Where to Eat in Astana (please ignore the Revolving Restaurant recommendation they give you)
I will also add Line Brew to this list. Line Brew is a place I’ve been too many times to count in Almaty and they brew their own beer and cook tasty Kazakh and international food right in front of you. It isn’t really the best place for vegan or vegetarians in Almaty or Astana, but it is worth a try- and their beer is good! You can find the Astana location at Kenesary St 20.
Specialty Coffee in Astana
When I was in Astana, no specialty coffee existed! So imagine my excitement when my friends report back that there is good coffee to be found in the capital city. The Ministry of Coffee (or Министерство Кофе) has been serving up superb coffee since they opened their doors in Astana. They have everything from V60 pourovers to Syphon to long blacks and flat whites. You can find them at Kuneyeva Street 35.
Where to Stay in Astana
The place I previously stayed seems to no longer be in business (not really surprising- such is life in Kazakhstan). Astana has the standard Marriotts and the luxurious Rixos Hotel, but plenty of affordable hostels and rooms are available these days (definitely different than when I was there!) and you can search for them on Booking.com.
Final Thoughts on Astana
So, I didn’t like the city. Obviously not a secret if you’ve read this far. And years ago, I would have concluded that I’d never, ever make it back to the place unless someone pulled my teeth out. But I have since lived in Kazakhstan. I’ve chatted with some of my Kazakh friends about the city and I even have some friends that reside in the city.
It may not have been my cup of tea that time around, but with the Expo and everything else that has transformed the place since, I would actually give it another shot in hopes of being able to slap myself in the face from having such hateful thoughts about it the first time around. If you have any suggestions of what to see or do in the city or want to share an opinion about your time spent there, please do so in the comments! And stick around- one day I’ll certainly be writing a sequel to this.