Almaty to Astana

March 4. Bangkok Post

By Mark Fenn

Almaty to AstanaA true melting pot of cultures standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

From the top of Astana’s Bayterek Tower, visitors are treated to a panorama of an unfinished city dotted with striking examples of shiny, futuristic architecture.

Beyond, for as far as the eye can see, lies the vast and timeless Eurasian steppe, a landscape that dominates the country and has changed little in centuries.

Welcome to Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, one that straddles two continents and is home to more than 120 different ethnic groups – a true melting pot of cultures standing at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Tourism is still in its infancy and Kazakhstan receives few visitors other than those involved in its hugely profitable oil and natural gas industries, but there are plenty of attractions to keep the intrepid adventurer, the business traveller or even those on a short stopover occupied. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable few days there lapping up the sights and sounds, the delicious food, the rich history and the surprisingly lively nightlife, and look forward to visiting again – next time for longer.

It is a cruel fact that despite its vast size and geostrategic importance, few people in the West could place Kazakhstan on a map and many had barely heard of it until it achieved a kind of dubious fame thanks to the fictional journalist Borat, the boorish and ignorant character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

In fact, far from being a backward land full of ignorant peasants, Kazakhstan is a young, cultured and dynamic nation looking resolutely to the future. Since proclaiming independence from the USSR in 1991, it has used its wealth in natural resources to become by far the most prosperous and stable of the former Soviet Central Asian states. And during my short trip, I didnt see any men wearing Borat’s trademark thick moustache. Although the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan incurred the governments displeasure, many locals take it in typical good humour.

I did not watch this movie, so I can’t tell you my opinion about it, said Nazira, my friendly guide in Almaty. Some people did watch it. Nothing serious, just caricature on the local life – it’s their opinion. In every country, if you try hard, you can find something to laugh at.

If it is true, as Paul Theroux remarked in The Great Railway Bazaar, that featureless is the steppe’s single attribute, the same certainly cannot be said of Astana or the former capital Almaty, the country’s biggest city and still its cultural and commercial centre. Both cities are pleasant, sophisticated, and surprisingly to me at least feel a lot more European than Asian.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising, given Kazaksthan’s’s recent history and stew of ethnic groups. Stalin used it as a kind of dumping ground, forcibly deporting ethnic minorities he suspected of disloyalty en masse from all corners of the USSR to Kazakhstan. Russians make up the biggest ethnic minority, at just over a fifth of the population, but there are also communities of ethnic Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, Turks, Tartars, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Koreans from Russia’s Far East and many more.

Most people practice a very liberal interpretation of Islam, but the government is strictly secular and promotes Kazakhstan as a model of a harmonious, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Indeed, Astana’s imposing Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a giant pyramid designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, was conceived as a centre for promoting dialogue between the world’s faiths. It cost about US$35 million to build and includes a museum and 1,500-seat opera house.

But it is only one of many outlandish buildings in Astana, which in little over a decade has been transformed from a small, dusty and remote trading post to one of the world’s biggest building sites and architectural playgrounds. The driving force behind this is the autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who moved the capital there from Almaty in 1997. Using the profits from Kazakhstan’s vast wealth in oil and natural resources, billions of petrodollars have been been invested in the city and its population has more than doubled, to about 700,000.

Other architectural highlights include the blue-domed presidential palace, dazzling golden-hued buildings housing various government departments, and the Bayterek Tower, a 97-metre-high monument with a golden egg-shaped viewing platform on top. Here, while enjoying a bird’s eye view of the city, visitors are invited to place a hand in an imprint of Nursultan’s own and make a wish. (They can do the same at the Independence Monument in Almaty.) The tower has become a symbol of the new Kazakhstan’s prosperity and ambition, and attracts a steady stream of visitors.

But even it is set to be outshone by another outlandish Foster design, the Khan Shatyry (Royal Tent) Entertainment Centre, due to be completed soon. Designed in the shape of a giant tent covering more than 100,000 square metres, it will feature an indoor park and many other shopping and leisure facilities, giving the city a large public space that can be used even in the freezing winters.

Yet for all its shiny new buildings and wide boulevards, I found Astana a little soulless, a purpose-built city that has yet to find its own identity. More to my liking was the old capital, Almaty, nestled snugly at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains more than 1,000 kilometres away. It may have lost its top dog status to Astana, the brash young upstart, but Almaty is far more vibrant and colourful.

A highlight for me was the picturesque Panfilov Park with its beautiful Zenkov Cathedral, which was crowded with worshippers when I looked in. Having never attended a Russian Orthodox service before, I lingered a while and no one paid any attention to the obvious tourist standing with his head bowed and camera in hand, although tourists are a rare breed in Kazakhstan. (I experienced a similar reaction or lack of one at the Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, the biggest in Central Asia.) Zenkov Cathedral is made entirely of wood, and not a single nail was used in its construction. Amazingly, it was one of the few buildings from the Tsarist era to survive a major earthquake in 1911.

Nearby is the colourful Green Bazaar, a wonderful feast for the senses where one can sample the tastes, sights and smells of Central Asia. Here you can buy dried fruits and nuts, horsemeat, camel milk, sheep’s heads, Korean salads, inexpensive caviar and much more.

For fine views of the city, many locals take the cable car or drive up to Kok Tobe, a hill on the outskirts of Almaty with a popular recreation area and several good restaurants selling local favourites such as shaslik (charcoal-grilled meat).

The typical diet of Kazakhstanis is heavily meat-based horse, pork, chicken and mutton – usually served with bread and some vegetables, and washed down with beer or vodka. I tried horsemeat and, to my uncultured palette, it tasted just like beef. Of course, many international restaurants can also be found throughout the city serving other fare.

After dinner it’s time to hit the town, and Astana has a great nightlife with plenty of good bars and nightclubs to choose from. At the lively Soho bar, I got chatting to a couple of friendly young women – one ethnic Russian, the other Kazakh – who spoke good English. They took me to a couple of other nightspots and I drank and danced with them until well into the small hours.

On my last night I heard some pretty good live rock music at the Guns & Roses Bar, and then went on to the trendy Bar Cuba, which was full of well-dressed young hipsters sipping cocktails and salsa dancing. My flight home the next morning was early, and after a night of rich food and plenty of beer I felt pretty rough but glad I’d packed so much into such a short trip. Next time, I hope to make it a longer one and head out into the featureless steppes.

But that’s another story.