Baiturek and the Shiny New Capital of the Steppe Sep 15, 2011
Kazakhstan's newish capital, Astana, is an example of what happens when a country has a lot of money and land, and puts the two together to build a shiny modern city in the middle of the steppe. It has been called many things, not all of them complementary, and an article that made me giggle recently described it as "what would happen if Epcot met Washington D.C. in Vegas." While the city is so new that it's still trying to figure out its own culture and atmosphere, I'd definitely say it's worth a stop if you're traveling in Kazakhstan and want insight into where and what Kazakhstan aspires to be on the global stage in the future.
In terms of traveling to Astana, the easiest ways to get here from far away are plane, arriving in a modern international airport, or train. From nearby cities such as Karaganda or Kokshetau buses, marshrutkas (think vans), or taxis are cheaper. In between Karaganda and Astana, in particular, is an electric train for a little more than half the cost of a bus. Arriving in the airport you'll be outside the city but you can take a bus or a taxi to wherever you need. Arriving by any other means will put you at the old bus and train station complex in the old portion of the city, from which you can also bus or taxi to the new section in about 40 or 20 minutes, respectively. Apparently a new train station is being built in the new city, and while when it's done it will no doubt be beautiful and modern, I have no idea when it's scheduled to open.
The new part of the city is what you'll come to see - this area of Astana is full of world-class modern architecture and a plethora of stylish shopping and eating choices. In terms of landmarks, Baiturek is the big must-see. This tower is architectually based on an eagle's nest, the eagle being the state bird of Kazakhstan. For a fee you can take an elevator to the inside of the giant golden glass dome for views over the center of the new city in all directions. There's also the obligatory photo opportunity of putting your hand inside the handprint of Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan since its independence 18 years ago, and hearing the plinth it's embedded on play the national anthem.
One of the other major sights is a gigantic shopping mall inside the biggest tent in the world (no kidding) called Khan Shatyr. The mall is 150 meters tall, enormous inside, extremely modern, and its 7th floor boasts an indoor beach complete with imported sand. This means that even if you brave Astana's famously inclimate weather and come midwinter, you can still lounge on the beach in your bikini/swimsuit despite the -40C temperatures outside! Pretty cool, says this survivor of 2 frigid Kazakhstani winters.
Astana also features a giant pyramid which is a center for religious tolerance, many other shopping malls and embassies, a river running through the new downtown with a pleasant walking path along portions of it, and a fair number of well-planned new parks that will no doubt be beautiful when the trees grow up. Fun fact: the city's aquarium has the distinction of being the farthest away from any ocean of any aquarium on the planet. Even if you don't duck in anywhere, just walking around the new city center is fun and offers a lot of photo opportunities with all the interesting looking buildings around. Take a look if you're traveling through this part of the world!
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