The Kazakh capital is a futuristic city of skyscrapers that seeks to shed its Soviet shadow, says Aftab H. Kola.
Kazakhstan’s newly named capital of Nur-Sultan is fast emerging as a travel hotspot among visitors seeking to tick off the more unexpected side of their bucket-list as the nations of Central Asia rise to enjoy a renaissance in tourism. Rising from the northern slopes of the Kazakh Steppe, Nur-Sultan (meaning ‘The Sultan of Light’) is a city stuck between its Soviet past and a promising present. Previously known as Astana, the capital was renamed after the country’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Well-known throughout history since the time of the great Silk Road, today it’s a city situated in the geographic centre of Eurasia and is considered the pride of Kazakhstan. Currently considered a lucrative locale due to its vast resources of oil and mineral deposits, during the long reign of the Soviet Union Kazakhstan was once known as the home to one of the Soviet regime’s most notorious gulag labour camps – Karlag.
Today, Kazakhstan, and its capital of Nur-Sultan, have reinvented themselves through an architecture of commerce and culture that have the nation’s sights set firmly on the future. The Kazakh people were once nomadic – riding their majestic horses across the mountain steppe and building the rich culture of their heritage in yurt communities. When Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh Parliament voted to move the nation’s capital from the southern city of Almaty to Astana, which, as of March 2019, is now called Nur-Sultan. Today, this magnificent city is dotted with large parks and boulevards, flashy futuristic buildings, commercial shopping hubs, and five-star luxury hotels that rise majestically from the plains.
It’s also a place where a traveler can easily lose themselves between past and present in this nation where the indelible tide of history breaks upon the rugged face of nature.
My favourite place- The capital city’s iconic Bayterek Tower is a defining landmark that stands sentinel over the city. Seen on every banknote of Kazakh currency, the slender white 97-metre tall latticed tower is crowned by a large glass orb resembling an egg and provides the best platform to catch a panoramic glimpse out over the tapestry of the city. It’s possible to take the elevator all the way up to the top-most floor and is well worth the aerial vistas that await.
Highlights- The Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, on the road into the city centre from the airport, is one of the world’s largest marquees – with a total area of 127,000 square metres and a height of 150 metres along its spire. Offering a range of civic, cultural, and retail amenities all sheltered inside a ‘climatic envelope’ – a world within if you will – that boasts a comfortable microclimate all year-round – no matter what the weather. The center encompasses and urban-scaled park with a 450-metre jogging track, along with a wide variety of shopping and leisure facilities such as restaurants, cinemas, and entertainment spaces that can accommodate various programs and exhibitions. Can it get even more over-the-top? Why, yes, it can – there’s also a monorail system that runs within the center and a man-made ‘beach’ on the complex’s top floor that boasts sand imported from the Maldives.
Lowlights- Though it may seem like we’re stating the obvious – the weather. Kazakhstan can reach temperatures of -35 degrees Celsius during the winter months and +35 degrees in summer. Talk about extremes…so you might want to rethink that January winter break and opt for a sojourn in June instead.
Souvenirs- Locally-made Kazakh chocolate, unique Bal-Bala toys inspired by Kazakh folklore, silk scarves, local ceramics and handicrafts, and a bottle of ‘kymys’ – or fermented mare’s milk.
Getting there- Astana Airlines has a code-sharing arrangement with FlyDubai and Qatar Airways also operates direct flights from Doha to Nur-Sultan.
Where to stay- While most of the world’s major hotel chains have been making in-roads into Kazakhstan one five-star option for your stay in the capital is The Ritz-Carlton Astana, set in Talan Towers in the heart of Nur-Sultan’s business district is the way to go. But take your pick from an array of options on Booking.com, Trivago, Kayak, and Agoda.
1. Explore the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation’s glass and steel pyramid structure.
2. Learn about Kazakh history at the blue-glass and marble National Museum.
3. Worship at the Nur-Astana Mosque – the third largest mosque in Central Asia.
4. Marvel at the blue domes and spire of the Ak Orda Presidential Palace.
5. Take in the local nature at Burabay National Park and Lake Borovoe.