Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the intriguing capital of Kazakhstan πŸ‡°πŸ‡Ώ

Nur-Sultan is an intriguing yet an interesting city

There’s a lot of controversy about this city; starting from how many times it was renamed, how it became the nation’s capital in 1997, and the modern and even futuristic architecture of the city that is in the middle of world’s largest Steppe. I must say that I received some mixed opinions about Nur-Sultan (or Astana as locals still call it to this day). Many people described it as an empty city without any soul or character while a few others told me that it’s a city with beautiful architecture and it’s worth a visit. I read a lot about the city prior to my trip and I must say that even though I was excited to visit it, I had some fears that I might be wasting my precious time there (We get only 3 weeks of annual vacation in Canada) so you can imagine how valuable my time is during any vacation. In the end, I just decided to have low expectations and just to explore it for 2 days and see how it goes. In this blog, I will be sharing my impressions about my visit to Nur-Sultan during my short stay there.

The city was renamed several times, maybe more times than any other city in the world; It was called Akmola when the settlement was founded in 1830, 2 years later it was granted town status and was renamed to Akmolinsk. During the Soviet time, the city was called “Tselinograd”, and then it was called Akmola again when Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. In 1997, the city replaced Almaty as the capital of Kazakhstan and it was renamed to “Astana” which means “Capital City” in Kazakh language. Finally, in 2019, it was renamed from “Astana” to its current name “Nur-Sultan” in honor of the long ruling Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev who resigned in 2019 after ruling the country for more than 25 years. Have you ever heard of any other city that it changed its name as many times as this city? I personally didn’t πŸ™‚

The flight and arrival in Nur-Sultan

I had an amazing domestic flight from Almaty to Nur-Sultan with Air Astana; I wrote a detailed flight review so you can read more about it here. I ordered a Yandex taxi to pick me up from the airport terminal to my Airbnb apartment. It was a bit rainy and I had to look for the driver but we managed to find each other in the end. It was a short 15 minutes drive in the very wide streets of this city from the airport to the apartment. During the ride, I had some nice conversations with a cool taxi driver with my very limited and broken Russian. I noticed that if you speak Russian in these countries, the chances to have some great conversations with people is incredibly high. The guy got so positively excited and started to tell me about all the great things in Nur-Sultan and how beautiful and amazing this city is but he also had to admit that it gets so cold there in the winter. The first impression I got from the city was “This doesn’t look like Kazakhstan at all. Instead, it looks like a city in the Gulf region such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha”.

I arrived at my Airbnb apartment; It was in a nice modern building in a great location. The place felt like home as the apartment was spacious, sparkling clean, and very comfortable. Wi-Fi wasn’t working in the first couple of hours though but landlord was able to fix the issue fairly quickly. I liked the apartment as I was able to get a very good sleep there later at night and my jet lagged was finally fixed.

Exploring Nur-Sultan in the evening

A couple of hours later, I went out to explore the city so I started the evening in a very nice local restaurant called Saksaul which is arguably the best restaurant that offers Kazakh cuisine dishes. Unfortunately, I was busy talking with a good friend there so I didn’t get the chance to take photos of the food. Besides, I wasn’t so hungry as I had a big meal during my flight a couple of hours before heading to the restaurant. I had a horse meat salad and some other local dishes. As you can see, there’s an obsession with horse meat in Kazakhstan, it’s everywhere. The atmosphere in the restaurant was spectacular and the service was very professional and friendly.

After the restaurant, I had to quickly return to the apartment to charge my phone and then went out again to walk around in the center and to simply stare at the all the modern buildings surrounding me. Once again, this city didn’t look like a city in Central Asia at all. It looked so glamorous with many modern looking buildings and skyscrapers; everything looked modern and I was truly amazed.

Bayterek, the symbol of post independence Kazakhstan

I arrived at Bayterek, the symbol of the city and of the whole country, a majestic monument and observation tower, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. You can read more about the symbolism of Bayterek in the internet but here, I will stick to share with you my impression about it and in all honesty, I was truly impressed. This tower looked so beautiful in real life and the sky that evening looked so gorgeous. It’s a moment I started to realize that Nur-Sultan is full of pleasant surprises for me and I quickly started to like the city. What a beautiful evening it was! Later in the evening, I went to a nice cafe called “Nasha Dacha” which literally means “Our summer house”. Following that, I had to return back to the apartment to watch the Champions League final. It was so hard to stay awake during that game as it started at 1.30 am local time. I remember that I slept in the halftime and then woke up again in the 2nd half. Sadly, Real Madrid won the final against Liverpool 1:0 so it was a very sad night for me. Nevertheless, I had a great straight 8 hours sleep and jet lag was completely gone!

An active day exploring the city

After getting 8 hours of deep uninterrupted sleep, I realized that my jet lag had come to an end. I woke up, showered, and got ready to explore the city and to see as many sights as possible before departing the city to Tashkent, Uzbekistan next day. First, I had my breakfast in a nice cafe called Nektar Coffee. The cappuccino was one of the best I had in the entire trip but I ordered pancakes thinking that they would bring me the thin Russian style pancakes (Π±Π»ΠΈΠ½Ρ‹) but instead they got me the thick ones which are not my favourites. They still tasted alright but again, I was wishing to get the thin pancakes.

National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan

After the unsuccessful hunt for the thin pancakes, I ordered a Yandex taxi and headed to this magnificent national museum of Kazakhstan. Simply put, it was one of the greatest national museums I’ve ever visited and I realized that this city -Nur-Sultan- keeps on impressing me and it’s absolutely worth it to make a stop there. The museum is located on the right bank of the river (which is where the old part of the city is supposed to be). I was told that the right bank of the river has some old buildings but I didn’t see anything old during my visit to this city, everything I saw looked incredibly modern. Back to the museum, I spent about 2 hours there roaming it and moving from one room to another. It is spectacular; there’s the story of the young country of Kazakhstan (became independent in 1991) and there are some sections demonstrating the Islamic history of the land which is today called Kazakhstan. I saw on display many ancient science and religion books written in Arabic language with a beautiful Arabic calligraphy and I started reading that ancient text which was written hundreds of years ago with a big smile on my face while admiring such a bright beautiful history of a great civilization that was -for a long time- the center of science, art, and literature in the world. There were some displays about Al-Farabi, a Muslim philosopher who was born in the 9th century in today’s Kazakhstan and died in Damascus. Al-Farabi was often called as “the second teacher” following Aristotle who was known as “The first teacher”.

After satisfying my ego with all the stuff I read and saw in Arabic language and the Islamic history, it was time to visit it one of my favourite sections in the museum which is the Soviet history section. I was happy to see some interesting items in display such as medals from different sport tournaments, great patriotic war memorials, and I was so glad to see my favourite Olympic Games mascot which is the mascot of 1980 Moscow Olympics on display. His name is Misha and he is adorable. Everyone who grew up in the Soviet Union has a special place for Misha in their heart. Trust me, he is not like any other mascot. However, I was a bit disappointed that Misha’s colour in the display was grey, not brown as he should be.

Another photo which truly surprised me was a photo of the iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev in a photo that was taken during Arafat’s visit to Kazakhstan in 1991. It was a huge surprise for me and so unexpected. I thought that I’m the first Palestinian to visit Kazakhstan but looks like another Palestinian beat me in this in 1991 (I’m being sarcastic here) . Anyway, I later did some research and found some info about his visit to Kazakhstan and… I’m not going to share it here but you’re welcome to send me a private message if you want to know and I will be happy to tell you.

Exploring some beautiful architecture of Nur-Sultan

I wish I spent more time in the museum but I had to leave as I needed to see other sites. In my opinion, the most fascinating thing about this city is the architecture so I needed to spend a lot of time outdoor to admire these beautiful built structures. There was a beautiful pyramid shape structure not far away from the museum, it’s the palace of peace and reconciliation. I wish I had time to get closer to it but I tried to get as close as possible and managed to take some photos. Not far away from the museum, there was a beautiful white mosque called Hazret Sultan Mosque, it’s the largest mosque in Central Asia and it was built in 2012 . It’s worth mentioning that, opposite to the mosque, there were some other attractive looking structures such as Kazakh university of arts and the palace of independence. I saw some high-rise residential buildings too and they looked new too, despite being on the right bank of the river, which is supposed to be the old part of the city. I was told there’s an old part of the city but I didn’t see anything like that, I only saw modern and even futuristic looking buildings.

Back to the center

I took another Yandex taxi from the mosque to the center where Bayterek is located. Yandex taxi is very convenient in major cities in Kazakhstan and it’s very affordable. A 15 minutes taxi ride inside the city would cost a bit less than $2 USD so I was heavily relying on Yandex for transportation. However, streets in Nur-Sultan are very wide so there were a few occasions where taxi drivers were waiting for me on the other side of the road and it was impossible to cross roads as they were so wide.

I wanted to see Bayterek in a sunny day and we tried to go up there to view the city from the observation deck but sadly, there was a long wait (about an hour) so we changed our mind and went for a walk instead. It was so cool to see a pedestrian traffic light with emojis. During the walk, I spotted Khan Shatyr, a neofuturist style shopping mall that looks like a giant nomadic tent (Yurt). The exterior design of this mall is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I went inside the mall to realize that it looked like any other shopping mall but there’s a boating river and an indoor beach (yes, an indoor beach) with some real beach sand brought either from Maldives or Dubai (2 people told me 2 different stories about where they brought the sand from so I can’t confirm). I wasn’t allowed to check out the indoor beach as I had to pay an entrance fee to do so and I wasn’t ready to go to the beach that day, to be honest πŸ™‚

For lunch, I wanted to have something vegetarian as I was tired of all the meat (especially horse meat) I’ve been consuming in Kazakhstan so found this nice Italian restaurant (it’s a chain by the way) called Del papa. I had a Pizza Margherita there, it looked good and it tasted so good.

The city kept on impressing me with its modern architecture and with the nice, kind, and genuine people I kept on meeting while being there. There was a point when I realized that Nur-Sultan (or Astana) was so far the most pleasant surprise in this trip and I am so glad I decided to visit it but I should have spent 1 more day there, 2 days were not enough.

There was that moment of joy and gratefulness for being there and for having such a positive experience which brought a lot of happiness to me, maybe you can tell from the photo below.

Later, we had a nice walk in the botanical garden which is huge and really cool but I wish if there was some shade though as it felt hot to walk in the sun but it was a nice site to discover nevertheless.

I realized I still didn’t eat a burger in Kazakhstan

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I have a habit (you can call it a hobby) of trying things when I visit any of these former USSR countries such as visiting a barber shop to trim my beard, eating a burger, looking for aFerris-Wheel, and looking for Soviet mosaic. I didn’t see the Ferris-Wheel in Astana even though there’s one that is the largest in all of Kazakhstan and it’s only 10 minutes drive from the Bayterek site (I truly wish I had more time there in Nur-Sultan). Laster in the evening, I realized that it’s my last night in Kazakhstan and I still didn’t have a burger there yet. I wanted to have one as the quality of meat in Kazakhstan is excellent. I ended up having one in a nice Irish pub called “The Leprechaun” which was, by the way, much nicer and more cool than any Irish pub I’ve been to in Toronto. About the burger, to describe my experience, I will borrow a quote from the famous movie “Pulp Fiction” and say “Mmmmm. That is a tasty burger”

Summary

As I mentioned above, Nur-Sultan (honestly, I’m tired to call it Nur-Sultan and I prefer Astana but I need to stick to the new name haha) was the most pleasant surprise in this trip. Prior to my visit, I had low expectations and many people told me that I should skip it and that I shouldn’t add it to my itinerary in Central Asia. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to visit this truly beautiful city. It’s true that the city doesn’t have the cosy (or cozy, depends how you spell it) feeling and that it gets very cold and windy there in the winter and that it’s in the middle of nowhere but it’s still an interesting city to visit with a truly beautiful architecture and really nice and kind people.

As I said, I wish I spent more time there because I couldn’t see everything I wanted to see in 2 days. I must say that Nur-Sultan was an ideal stop in this journey and I would even visit it again, if I ever get the chance. I met very nice and kind people there, I stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment, the weather was perfect (except the rain when I landed), I had great food, and most importantly, I felt happy when I was there so honestly, I can’t ask for more.

However, I must say that there were some sights which I couldn’t see due to my limited time there such as the Ferris- -Wheel, Presidential Palace, Soviet mosaics, and some old buildings from the Soviet time.

Next morning, I packed again and left my Airbnb apartment to the airport. The airport in Nur-Sultan is very nice and modern, definitely 100 times better than the airport in Almaty so it was a seamless experience there and I am willing to share more about it in my next blog.

This is all I can say about my impression of Nur-Sultan (Astana) for now and that brings my Kazakhstan blogs to an end hoping that I will visit this great country again in the future and even explore more cities there and write more articles. In the next blog, I will be writing about my visit to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan so stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the intriguing capital of Kazakhstan πŸ‡°πŸ‡Ώ

  1. Arrived here yesterday and fully agree with having low expectations! Came in with low expectations and was blown away by its beauty and unique feel! Excited to be posting about Kazakhstan on my site during and after my stay πŸ™ŒπŸ»

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool! I’m glad to hear that you like it there. Enjoy your time and let me know once your post about Kazakhstan is ready πŸ™‚

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s