Impressions Of Kazakhstan After Visiting Almaty And Astana

I’ve just wrapped up my flights on Air Astana. As some of you may recall, my itinerary from Seoul to London allowed me to have stopovers of just under a day each in Almaty and Astana.

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This trip was exciting not only because I’d get to try a nifty new airline, but also because I’d get to experience a little bit of a new country that I can’t imagine I would have otherwise visited anytime soon.

Let’s be honest — when you bring up Kazakhstan in the US, the first thing that most people think of is Borat. At least that’s the feedback I got when I planned my trip.

Anyway, the focus of this blog is mainly on the journey rather than the destination, though I did want to briefly share my impressions of the two cities. Let me again clarify that I spent under 24 hours in each city, and as usual had to sleep, work, get to the airport early to review lounges, etc. So in reality my time spent exploring the cities consisted mostly of a 3-4 hour tour in each city, which at least gave me a good overview.

Thoughts on Almaty

Before visiting, the only thing I really knew about Almaty is that it’s surrounded by mountains and had some cool skiing and hiking.

My perception of the city was probably skewed by two things:

  • I wanted to go into the mountains, though the concierge said that due to the weather forecast that didn’t make sense
  • My tour was on a Sunday morning, so the city felt a bit dead

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With that in mind, the city was interesting to see, though I didn’t pick up on any sort of a vibe. The city’s architecture was largely Soviet-era (as you’d expect), though there were also some gorgeous buildings smattered throughout the city. I was impressed by how many parks there were, though with the weather in Kazakhstan, I guess that’s only useful for so many months of the year.

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We took a cable car up a (small) mountain, which afforded nice views of the city, but overall I just came away feeling pretty indifferent.

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From my very brief stay I just wasn’t very impressed, though I wish I would have been able to visit the mountains, as it looks like there’s some gorgeous landscape just outside the city.

Thoughts on Astana

While Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan, Astana is the capital, and is quickly growing. I knew virtually nothing about the city before visiting.

Well, I can’t even begin to say how in awe the city left me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city with such varied architecture. A lot of cities have a couple of weird/cool/awesome buildings that really stand out, while in Astana there’s one in every direction you look.

Also, the amount of construction going on in Astana was unreal. There were entire areas of the city where a dozen skyscrapers were being built at once.

I also got the sense that Astana has a vibrant ex-pat community. Walking around I heard a lot of people speaking English, and the entire city just felt more cosmopolitan.

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I was wide-eyed for almost my entire tour in Astana. It’s mind-boggling to think that there are cities as vibrant and distinctive as Astana that I didn’t really know much about.

When it comes to destinations, to me the most pleasant surprise is when you visit a city for the first time that you knew very little about and are impressed.

Sure, visiting a city like Prague is great, but when everyone says “Prague is one of my favorite cities, you’ll love it,” you’re already coming in with high expectations. In the case of Astana, no one had anything to say to me about the city before I visited.

I’m so happy I had the opportunity to visit both Almaty and Astana, though I wish I had more time. I’ll definitely be back!

Bottom line

While a day in each city doesn’t even scratch the surface of the things to see, it’s certainly better than nothing, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity. I’d definitely return to Astana at some point.

Would I recommend putting it at the top of your list of destinations to visit? Probably not. But if you’ve been a lot of other places and haven’t been to Astana, it’s certainly worthy of consideration. Not only was the architecture amazing, but beyond that there was something about the city’s vibe that I really liked, though I struggle to explain it…

Have you been to Kazakhstan, or is it on your travel bucket list?

Comments

  1. It might be responsible to note a large reason more visitors travel to Prague than Astana is that Kazakhstan has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and is led by a dictator.
    No election ever held in Kazakhstan has met international standards. Since 2014, multiple newspapers have been shut down, and political opponents put into prison, where torture is common.
    Even the US State Department warns travelers, “You may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you or if you take pictures of certain buildings.”Astana is mostly a planned city that was built in the 1990s through today.

    But yeah, Astana is so vibrant.

  2. During my time with the USAF we operated into Astana quite often during the Afghan campaign.

    Always found the city and country welcoming. Winters could be brutal but overall it was a very pleasant place to stage via.

    Another city nearby which we also enjoyed laying over in was Bishkek Kyrgyzstan which similarly has spent sums on fancy architecture, albeit on a smaller scale.

  3. Lucky, I did mention it! OK you want another experience? Please visit Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. And do visit the museum of carpets if you do go there.

  4. Is it just me or does the building behind the people with the globes look suspiciously like Atlantis in the Bahamas, the coloring is off but the same buildup from the side and center bridge is very reminiscent. On the other hand I have no idea which structure came first…

  5. Thanks for the thoughts! I’ve had Almaty and Astana on my radar (as well as the Baikonur Cosmodrome space center and Taraz) for some time. I am waiting until the StR Astana is completed in 2017..and then I’ll consider the trip.

    @ Adam: it is useful to note when countries have human rights abuse records. It’s also useful to keep perspective, since the USA has its own substantial human rights abuse record, particularly for its own citizens who are not white. Pretending the USA is somehow superior to others is ignorant. You likely being white just makes you oblivious to the realities of other people. There’s a reason I say that too often white people are scared of their own shadow in the West.

    If people stopped visiting countries that had bad human rights records, I believe we’d only be able to visit Western Europe and Canada. Suck it up and stop your whining. You’re just trying to be a Debbie Downer instead of being constructive here…and you know it.

  6. @Bill, comparing Kazakhstan to the U.S. is insane.
    The fact that you are suggesting it’s similar shows why it is ridiculous to write a laudatory post where the author couldnt even take the time to wiki Astana before visiting, and to compare it to Prague.
    A better comparison to Kazakhstan would be reporting from Yangon and saying “I didn’t know anything about this place. It was so pretty and vibrant.”
    That wouldn’t happen, here, of course, because Burma Air doesn’t have a lie-flat business class product or a Hyatt.

  7. Oh, and Bill, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, but to make reality clear, and provide a little more context for people who may stumble upon this review and think it reflects someone remotely knowledgeable about Astana, a city that was built in the past twenty years.
    A traveler should be embarassed to post “I knew virtually nothing about the city before visiting,” and then proceed to post virtually nothing except pictures of buildings and the fact that this dictatorship is “vibrant.” Twice.

  8. @Adam — What do you think the solution is? I’m not asking rhetorically, I’m genuinely curious because it’s something I struggle with. On the one hand, I hate to support an oppressive regime, but NOT going isn’t going to change anything either. At least by visiting, there’s some cultural interaction and mutual exchange of ideas going on, which maybe marginally increases the chance of eventual public dissent against an authoritarian regime. That may be a bit delusional, sure, but history has shown that isolation doesn’t do much.

    As for Lucky, I would imagine him writing a post, or even mentioning, the dictatorial aspect of Kazakhstan on a popular blog might cause him problems if he were ever to return.

    In full agreement with you about the comparison of the US and Kazakhstan being ridiculous, though.

  9. I lived in Kyrgyzstan over a year after college and visited Almaty about 8 times total. Loved the city and had tons of fun exploring all its restaurants, parks, and bars. Wish you’d had a better time as it really is a fun place most of the time. Everyone I know who has visited Astana and Almaty on a more extensive level and/or speaks Russian vastly prefers Almaty.

  10. Adam is a punk 😉
    In all seriousness, what good does not traveling to a country just because it’s a dictatorship? How does it help or hurt anyone? I do agree though that before posting about a new place some research is needed. Apples are from Kazakhstan is a fair account on the history and politics of Kazakhstan today – a book I read a few years ago before visiting Almaty and Shymkhent and which provided a lot of context to everything I saw and experienced. Take a look here:
    https://airwaysandtravels.com/2014/09/18/kazakhstan-some-thoughts/

  11. @Adam–Well, we certainly know what your impressions are, but I fail to see how that invalidates Lucky’s own perspective or renders it useless. Moreover, you may think differently, but personally I don’t travel to affirm or inculcate my own world view but to expand it. I don’t agree with every Mark Twain writes, but I absolutely agree that “[broad], wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

  12. Oh, I think the comparison between Khazachstan and USA is interesting. Remind me, which is country has the highest gun crime rate in the world and is about to elect Trump? Perspective is a wonderful filter.

  13. I lived in Almaty for 7 years (though I was traveling 23 days a month within Central Asia, Russia and Europe), and in one day you can see most everything worthwhile to see in one day, I always had a hard time finding things to do with visitors. Seems you didn’t make it to the Ziliony (Green) Bazar – a large marketplace with a huge food hall, clothing, electronics, auto parts, etc all being sold by small individual entrepreneurs. The mountains are nice for hiking and skiing as well as having the ice skating rink used by Soviet athletes to train for the Olympics speed skating. Am surprised the concierge said the weather should have inhibited at least a drive up to the mountains as September is usually beautiful and even in winter a drive up is possible.

    While Almaty can have brutal winters, Astana has horrid, bitterly cold winters and blistery hot summers with strong winds and dust storms – from the pictures it looks like you had beautiful weather. Astana was basically built from scratch (was just a small grungy village prior to the late 1990’s) as a new government and diplomatic capital (though the financial center remained in Almaty). While there is wonderful architecture in Astana, lots of parks and fountains, I always found the city a little sterile – perhaps that has changed in the six years since I left.

    Am glad you enjoyed your visit. You definitely need to visit Baku, Ashkhabad, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Bishkek and Dushanbe.

  14. Glad you enjoyed your visit! Pictures brought back some memories, I’m should go back and visit my family there soon.

  15. I really did not like Astana at all. I found it very boring and lacking in culture or identity. The buildings were cool and interesting but I just couldn’t get into it there. Almaty I thought was nicer, but I did spend more time there and saw a lot more of the city. The mountains were cool in Almaty, but very cold, even in May! Not the greatest country in the world, but if you happen to be in the area, its worth seeing. Going across the world just to see Kazakhstan, probably not.

  16. I grew up in Astana, left from there almost 17 years ago. It’s true that 20 years ago it was small town a bit more than 200k. Still have family there and visit some time. I am agree that everything it’s still new and cold there. And I like Almaty more Of course don’t skip Astana if you go there.

  17. Probably relevant to add that Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world (behind Ulaanbaatar). This place would be absolutely dreadful in the winter o_O

  18. Thanks for the insight!!! Very interesting description and pictures. I’m sure everyone will have different feeling about the same place, but it’s nice to see some off the radar destination on OMAAT.

  19. Like you, Ben, I had no expectations about visiting Kazakhstan and with little prior knowledge. I visited Almaty on business earlier this year, and I was most impressed. The city, despite its’ Soviet era vibe, had a lot of green spaces, and there was a number of things to do if you look for it. I took the metro, rode the cable car (snow sports naturally are popular), went to the Opera, visited the Green market, Kazakh museum, varied cuisines, etc. Is there a reason to stay a week? No. But there is enough to do for a few days, and the surrounding regions looked interesting.
    I’ll be going back to Kazakhstan for a visit, I reckon. Expo 2017 (themed ‘Future Energy’) takes place in Almaty next year, and I might use that as a jumping off point to visit more of Kazakhstan and the neighbouring countries.
    I flew Turkish Airlines there, but based on your impressions, I’d like to give Air Astana a try.

  20. I agree with the commentors that this piece needed a little perspective of the human rights record and current situation of the country, especially if the police might act against tourists as well, as the us government suggested. LOL to the person suggesting that americans shouldn’t take note of human rights abuses because of our spotty record; the opposite is true.

  21. It was interesting to read the commentaries from all of you as I’m citizen of Almaty. In some parts you are right, talking about human rights, but saying that our country lead by dictator hmmmm wouldn’t really agree with that. Almaty is really cosmopolitan city, and we accept all religions, we have mosques and different churches. I would not say that you are free to be what you want to for now, but maybe later it will come up….

    I was travelling a bit in Europe, and even lived some time in Spain, and I would say that some things still I like in our culture: we still have high respect to older generation, which I did not see that much in Europe, also men here will always help to women with their bags or stuff like that, which I also did not see that much in Europe. But of course I’m in love with all other things in Europe! and with people aswell 🙂

    We do not have that much places to visit in my city, and it’s correct to say that week is not worse to stay here, it’s not that toursitic country yet. But if you like skiing they you would love our mountains 🙂

    And this winter (January-February 2017) we are going to hold Winter Universiade Games 2017, so you are ver welcome in Almaty 🙂

    P.S. Don’t judge my english too strictly:)

  22. Highly interesting read this. I’m from the UK, and am planning a visit to Astana, from the photo’s it looks somewhere so different to where i usually go. Can anyone give out any pointers as to where the best touristy hotspots are?
    And is it easy to acquire tickets to watch Astana play? ⚽ Lol

  23. @Bill Are you serious about Canada and Western Europe? Obviously no look to recent history or the present. The Canadians still oppressed the native Americans like the Inuit and Métis to this day. Western Europe — sadly right wing groups are gaining momentum and have very active for awhile (centuries). No country or region is innocent. So stop trying to tell people to not be judgmental and practice my sweet.

    For years I have refrained from responding like this as I love travel and reading about it. The hypocrisy though is too much. That being said, Lucky, thank you for your thoughts/experiences — much appreciated.

    Moderate as you see fit Lucky — appreciate your perspective. There are not too many out there that telling true perspectives of places. Instead it is easier to be safe and be PC and not to offend anyone. Some places make just make better impressions or experiences than others.

    Publish or delete as you see fit.

  24. Interesting observation.

    Local people and expats actually prefer Almaty over Astana, because the beauty of Almaty is not in pretty streets/buildings but in the lifestyle that it can offer, e.g. you can start your day skiing/hiking in the mountains in winter (half an hour away from city) or visiting stunning lagoon-like lakes in summer time, then grab tasty lunch/dinner in one of Almaty’s “tapchan” style restaurants with distinct cuisine and finish the day by catching-up with friends in some Jazzy bar.

    The city holds a strong intrinsic value which might take a couple of days to discover but is totally worth it. Bottom line, it offers the best of both worlds: nature + cosmopolitan city at night, it just doesn’t shout it in your face and is very subtle.

    Astana is great for novice travellers, providing solid and pleasant sightseeing vacation that can indeed wow you.

    The best thing is to take a blue-soviet style night train from Almaty to Astana (all done up inside) which is pretty much a mini a “Trans-Siberian” journey with comfort.

    Food is great in both cities and deserves its own guidebook.

    … and yes, both cities are super safe and refreshingly welcoming.

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