Kazakhstan; cities and a lot of steppe

The largest country of Central Asia is Kazakhstan. Being more than 60 times as large as the Netherlands, it’s the 9th country of the world in terms of size. However, due to the fact that the vast majority of the country is empty, there is not that much to see and or do. With two potentially interesting cities and a nice train ride, I visited a country that somehow captures the imagination even though it felt more as a transit than a proper visit…

My visit to Kazakhstan turned out to be a short one. Regardless of the large size of the country, the majority is not particularly interesting to visit since it’s just steppe. Yes, there is supposedly some fascinating countryside in the Eastern part but I figured it wouldn’t be that different to what I had already seen in Kyrgyzstan. So, the itinerary for this part of the trip was quite simple with the cities of Almaty and Astana being the main highlights on the itinerary. To get from one to the other, I planned to take a 20-hour train ride. So hopefully I could get an impression of the emptiness of the country…

On May 15, 2017 I took a marshrutka to Almaty in Kazakhstan. After the required formalities at the border, I arrived in another empty country. However, whereas Kyrgyzstan is filled with mountains, Kazakhstan is the opposite. There are indeed some spectacular mountains, mainly in the South, but more than 90 percent of the country is more or less flat with the majority being either desert or steppe. With 18 million inhabitants (comparable to the Netherlands) spread out over 2.724.900 squared kilometers (the 9th country of the world in terms of size), it’s roughly 14 times as large as Kyrgyzstan and over 60 times less densely populated than the Netherlands. Even though the country’s key characteristic is being empty, I decided to visit the two most densely populated areas: Almaty and Astana.

Almaty, a big city with big mountains in the background

With 1,7 million people Almaty is the largest city of the country. The center is spread out which makes it feel quite big. I arrived in the bus terminal by marshrutka from Bishkek and it took almost an hour by ‘taxi’ to get to the other side of the center where my accommodation was located. I mention ‘taxi’ because official taxis are hard to find. In Almaty every car is a potential taxi. You simply hold your hand up, negotiate with the driver and hopefully shortly after you arrive at your destination. And in the Netherlands the taxi drivers are complaining about Uber…

Within a week from my arrival in Almaty, I would fly to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Time to arrange a visa! A couple weeks back I applied for a letter of invitation (LOI), something you can arrange through a travel agency. Nothing is free of course, so for only €68 one will receive a piece of paper in about two weeks. Together with more forms and pass photos, I visited the Uzbek embassy in Almaty. According to the travel agency this is one of the better places to get your visa. On arrival I entered quite a chaos with people from different nationalities applying for different forms, passports and visas. At 3 pm we, myself and a handful of other tourists, could enter the embassy to hand over our applications. In return we received a small note with which we had to go to a bank and pay the necessary fee, another US $70… , and some commission of course. The bank gave us a receipt which we had to take back to the embassy. The word efficient (or anything closely related to that) does not exist in any Central Asian dictionary. Two hours after arriving at the embassy, I was back with my receipt. To my surprise there was no waiting time to enter the embassy again and after the consul got my receipt, getting my passport back with a beautiful Uzbek visa was just a matter of time…

for only US $140, a handful of forms, some pass photos and a lot of time, I received a beautiful piece of paper in my passport. Uzbekistan, you better be one heck of a country!

When you walk around in Almaty without knowing it’s Almaty, the only thing that reminds you of not being in Europe or North America are the people. Expensive cars (especially when compared to Kyrgyzstan!), frequent public transportation, many parks and people having lunch or simply drinking a coffee in one of the many trendy bars around town, are just a few examples of why Almaty could easily be a large city in the Western world. To convince you that the city is really modern you should just have a look in one of the subway stations or shopping malls. Dostyk Plaza, a shopping mall in the heart of the city, reflects the country’s growing economic wealth and brings some of the biggest Western brands to the country. Again, this place easily matches any shopping mall in the United States. In terms of bars and restaurants there is plenty of choice. Almost everything seems to be available, from cheap local eats to fancy foreign cuisine. I found a nice little Mexican eatery named Burrito Go. A bunch of young locals were running a Mexican grill with fresh ingredients. It became my daily stop for lunch. In the evening I mixed things up between very affordable local dishes and some more expensive foreign food. In the end, nothing beats the pleasure of dreaming away (or celebrating the fact one has obtained an Uzbek visa…) while enjoying a Tripel Karmeliet…

at the Line Brew pub in Almaty one can enjoy delicious spicy beef followed by a Tripel Karmeliet

In contrast to Kyrgyzstan, every tourist has to register in Kazakhstan within five days after arrival. After registration you’ll receive an extra stamp on the immigration card. I was visiting Kazakhstan for more than five days, but I received two stamps on my card directly on arrival. Confusion, confusion… Together with Elman, the owner of the guest house I stayed at, I visited the migration police to make sure I couldn’t get fined on departure. Luckily everything was OK. Bureaucracy is a great thing, isn’t it?

Elman was an interesting character. He was in his early 40’s, born in Azerbaijan and arrived in Almaty after spending a few years in several places in Turkey, Moscow and Tashkent. According to the man himself he was doing a PhD in neuroscience and the only researchers in his field who were still alive, lived in Tashkent and Almaty. It all sounded very interesting but his background stayed a bit mysterious. Nevertheless, he was a good host and made everybody feel at home. His guest house was basically his house, no signs of a guest house whatsoever. And, of course, for a reason. Once the authorities know you’re running a guest house or hotel, prices of gas and water increase immediately and several organisations will claim money. Also, additional taxes will have to be paid. Whether he was running an illegal guest house or trying to stay out of Kazakh corruption (or both) was not clear to me. In the end I had quite a comfortable stay, so I couldn’t care less. I hope he maintains his business and that he will have an official guest house in the near future.

left: Central mosque, right: Zenkov cathedral

One of the last days I further explored the town by visiting the Zenkov cathedral and Central mosque, two beautiful places of worship of two very different religions. Islam is by far the most popular religion in Central Asia, followed by Russian Orthodox Christianity, something that became clear by seeing these two religious sights. In Astana I have visited more mosques and I will go more into detail regarding religion in Kazakhstan.

In between both sights, the Green bazaar is located. This market is huge and takes place both in and outdoor. Once you think it’s over, you take a turn and suddenly a completely new department appears. In some way it was just another market, but this one was bigger than all the markets I have ever visited, possibly even when combined…

women showing their meat in the Green bazaar

Almaty is an attractive and comfortable city. In the end you could ask yourself whether or not it’s worth it to travel that far to experience a city that feels so Western. I definitely wouldn’t but if you’re in Central Asia anyway, this is definitely a nice stopover and a place to reflect on the trip so far or just simply relax. In case you’re seriously considering to fly about six hours to visit this city, I would first have a look at the list of European cities you haven’t visited yet…

The capital of Kazakhstan, and second city in terms of population, is Astana. With its 850.000 inhabitants, the city is located in Northern Kazakhstan. Other than a lake and a mining town, there is mainly steppe to be found in between Almaty and Astana. During my 20 hour train ride I would hopefully get a taste of it. My ticket was easily arranged through a travel agency downtown Almaty and on the evening of Friday May 19 I was expected at Alma-Ata 1 railway station for my departure. Slightly delayed I left the station while meeting my roommates in the coupé…

A couple from Almaty went on a weekend break to Astana. They were able to tell me with very little English that they didn’t like Astana but relaxing was all they wanted. They showed me photos of all their children and grandchildren. They were 47 themselves, so with a little bit of math it was easy to conclude that this family had not been sitting still. After all, their oldest child was 28 and they already had several grandchildren. Soon, the man brought out a bottle of wine. “Relaxing”, he said with a big smile. Vodka and other strong liquor had a bad influence on his appendix but a little bit of wine couldn’t hurt and, apparently, drinking some wine was the ultimate way to relax in his opinion. He was taken outside the coupé, together with the bottle of wine, by a police officer to make sure wine was the content of the bottle. Apparently vodka is not tolerated in Kazakh trains. Who would have thought that? Or would the police officer have a reason to ask for money when some other drink than wine had been found…

the train from Almaty to Astana was a great experience in several ways

Even though we couldn’t communicate in whatever language, we were able to exchange some basic information every now and then. In the end, they wanted to make sure I will invite them on my wedding which is, according to locals, a true expression of friendship. They might have to wait a while for the invitation though…

In one of the other coupés there was a young lady who spoke English really well. She worked in Astana in the oil industry, the largest of Kazakhstan. Because of their oil and gas, Kazakhstan is the dominant nation of Central Asia economically, generating 60% of the region’s GDP. This probably explains why the cities are much more modern than, for example, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. In between chatting to the only English speaking person on the train and relaxing in the coupé, I went to the dining car to have a tea and watch the more than 1000 km of steppe pass by while looking out of the window. After a decent night of sleep on the Kazakh railway, there was still about 8 hours to kill before arrival in the capital. A late breakfast, more tea and of course some episodes of The Big Bang Theory did the job. At 4 pm I arrived in Astana where I got a free ride to my hostel…

just a selection of buildings in Astana…

I didn’t really know what to expect about Astana. Everybody who had visited the capital told me they didn’t like it. One day was more than enough to see the highlights. Even the locals in the train told me they didn’t like Astana. Everybody preferred Almaty. At some point I started to wonder why I was going there. Well, even though it might not be the greatest city, at least it gave me a reason to experience the train and a visit to Astana would hopefully also give me a more comprehensive view of Kazakhstan.

Some background information about this mysterious city first. Akmola, as the city was called once Kazakhstan became independent, replaced Almaty as the capital city in 1997. They changed the name into Astana, meaning “capital city” in Kazakh. Several reasons are given for replacing the capital center to a location in the middle of the steppe. The first one might be to have better control of the many Russians living in the Northern part of the country. Others claim it’s a strategic decision since the capital is further away from China. The third and final reason is a symbolic one. The founder of the nation, president Nazarbajev, would want to follow Atatürk’s footsteps by replacing the capital city and show his power.

Ever since Astana has become the capital city, there has not been a lack of money as a result of oil revenues. A master plan has been designed by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the greatest architects of his time (died in 2007 at the age of 73), to develop Astana from a small city into a vibrant metropolis. Soon, the vast Kazakh steppe you see from your hotel window will be filled with parks, homes and businesses. Since construction works are in progress, the city is a mix of old and new. Often such a mix doesn’t really work in my opinion (Batumi in Georgia for example), but in Astana for some reason, it looked good. Some of the recently developed futuristic buildings are quite spectacular and unlike anything I have ever seen before. Maybe that’s the reason. By night these buildings provided a great view from the 22nd floor of the apartment building I stayed…

Astana by night

As mentioned before Islam is the most popular religion in Central Asia but, just like other countries in the region, Kazakhstan is a secular country. The word secular is prone to interpretation in this part of the world. During the Soviet-era severe restrictions on religious practice were in place. Because of this recent history and because of the concerns about Islamic radicalism in the region to this day, the word freedom, especially towards religion, is subject to change. So, secular on paper doesn’t necessarily means freedom of religion in practice. President Nazarbajev made an interesting statement though, if you’d ask me, when he visited Mecca for the first time. Visiting the Muslim holy city was part of an itinerary that also included a visit to the Vatican. He seemed to be well aware of his following.

There seems to be a decent mix of people with various roots, backgrounds and religions, creating a nice melting pot. People visit religious sights in all sorts of clothes, from traditional costume to shorts and skirts. Children are playing around in the mosques and people chat and take selfies with their phones. Also, the hijab is not a common sight in the streets of Almaty and Astana. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a strict set of rules dictating how to practice your religion. In fact, there seems to be a rather liberal approach towards religion in Kazakhstan. Of course this is only my view based on my experience. There might be more conservative areas in the country with a completely different scene.

Despite the relatively liberal approach, religion in general still plays a significant role in daily life. Some of the more striking buildings in both Almaty and Astana are therefore without a doubt the religious ones. Before my visit to the capital, I was looking forward to visiting the Hazrat-Sultan mosque, simply because it seemed to be very impressive from an architectural point of view. Also, it is one of the larger mosques in Central Asia with a capacity of ten thousand people. It’s located just outside the new part of Astana on the other side of the river…

the Hazrat Sultan mosque is very impressive

The mosque is quite spectacular from the outside with beautiful ornaments and, of course, the domes and minarets. The mosque is impressive in size. Unfortunately there was some renovation work going on at the entrance of the building. Once I had absorbed the design of the mosque from the outside, I decided to take a look inside. Usually the interior of a mosque is quite sober with a huge chandelier being more or less the only highlight. The Hazrat Sultan mosque is different in this regard. Multiple columns and beautiful windows create a more fascinating interior. Also the domes were decorated beautifully. The colors however are still the same as in most of the mosques I have visited; turquoise carpets and white walls dominate the design.

I sat down for a while to observe the locals. Interesting to see was the different behavior of the people. In one corner some people joined an imam to pray together while others were praying solo in other parts of the mosque. Then there were people reading and studying the holy books that were provided. Also, people were just gathering at the mosque to have a chat and finally there were locals just wandering around as a tourist taking photos with the family, both in- and outside the mosque.

The liberal approach towards religion I described earlier, seemed to be applicable to this mosque. Without a doubt I was clearly an outsider for not being a Muslim, but nobody seemed to care about that. I might not be interested in studying the Quran but I could easily see myself spending some time in this mosque in order to do some self-reflection and think about the bigger questions in life…

inside the Hazrat Sultan mosque is a great place to study and do some self-reflection

Having been in Kazakhstan for just over a week, it’s of course impossible to get a comprehensive feel about the 9th largest country in the world. Nevertheless I felt I was able to get a grasp of the local culture. I was surprised by modernity of Almaty. It’s a very comfortable city with all the amenities of a big city you can ask for. In the surroundings the mountains offer the ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating with me during my stay so I visit to the mountains in order to do some trekking did not make a lot of sense. I was able to visit the for us “Dutchies” historically significant Medeu ice skating rink but going any further into the mountains in the dense fog seemed a waste of time.

Astana is an interesting, fascinating but also weird city. Its streets are very spacious and the futuristic buildings are attractive, especially at night when they are lit. The most striking buildings in Astana were, in my opinion, not the futuristic buildings but the relatively conservative religious buildings. The Nur-Astana mosque and especially the Hazrat Sultan mosque were strikingly beautiful. It was interesting to observe locals practicing their religion. Communicating with them was a completely different story. The language barrier is significant in this part of the world making even the most basic of conversations very hard if not impossible.

Overall Kazakhstan is a relatively modern country, especially compared to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. I am aware that this might be quite different on the countryside. The two main cities of the country could easily match a major city in Europe or North America in terms of facilities. Do I recommend a visit to Kazakhstan? If you’re in the region I doesn’t hurt to experience what Kazakhstan has to offer but would I fly from Europe especially to Almaty or Astana only to visit Kazakhstan, probably not…

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Kazakhstan!

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