Kazakhstan – the ninth largest country in the world

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Astana - the Bayterek

Astana – the Bayterek Monument

Although the ninth biggest country in the world and four times the size of France, Kazakhstan is comparatively unknown. Astana, the country’s capital since 1997, is a very young city which is experiencing whirlwind development. Innovative buildings have been constructed, designed by some of the world’s leading architects. The city is split into two by the River Yesil with the left side devoted to business and luxury accommodation and the other residential, where there are still buildings from the Soviet times, although hardly noticeable as buildings rather than being close together have lots of space between them.

The city’s centre piece is the Bayterek Monument designed by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev which represents a mythical tree of life with the egg of a samruk, a magic bird of happiness, on its top. Among the buildings built by British architect Norman Foster is a conical shaped building the size of ten football stadiums with a pole coming out of its roof, which is an entertainment centre filled with shops. At the top is a swimming pool with sand brought in from the Maldives. Not as weird as it sounds, as the country is landlocked with harsh winters, going down to minus 50 degrees, and windy all year round so having a beach is very popular.

the Norman Foster designed opera house and entertainment centre

the Norman Foster designed opera house and entertainment centre

The National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan is another place to visit. In its main hall, high up near the ceiling is an enormous eagle which, when the music starts, flaps its wings. The sculpture is the country’s symbol of freedom and democracy. The museum is great for getting an idea about the country’s culture. A map shows the country’s 14 regions. Culture is apparently high on the country’s list of priorities and there is an opera house, built to look like the Greek Parthenon with enormous stone pillars on the outside, but with an opulent interior. With a totally different appearance, a sparkling white turreted mosque is large enough for 10,000 people.

Almaty, the country’s former Capital and its financial hub, is close to the Chinese border, and in days gone by one of its roads formed part of the Silk Route to Constantinople. The positioning of the city is spectacular with the backdrop of the snow-capped Altai Mountains, an outlet of the Himalayas on the border of Kyrgyzstan. Although a lot of the city was destroyed in the Second World War its origins go back to 1854 when it was a military camp. One of the surviving buildings from 1910 is the Russian Orthodox Church with an ornate interior. In front of it the memorial park is dedicated to those who fell during World War II with a flame that is always lit.Russian Orthodox Church Natasha

Markets are always fun to visit. From the outside the Green Market looks quite small but deceptive with lots of offshoots selling everything from food to clothing items. In one of the interior shops, I bought dark chocolate supposedly 80% cocoa. Caviar from the Caspian Sea is another local speciality as is vodka. Sadly, horsemeat is too, and is on all the menus.

the Green Market

the Green Market

At 2260 metres above sea level, the region is a haven for sports enthusiasts. I visited the eco mountain resort of Lesnaya Skazka where visitors can sleep in tree houses. Lunch, barbequed meat and fish with salad, was served in a yurt, the native dwelling, an enormous oval tent structure which keeps its inhabitants warm in winter and cool in summer. Amazingly Wi-Fi was available. Activities there included rock climbing, zip lining, and snowboarding.

Out of the city but only a bus ride away is an enormous outdoor skating rink. From there I took a twenty-minute cable car, trying hard not to look down as I am afraid of heights but unable to resist the wonderful views, to Shymbulak, the country’s largest ski resort. Fortunately you don’t have to be a skier, I don’t, as there are also places to eat and drink while enjoying the stunning surroundings.

yurt at Lesnaya Skazka

yurt at Lesnaya Skazka

From here, although I didn’t dare go higher, it is possible to take a further two cable cars up to 17,000 ft where the slopes are steeper, and where heli-skiing is possible. The skiing season is primarily from November to April but at the highest point it is possible to ski year round. In the summer they have camps for children to teach them how to survive in the mountains.

Being a mountainous region, hunting is allowed. Snow Leopards, indigenous to the region are protected, but as long as a license is obtained, the hunting of wolves, boar, bears, ducks and geese is allowed. Apparently in times gone-by the nomads travelled around on horses and lived in yurts, using eagles to catch their food. At the Sunkar Falcon Centre there are various types of birds. I watched a hunting demonstration where objects were thrown in the air for the birds to catch.

Getting around is easy as taxis are cheap, and it is possible to put out your hand, and someone will stop. It is all quite safe. Tipping isn’t usual so whether at restaurant or in a taxi you pay what you are asked. The currency is tenge which, at present, only seems to be obtainable in the country.

Both cities are very cold in winter. Astana in the north is colder and very windy although trees have been planted around the city to deflate the chill factor. The country is so vast, bordering China, Siberia, Mongolia, and lots of ‘stans’. Wi-fi is available virtually everywhere. Smoking is still acceptable in hotels so it’s important to request a non-smoking room although it’s taboo in restaurants and public places.

Kazakhstan's scenery ranges from snow capped mountains to desert

Kazakhstan’s scenery ranges from snow capped mountains to desert

From July 15th 2014 passengers from the UK and nine other countries including Germany, France and the USA can travel visa free. Air  Astana has direct flights  three times weekly  from London Heathrow to Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital.

I flew from London Heathrow with Air Astana, the country’s national carrier to their capital also called Astana. Getting to Heathrow only takes fifteen minutes from London Paddington station with Heathrow Express. You can also take the Piccadilly tube which is cheaper but takes a lot longer.

For more information about Kazakhstan, click here.






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