My wife Katya and I spent 5 nights in Astana, Kazakhstan. We went there in January, 15 days ago, and winter was not merciful.
We flew with Air Astana return, and it was a nice experience to go there. Bishkek-Astana takes 1 hour and 30 minutes via plane, and they depart from here 3 times a week.
In this almost out of the chart destination, where the average temperature was 13 degrees below zero, we immediately got fascinated by the ultramodern architecture that replaced completely the previous soviet buildings, if there were any. It looks like a city built where it was nothing, just dropped a stone, and started building where it stopped.
Moreover, we noticed the massive expansion of the city, with the opening of new residential districts from later this year on (or so our driver told us on the way to the hotel). The new constructions are crazy and create housing for probably too many people, based on what we saw. However, it is very good for them, if they think they will need that massive amount of apartments.
Astana looks completely a business city, and I got very surprised when at night the lights revealed actual apartments in one of those massive glass building who I believed was an office tower or a business centre. Futuristic, modern, and kind of cold at that point (in both temperature and view).
We could really be there for 3 days and we could do everything we wanted. The freezing cold did not help much, but we explored walking through the modern buildings, shopping centres, entertainment centres, and completely white streets and parks. Museums were not in our plans, Bayterek Tower apart, and that is another paragraph below.
The chances that the museum were closed were very high, because we were probably ones of the few tourists around at the time.
The city screams “business”, that it is not a bad thing, but this makes it look very interesting at Day-One, and practically not-so-special from Day-Two on. It is simple to get used to the glass building and the blue colour ubiquity. You could spend a full day photographing the strange shape of the skyline, but not in winter for sure.
In winter, with -18 Celsius outside, we ended up exploring the massive shopping centres and the Duman Oceanarium, indoor and warm.
Kazakhstan’s currency is the Tenge and we did not know where we could change money at first. The hotel reception told us to go to the Post office nearby, and so we did. After that we discovered many banks branches and a Cash Market point in the mall. We could expect that, but in total honesty, it was not easy to check the shops or services on the ground floor of the building around. There were private car parking (bar controlled) between the footpath and the building, making it look like not accessible for anyone but who lives or work there. Instead there are some shops, banks, chemistries, and some cafes. We are used to a more human approachable system where you walk along the windows and signs of the different venues, and services, and only rarely you have a car park between you and the shops.
We walked a lot, bearing the polar weather. We took the bus only a couple of times. It is fast and quite good service, its cost is 90 Tenge per person, and someone will come to collect the money and will hand you the ticket. Busses are the only public transport there and they can get full, like everywhere. Taxis exists, we did not used, from and to the airport we had our driver, this time.
The first night we were out a bit later and we could see all the city lights, and that has been quite cool. Every city at night has something magic, and Astana has it too.
Let’s dig in a little more in few things that did.
Duman Entertainment Park
It is probably much better when the snow is gone. The area around seems nice and there are some modern sculptures. Behind there is an open air museum, where the map of Kazakhstan is represented with miniature buildings, but the thick layer of snow made us avoid that side.
The building is pretty squared and nothing special, some work in progress and a ferry-wheel was in construction next door. Some banners where covering the facade of the building, low season and not many tourists of course. But few families were visiting the oceanarium and we were there too. You can access only that, or if you buy all three exhibits, you can stay a bit longer and see more with discounted price. 5500 Tenge is the full cost. Thinking about maintenance for that kind of places, it is actually not a lot.
You get Oceanarium, Exotic Terrarium, and Jungle adventure, where you can see robotic dinosaurs and other “Hollywood style” special effects, that are not an everyday thing.
Not many people, but as said, some families were there, and it was quite. The staff was polite, although bored.
The best thing was the aquarium, or better the oceanarium. The biggest oceanarium located at more than 3000 km from an actual ocean. Incredible. It is not very big, but just think where it is located, how they built it, and moved all the fish there. Incredible. The shark tunnel is cool, a gigantic turtle swims there too, not the longest in the world, but it is located in Astana, remember?
It was cool, and also all the other species around the aquarium were really interesting. There is a fish of Kazakhstan wall, where their river and lake species are represented too.
The worst was the terrarium.
As much as interesting can be snakes, and spiders, this place was not very cool. It looks dirty, although it is not. However, the feeling is strange. Bugs, spiders, in their display cabinets of course, were just there, snakes from South America and different pythons, of course, where all sleeping. It seemed a bit too much in too
There was an angry rooster too, that was scraping in his cage. We are not sure what to think about it…
There was a monkey in a cage, that made us sad. The monkey was looking healthy, of course, and was eating, but the cage was kind of spacious, but very thick bars.
Finally, the jungle adventure.
A Russian speaking guide takes you around this animatronics side. The representation of a mythical jungle in Hollywood style. The same as in the movies, the environment looks real, but it is artificial. Some parts are fun, some are too artificial. Then you have robotic dinosaurs that are really well made. The movements, and the details, you could think they really comes from a movie set. The tour takes around 50 minutes, the guide jokes and tells you the immersive story along the way. My Russian is not so fluent, but Katya helped me when needed. With us a couple of family with kids. It was fun.
Done that, we saw the UFO shaped circus building on the other side of the road. We did not take picture of it, because the snow was not helping with lights and beauty. Mega Astana shopping centre is also there, and we jumped in to defrost and eat something.
The Mega Astana mall is a normal shopping centre, nothing too fancy, nothing too big. We hit there because of a specific shop we knew was only there. We were thrilled by their Instagram, and they also replied a couple of our messages via WhatsApp. Once there though, the rings we were looking for were not there… disappointed, we went to fill our stomachs at KFC.
KFC in Astana costs exactly like in the rest of the world, quality is the same, taste is the same. No special menu, as McDs does in different Countries. After that, we hit the hotel with the bus. The cold was not leaving us.
Kahn Shatyr Entertainment Centre
When it is very cold, you have not much feelings to walk around. However, we hit the road, and walked around 30 minutes from the hotel to the Kahn Shatyr Entertainment Centre (http://khanshatyr.com). Here you can find a big Arcade with video games and a dinosaur park, similar to the jungle adventure. There is a climate controlled beach and poolside with sand imported from Maldives. We read about a million reviews before deciding that the cost of the ticket was too high. It is pricy, and it is ok thinking about what it is. Again, something completely out-of-place. However, we read very bad reviews, the ticket is the entrance only, inside the bar and the restaurant are expensive, the personnel is not very polite (according to people on-line), and the structure is now a bit old. Practically, we saved the cost of the ticket and we avoided it. It would have been a nice experience, mostly because outside was really -15 C. So we spent some time at the arcade floor, where we tried a couple of crane machines. Those were rigged as usual, the prize was in the crane, but dropped sadly before reaching us. Nothing too scary.
Shopping is great there, but all shops are quite expensive. We found our rings, and gifts for everyone.
In front of the mall, Lover’s Park that was a quiet and covered with snow view.
We tried, but for some reason, the tower, and its observatory were closed to the public… sadness and disappointment. Workers were inside and around, but no public was admitted. So, no city view. Probably in spring you will be able to see much more, and enjoy the city.
The Singing Fountain, near to the tower, was also not working. Winter is not really the season to visit here. Streets are clean, busses are fast, and parks and footpaths are constantly cleaned, although a layer of snow (and sometimes ice) remains on the floor. However, it seems like it is low season.
At that point, we took some pictures and videos of the area, that will be edited and put on my YouTube channel soon.
After that we went to SHIFU Chinese Restaurant (http://shifu.kz), that was across the street, in front of the National Library. We read some good reviews, and we walked in. The place was not too busy, everyone was eating. Few people after us entered. Well… we had our tea almost immediately after ordered, however our food came one hour after that.
We were hungry at that point, and we ate all, but it was nothing special… you can check my review on Google about this place. Maybe it is their strategy, you are hungry so you eat, no matter what. Price was kind of honest, but really we can find better Chinese cuisine in Bishkek.
We wanted to get some grocery, and Maps pointed us across the street, yes, everything is quite close there, and we went right away. We discovered another mall, really? How many shopping centres you need in practically the same suburb? Asia Park Mall was also 10 minutes walk from there, and Kahn Shatyr at around 25 minutes walk. Anyway, it was filled with expensive stores, Mont Blank, Cartier, and so on… The supermarket, Galmart (http://galmart.kz) was crazily organised, and wide, and clean, with a lot of expensive, and imported products, it was very interesting.
We felt a bit strange, and half of the “tourist” activity were closed. So we did not even try to go to the museums near the Presidential House. They were not far, but it would have been sad reached the door again and find it closed. So we ended our tour, and we went back to the hotel to pack our luggage.
It was time to return home, and we said goodbye to Astana. We are not sure if we will have the chance to visit it again, but if that will happen, it would be in spring time.
We suggest you to do the same, and wait for warm weather to fully enjoy the whole city.
Until next adventure. Stay Tuned!