There’s a saying where I come from that “everything is bigger in Texas” but I’m betting that most Texans have never been to Kazakhstan. The ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is quite large, and a large proportion of that is gently rolling steppes that stretch on for miles and miles. Add to that the Soviet and post-Soviet penchant for building huge memorials and administrative buildings, and you get a lot of Big Stuff here.
From 1997 until spring of 2019, the capital of Kazakhstan was Astana. Just a month or two before we flew there from Bishkek, the government unanimously decided to rename Astana in honor of the current (and only) president of modern-day Kazakhstan. He’s been in power for thirty years and in March he resigned the presidency, likely because he is ill and doesn’t have much time left (it is expected that his daughter will be the next president).
So the city is in a bit of a transition right now as they change the name on absolutely every building, sign, billboard, and monument. Astana is a fairly large city, very modern with lots of neo-futuristic architecture. With no metro, we had a hard time getting around until we downloaded a bus app (and still had trouble as the app was not always accurate!). But between our walks, our bus rides, and a nighttime car tour we booked, we got to see most of the city’s main sights, including it’s giant Ferris wheel (largest in Central Asia), the Khan Shatyr entertainment center (largest tent in the world, complete with a 6th floor beach club with sand imported from the Maldives), and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, where every few years Kazakhstan hosts world political and religious leaders to discuss pathways to peace.
Still, we didn’t love the flash-and-cash feel of Nur-Sultan, so we took a five hour train ride down to a smaller city named Karaganda to spend a couple of days. Our hotel was next to a large Central Park, with small lakes, paddle boats, carnival rides, and cafes. We wandered around town and enjoyed sitting outside having a coffee and watching the world go by. We had a delicious shashlik dinner there (grilled meat with flatbread and garnish), as well as beshbarmak, a Kazakh dish of flat noodles with horse meat and beef on top.
Taking an overnight train, we arrived in Almaty for our final four days in Central Asia. We stayed at a simple but roomy hotel in the middle of town (Hotel Resident Deluxe, $40 per night), with a delicious breakfast and within walking distance of Almaty’s parks, museums, and cable car. On the day we arrived, it was Victory Day, celebrating the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. There were parades and marching and music and flowers everywhere, with people carrying around portraits of grandparents who had been in the war.
We took the cable car up to Kok-Tobe mountain and walked around for a while, enjoying the really lovely weather we had all week- mid-70s, perfect for sitting at one of Almaty’s many cafes and enjoying the springtime. On another day we visited the Central Museum and the National Library. We found a wonderful Georgian restaurant and ate dinner there- no matter where we are, there’s always a craving for khinkali and Georgian wine!
Finally, we got ready to pack up and head in separate directions, Chris heading to the States for some family stuff, while I head to Spain to hike the Camino Santiago. We will reunite in mid-June and visit some of Eastern Europe then!