In this journal
I complain about food
I walk into an empty hallway
I visit a building shaped like a lolipop
Welcome to the heart of Central Asia. Unlike its younger Kazakh brother Astana, Almaty has histories dating back millenniums. Beginning as a shepherding community in 8th century, the city has come a long way. Its geological location played a key role in promoting the city to a major hub of industrial production, finance, and transportation today.
The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan
During Song Dynasty in China, the Silk Road began taking shape, and Almaty turned out to be a very convenient place to rest. Quickly, the town blossomed, and the Kazakh identity was forged.
Beginning in the 19th century, Russia took control of the region, as the waning Qing Dynasty couldn’t care less of the fate of the west. A fortress called Verniy was founded in the now-called Almaty, beginning the city identity of Almaty. The USSR recognized the town’s strategic importance, and gave it a proper name: Alma-ata.
an apple tree in my hostel’s backyard
This name has a profound meaning. Base on genetics, it is very likely that Almaty region is the origin of something everyone likes called apple. The first documented cultivation of apples was around the mountains to the south. And in Kazakh, alma/алма means apple. Soviets took Alma-ata since it was an old name of the city, literally meaning “father of apples”. The name was not changed to the proper Kazakh name of Almaty until Soviet Union disbanded.
bread with hot borscht, a Ukranian food
During the Soviet Era, Alma-ata became the go-to place in case anything went wrong. When Leon Trotsky (you know, the guy who led the October Revolution, get your inner communist together!) was exiled by Stalin, he came to the town, before eventually fleeing to Mexico. During WWII, numerous schools, hospitals, universities, and industries fled the occupied Warsaw, Leningrad, Kalingrad, etc., and came to Almaty. The sudden influx of Russians and Ukranians made the Kazakhs minority in their homeland!
grand Catholic church under repair
It was indeed true during my visit. The entire city population seemed to be a strange, almost coerced, melange of people. You have the Kazakhs who look exactly like me: you know, Asian, dark hair, dark eyes, and thick eyebrows. Then you have another half who are pale blond, blue eyes, and as European as any Denmark or Germany.
After the disintegration of USSR, Kazakhstan, thanks to its president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power ever since, started a wave of nationalistic frenzy. Firstly, the name of a lot of places changed to Kazakh, and then the capital was moved from Almaty to Astana, a new capital built on the old Kazakh city. Nazarbayev tried everything to make sure Kazakh is a distinct, unique identity.
looking at the mountains from Kök Töbe (literally Green Hill)
However, the strong suit of Kazakhstan is its location. It is the crossroads of cultures, and a unique identity is almost non-existent. Thus, it is my opinion that Nazarbayev has always used nationalistic policies to concentrate power. He did a great job, though, as he “won” his last election with 98% votes.
Green Market’s horse meat section
During my days in the former capital, I felt it was quite a strange place. It had no ancient ruins, yet it also had no towering CBD; it felt, stuck in a development limbo. The city is trying to distance themselves from the Soviet past, but at the same time very much unable to do so. The most popular food was Ukranian, Russian, and Uzbek. The best sights were about the previous heros who served for Soviet Union, or religious sights originating from far-off land. Instead of embracing the identity as a crucial crossroad city, the city was struggling to forge its own.
a 5-dollar meal in a canteen called Kaganat/КАГАНАТ
Surprisingly, the city is also very expensive. The 20-minute taxi to town cost over 15 dollars, so I opted for the buses instead. Food generally went beyond 15 dollars, so I had to eat in local canteens most of the time. Additionally, Almaty’s biggest attraction, Almaty lake, has been closed to public for almost half a year. To be honest, I am not so sure if Almaty is suitable for tourists anymore. There are a lot of beautiful sights around the area if one can spend the money and venture out, but within the city limits, there are very little that dazzled my eyes.
famous dish beshbarmak
I got back to the airport after 3 days in the city, and continued westward towards the new capital, Astana. Due to the pollution in Almaty, I had not seen the famous Ala-tau mountains until the plane climbed out of the city. The view was surely much better when it is not shrouded in a layer of mist.
view on take off
Within 2 hours, my flight quietly landed in the lavish capital custom-designed by Nazarbayev. Astana, let’s ride on.
The plane slowly touched down in the gloomy weather. Climate here is notoriously awful. After Astana gained capital status in 1998, it took over Ottawa and became the second coldest capital in the world. (first is Ulan Bataar) For over 3 months in the winter, the temperature consistently hovers below -30°C/-20°F. But it is much more southerly than cities like Moscow or Oslo. Why is it so damn cold, you ask? Because Astana is located far away from large bodies of water. In fact, Astana is the capital furthest from any ocean. Sea breeze can help mitigate temperature extremities, because the circulation mixes warm and cold air together, creating a balance.
looking out to the city
One thing I noticed, during my 4 days in Astana in late September, was that the city was very windy and dusty. Sure, it is not windy as impossible to walk like in Reykjavik, but when the gust comes, one better hide. It was barely fall, but the temperature on a bad day could drop to freezing.
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
Astana does not have a rich history. Earliest documentation came during the Russian rule in the 19th century, and the town was barely a city after WWII. It was originally named Tselinograd by the Russians, and it was only after the fallout of USSR did the name change to a new Kazakh one.
on top of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
One benefit of a planned capital is that everything can be designed. Large plots of land were allocated for special purporses, such as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation shown above. It is a pyramid that holds a grand summit of every religion in the world, once every 3 years. This might be a very interest summit to attend!
Kazakh National University of Arts
Since the city is designed, a large number of architecture here is unique. Astana houses some of the strangest buildings around the globe. For example, the Baiterek Tower, which the locals nicknamed Chupa Chups (the lolipop brand), stood right in the middle of the action. It proudly houses an aquarium, which is the aquarium furthest from any ocean in the world.
On top of the tower, president Nazarbayev had his hand imprinted on a golden mold, for everyone to take a close look. I guess when you get to design a city and rule until you die, you can do a lot of strange things, and whatever that strikes your fancy.
Nazarbayev’s hand print, standing tall
Before the capital was transferred here, Russians and Ukranians composed of over 70% of the city population, thanks to Stalin’s exile spree back in the days. However, by 2007, the city changed into a Kazakh majority with a total population of more than 600,000 people. Then, the head count kept exploding, with a rough estimate nowadays double of the population 10 years ago.
facing the presidential palace
city center gardens
Islam is the dominating religion in Astana, thanks to its Kazakh majority. However, Russian Orthodox was also a major religion. In the cluster on the other side of Yesil River, in the immediate area surrounding the completely deserted Independence Square, a grandiose mosque named Khazret Sultan Mosque stood like a pearl white princess. I could not help but take a visit. In order to gain access, one has to take off his shoes and store them. The entire interior is carpeted, so it was not hard on the feet.
Khazret Sultan Mosque
The mosque is brand new, having just finished construction in 2012. It is the largest mosque in central Asia, and can accommodate up to 10,000 worshipers. It has a special hint of Kazakh adornment all around the exterior, despite its style being an obvious classical Islamic mosque. Its walls face a funny angle because the front gates point strictly towards Mecca.
New National Museum of Kazakhstan
I also paid a visit to the national museum, which is in the area as well. The museum did not have too much to show off other than Kazakh history and local fauna, with a giant hallway dedicated to president Nazarbayev. The enormous golden eagle in the lobby performs a show every hour, accompanied with light effects and pounding music.
The entire city, to me, felt like a huge exhibition of architecture, but that was about it. Entire central area lacks human action. Partially because of the horrid weather during my entire stay, almost all the places I went to had nobody whatsoever. However, as winter approached the steppes, I would assume it is only going to get worse. To me, Astana feels like a ghost town. No, not the type like the Soviet ghost town in the Arctic I visited, but a town that is emotionless and characterless, only with large expanses of glass and concrete devoid of human interactions.
local dish lagman
However, there is not an easy fix for this problem. The weather in Astana is only pleasant for like 3 days a year, and other designed cities like Brasilia suffer similar problems. Astana has been applying to host the Olympics for years, and it still has not been given the chance. Partially I believe it is because the city is still too small and characterless. As one can see, more and more people are flooding into the city, so I believe the problem can solve itself. What the place needs, is more art, more culture, more activities, instead of concrete structures shaped like donuts. Within a few decades, I believe Astana can become something greater than most imagined.
iconic food, shashlik
Expo Astana 2017
Almost nobody knows that I am a huge fan of Expo. Ever since my childhood visit to Aichi in 2005, I had been hooked to the idea of hundreds of countries coming together to demonstrate their ideas on a particular subject. Sure, it is heavily commercialized, and the current format has strayed light years from World Expos’ fundamental process, but I still enjoy the very core of this kind of exhibition. That is why I later went more than a dozen times to Expo Shanghai 2010, and Expo Milano 2015 with my family. I am planning my trip to Dubai for Expo 2020 as well.
expo history, on exhibition in the Expo Organization Pavilion, I have been to 3 of these!
first sight, Expo Astana 2017
As a result, I could not refuse a chance to visit Expo Astana if I happened to pass by. For me, the World Expo taking place every 5 years is a pilgrimage that I am obligated to undertake, but smaller technical ones like Astana 2017 would not be mandatory, yet still worthwhile. I got a free ticket to enter the Expo thanks to Air Astana’s generous offering, as every person with a stopover in Astana can claim one, and I decided to pay it a visit on the very last day of exhibition.
electric cars on exhibition
The theme of this Expo is Future Energy. This is probably one of the reasons why they won the bid, since Astana’s sole competitor, Liège, put up the ridiculously long theme of “Connecting the World, Linking People, Better Living Together”. So this time in Astana, every country was here to show off their best technologies and innovations for a greener future, one of my favorite topics.
inside South Korea Pavilion
One of the best pavilions were South Korea, where two dancers, a girl from Korea and a guy from Kazakhstan, explore the green island of Jeju. Each of them dashed behind the projection screen on stage frequently, and their cartoon versions would continue the dance on screen. The choreography must had been extremely difficult. It also included a chamber where one would use tablets to light up different energy trees. I believe they put this much effort into the show because Kazakhstan has an enormous Korean community for god knows why. Koreans here outnumber neighbors such as Uzbeks or Chinese. There are daily flights from Seoul to Almaty, and frequent services to Astana too.
inside Israel Pavilion
Israel also put up a great show, having a girl dancing within a cage made of semi-transparent screens. They demonstrated how Israel will continue developing with elements of fire, wind, water, and earth.
inside Singapore Pavilion
Singapore Pavilion was a very high-tech one. It involved large screens that one can interact, and its general theme of “lines” were apparent from the start. Its front gate was literally made of a few hundred pipes, and in the end one can plant seeds in boxes that were covered with threads. Since it was the last day, quite a few boxes were full of sprouts.
inside Russia Pavilion
As for Russia, the country with the deepest love-hate relationship for Kazakhstan, they opted for the simple solution. They carved up an enormous chunk of ice from the Arctic, and dragged it into the Pavilion, and just let it melt. Everyone could touch it and feel it. Russian way of solving problems, eh?
the expo site
outside China Pavilion
China also put up quite a show. However, it was just standard energy usage explanations, nothing too interesting except the fact that its pavilion was enormous.
Since it was the last day, most of the Pavilions were barely functioning. As for the smaller countries clustered into tiny pavilions that nobody bothered to visit, most of them simply had packed up and left. The Pacific Islands Pavilion were as deserted as Atacama; and the Caribbean Nations Hall felt like some pirates ransacked the place to the ground. I was quite curious what Haiti had on display, since, you know, the power cut out almost hourly during my visit earlier in the year. I guess I will never know.
mascots of Expo Astana 2017
I finally lined up to pay Kazakhstan Pavilion a visit. The prominently giant sphere in the center called Nur Alem was not only where the national pavilion was located, but also actually the largest spherical building in the world. After 2 hours of shivering in the howling wind, I finally gained access. Inside, the top floor talked about Kazakhstan’s future plans for energy, and then I worked my way down.
a water curtain
All other floors were for general educational purposes. Each floor featured a different kind of energy, heat, chemical, kinetic, you name it. It was a great demonstration for children and adults alike, which would beat a lot of science museums I have visited.
kinetic energy demonstration
The meal situation inside the Expo was horrendous. I lined up for one hour just to get a soggy burger with fries, because every other joint decided to close for the last day. Finally I returned back to my hostel after being told the closing ceremony was not for the public.
facing the mall built especially for the Expo
Next Stop: Paris!
I ended my 4 days in Astana with a bus ride back to the airport, where I caught an Air Astana flight to Paris. Strangely enough, despite its name, Air Astana does not have Astana as its largest hub. Almaty was their fortress hub for some bizarre reason, and they operate flights to Europe from the two cities by alternating dates.
approaching Paris Charles de Gulle
The flight was perfectly fine, and the services were unremarkable. The amenity kit they gave for economy passengers included an air pillow, which was quite a nice gesture. I entered EU, bought myself a RER ticket, and was on my way to Sophie’s. I had stayed with her so many times, once in EuroHop, and once again in my last trip around the world; it was starting to make me feel bad. But worry not, I am a shameless, horrible person, so I was not doing anything different.
Kazakhstan was a strange country. It had its own side of rich history, but the current trend seems to be forgetting the history, from moving its historical capital to forging a new identity. It has some impressive architecture, but it lacks soft power. As a traveler who is interested in everything, I found myself enjoying the stay here; however, for anyone who does not care about the shapes of concrete blocks, I doubt there is much for them. If one has the money, he or she can venture out into the wilds, but maybe Turkmenistan or Mongolia could be better. This does not mean Kazakhstan is not a great destination, as I completely foresee my return in the future.