When the Singapore Press Club invitation to visit Kazakhstan came, bucolic images of stark deserts, wild horses and nomadic tents immediately sprang to mind. It was to be more, much to my pleasant surprise.
The location of this former Soviet state on the Great Silk Road has stood the country in good stead. It is the largest of the five “stans”, the other four being Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Oozing old world charm with vestiges of Russian influence, former capital Almaty, also known as the “City of Apple Trees”, is in the county’s south-eastern corner, surrounded by the scenic Tien Shan Mountains that border China and Kyrgyzstan.
We enjoyed a taste of nomadic life at the Sky Eagle Resort, around an hour from the city. Soldiers on horseback à la Genghis Khan greeted us, while fair maidens in long, majestic robes strew candies in our path, a traditional gesture of welcome. The spirited eagle and falcon shows held on the green slopes of the resort kept us captivated. We learnt that the hunting falcons and eagles were the females of the species. It was amazing to see these sublime birds swoop so swiftly on their prey.
We were bowled over, too, by the horse-riding prowess of the people here. Strapping hunks and lithe lasses in colourful attire demonstrated their mindboggling skills on galloping beasts – performing near-acrobatic stunts that left us totally in awe.
No visit to this region would be complete without a stay in a yurt – the traditional, circular dwelling that was home to nomadic families. These wooden structures are covered by thick fabric or canvas, and can accommodate up to eight persons on floor bedding. Luckily for us, the bathrooms were located in a concrete building a few metres away – modern comforts!
Meals are cooked in an open hearth on wooden stoves. Along with chicken, lamb and beef, horsemeat is commonly eaten in Central Asia and served in a variety of styles. This is hearty, robust fare – think sausages, cured and salted meat and stews, with lots of potatoes and crisp vegetables in season. Tea is served in bowls, not dainty cups.
Back in the city, and located in a handsome building that used to house military officers, the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments traces the history of the music of Central Asian tribes, Turkey and China via an impressive collection of over 60 instruments, several with near-unpronounceable names (Konyrau, Zhetigen and Asatayak, for example).
Just outside the Museum, a pleasant stroll through the leafy 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park brought us to the gigantic statue of General Ivan Panfilov and his 28 guardsmen who lost their lives against the Germans in a battle. An eternal flame stands in front of the monument.
Another of Almaty’s most popular landmarks, the Green Bazaar is a comprehensive marketplace of Central Asian produce and products – all manner of meat, fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, bread, herbs, pastries, confectionery and more. Be warned, taking photos is frowned upon.
Forty minutes away from the Almaty CBD is the renowned Chimbulak Ski Resort, a popular ski playground in the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains, with slopes catering to both the aspiring and the advanced skier. A 15-minute cable car ride from Medeu brought us to the resort base, 2,260 metres above sea level. For non-skiers, there’s nothing more relaxing than sipping hot coffee with a view of the snow-capped ranges; Christmas tunes blaring in May add a touch of quirkiness! In summer, the temperature hovers around the mid-20s Celsius, while in winter, it gets down to minus 10 and below.
An overnight ride on the Talgo train transferred us to the current capital of Astana. While Almaty exudes an old, beloved soul, the new capital Astana, named by UNESCO as the “City of Peace”, is a sleek, gleaming metropolis.
It’s also a city of startling proportions and architectural marvels, thanks largely to the vision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Republic’s first and only leader since it attained independence in 1991. Three years ago, the President announced the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy, an ambitious plan calling for widespread economic, social and political reforms to position Kazakhstan among the top 30 global economies by halfway through this century.
The conspicuous opulence of Astana is a reflection of the country’s immense wealth, generated from uranium, oil and other resources. Its well-planned layout is best viewed from the top of the Baiterek observation tower, which strategically tops out at 97 metres to evoke the founding of Astana in 1997.
Meanwhile, work is feverishly underway to complete the construction of the massive 174-hectare site for Astana Expo 2017, expected to attract over two million visitors. The key feature of the Expo will be the Kazakhstan Sphere, a museum unfolding the country’s history and four thematic pavilions focusing on “future energy”. We were lucky to have a preview of the construction site and its plans; exciting times are ahead.
The largest mosque in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, Hazrat Sultan opened in 2012 to cater to the country’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population. It holds up to 10,000 worshippers and is designed in a mix of classic Islamic and ornamental Kazakh styles. Three tons of chandeliers were imported from Turkey to adorn this striking building, which is one of two mosques in the world to have an indoor cooling and heating system. We were struck by its magnificence – not to mention by an old copy of the Koran discovered in Russia and weighing 40kg, and now proudly displayed here in a glass case.
The former palace for the country’s first president now pays homage to the life of President Nazarbaev in a well-curated museum. We gazed in awe at the numerous exhibits – interior furnishings, books, art, weapons, medals of honour, pictures, personal items, documents and gifts from other countries.
Elsewhere, the massive blue-and-white National Museum is a dazzling showpiece of Kazakh history and culture, from ancient times to its hopes for the future. Using touch kiosks, multimedia guides and other high-tech tools, it aims to provide visitors an unforgettable experience – starting with the gargantuan golden eagle with flapping wings that greets guests in the lobby.
Exhibits are themed in various halls and spread over nine floors. Among other things, we encountered the famed “Golden Warrior” (now a national symbol of Kazakhstan) – a warrior from the 2nd or 3rd century found clad in a gold-plated uniform and surrounded by accoutrements in a burial mound in 1969.
On par with the world’s leading opera houses in Milan, Madrid and New York, Astana’s majestic Opera House was built in 2013. This colossal building boasts the best classical architectural traditions, grandly reflecting Kazakh national motifs and sophisticated sound acoustics and technology.
Designed by British architect Lord Norman Foster, the Palace of Peace and Concord is a spectacular 62-metre-high pyramid symbolising friendship and unity; it serves as the permanent site for a triennial congress of the world’s religious leaders. Take the lift to the top to soak in the splendour of the green walkways illuminated by light streaming from the pyramid’s apex. The monument is best photographed from the banks of the Yesil River.
An impressive example of Russian ecclesiastical art, the St Constantine Russian Orthodox Church has an interior that is breathtakingly beautiful, with gold-leafed wall murals and detailed artwork. It’s certainly worth a visit, regardless of your religious inclination.
Shaped like a giant tilting tent, the 150m-high Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre is an indoor park with a comfortable temperature all year round, despite seasonal extremes. The Centre houses shops, food courts, a cinema, an indoor beach resort and other leisure facilities. Besides the popular European and American brands, you can also find Singapore’s very own Charles & Keith there.
Wining and dining
Kazakhstan boasts over 100 ethnic groups, so you can expect a varied dining scene. Apples, the state emblem of Almaty, are crunchy; cherries are refreshing; and the common bread buns are delicious.
We loved kefir, a milky beverage similar to yoghurt and known for its healthful properties, and the fruit drink kompot. This is a landlocked country, so seafood is scarce; horsemeat, lamb, beef and mutton typically feature in menus. On a number of occasions, we were served beshbarmak, a classic Kazakh dish of tender braised horsemeat served with flat, sheet-like pasta in a light broth.
For a good introduction to Central Asian cultural entertainment and cuisine, the Alasha Restaurant in Almaty offers an enchanting setting. Guests don traditional robes and tuck into crisp salads, sausages and kebabs made with lamb, mutton and chicken, and pilaf rice with horsemeat and sweet yellow carrots, while being treated to dances from the different “stans”.
In Astana, we were charmed by the farm-like interior of the restaurant Gorilka Melnitsa, which served a tasty selection of Ukrainian dishes, from fried dumplings to borscht soup with duck and beef “wontons” topped with sour cream.
At the Daredzhani Restaurant, we enjoyed traditional Georgian dishes: nana (a salad of eggplant and cherry tomatoes dressed with aromatic balsamic sauce); tatariakhni (beef broth with aromatic herbs and garlic, served with megrel khachaputi or cheese bread pizza); and a hearty tsitsila adzhiki (juicy, charcoal-grilled chicken).
At the duty-free store at Astana’s international airport in Astana, I was bemused by the assortment of Russian vodkas, giving into a ginseng-infused one and another flavoured with salted caramel. Other items worth bringing back are caviar, honey and Kazakh wine – along with, of course, horse-riding accessories and miniature yurts.
- Air Astana, the national carrier, flies to Kazakhstan via Bangkok. Plans are underway for Air Astana to fly to Singapore soon.
- Currency exchange rates are the same at the airport as at the hotel.
- The use of English is rather limited, so it’s best to get a good bilingual guide.
- Before boarding a taxi, do negotiate your fare; and get your hotel staff to write down the destination in Kazakh for the driver.
- Obtain your visa from the Embassy of Kazakhstan located in Great World City. Singaporeans are offered visa-free entry until 31 December.