Kazakhstan I/Қазақстан I – a travel blog

by | January 4, 2022 |

Because of ongoing events in Kazakhstan in January 2022, I am reposting the blogs I wrote when I visited the country in 2017:

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world. It is the 9th largest in terms of area (1,000,000 square miles). It is  65th in population (18 million)

In 2014 I spent 6 weeks in Mongolia. This beautiful country peeks into the map, above, at the northeastern tip of Kazakhstan.

In Mongolia I developed a thing for Central Asia. See: Three Days in Mongolia

So, last year I visited Azerbaijan (red on map) and Uzbekistan (salmon on map).

This year I returned for a third pass through the region. I thought I would quench my thirst for this part of the world. I’m now in Kazakhstan. My interest in Central Asia is only increasing.

Visiting Kazakhstan

First stop: Astana:

Astana (Астана), the capital. Astana means ‘capital’ in Kazakh. In the foreground is Beiterek Tower.

(2022 update: The capital is now called Nur-Sultan.)

Astana is a stark, young city. It became the capital only in 1997. Before that it was known as Tselinograd. It was rather podunk-y. S I’ve heard.

It is a planned city, like Washington DC, It has three monuments placed in line with one another and spaced out through the center of the city.

Visiting Kazakhstan: Astana’s First Two Monuments

The first monument is Ak Orda (Ақ Орда) ‘White Headquarters’

This is the Presidential Palace

The second monument is Beiteret Tower (Бәйтерек) ‘tall popular tree.’ The gold ball symbolizes an egg.

You can glimpse it all over town. Here I’m walking out of a shopping center

The monument represents a folktale about a mythical tree of life . A magic bird of happiness ays an egg in the branches of a tree. The eagle, Samruk, is also in the story somewhere. I guess it figures as an origin story.

You can go to the egg at the top of the tower, put your hand in the handprint of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and hear the national anthem. I had no desire to video myself in the act. So here are people who did:

Samruk is on the Kazakhstan flag.

And flies high in the atrium of the National Museum.

Also in the atrium is a portrait of Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev.

Dang! Blurry – sorry

And at the top of an escalator he is surrounded by fellow Kazakhs in traditional dress:

Lots of symbolism here – and nicely in focus

A statue to Kazakh warriors stands outside the museum:

In the background is the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the second largest in Central Asia

Visting Kazakhstan: A Musin Country

The Kazakh population is 70% Muslim. I get the sense that the country, on the whole, is more secular than, say, Uzbekistan. It is the custom in hotel rooms in Muslim countries to have a green arrow somewhere in the room. The arrow indicates the direction (qibla) of Mecca so you can pray properly. Often I find the arrow on the ceiling. Here I found mine in the drawer of the desk:

When flying a Muslim airline, such as Royal Jordanian, the arrow will be displayed at regular intervals on the flight monitor

Speaking of my hotel room, here’s the view I have:

Note the Atlantis-like building

Visiting Kazakhstan: The Third Monument

The third monument to complete the trio is line of sight with the White Headquarters and Beiterek Tower is Khan Shatir (Хан Шатыр) ‘King’s Tent.’ It is in the line of sight with the White Headquarters and Beiterek Tower. It faces the Atlantis-like building, pictured above:

It’s a shopping center with the usual stores: L’Occitane, Waikiki, Mango, Levi’s etc.

The atrium looks like this:

Okay, it’s kinda cool and all. But at first I wondered why a commercial shopping center would hold pride of place in the layout of the city. But then I realized it’s a powerful symbol of traditional Kazakh culture. And like Beiterek Tower you see the top of the tent from many places in the city.

Visiting Kazakhstan: Foregreounding Kazakh Identity

In other words, the whole city is designed to assert Kazakhstan’s traditional heritage.

During its Soviet socialist times, Kazakhstan’s capital was Almaty, which has lovely tree-lined streets with a Russian, aka Western-ish, feel. (More on Almaty in a future blog.) So, I understand the decision after independence in 1991 to up sticks and create a new capital on the steppes, the traditional homeland of the nomadic Kazakhs.

An Economist article from 1999 tells the story.

One thing to say is that Astana is a windy place, sitting as it does on the wide-open steppe. Another thing to say is that Astana appears, perhaps, to best advantage at night.

Here’s a view of the other side of the Atlantis-like building:

The blue-lit Khan Shatir is in the background. In the foreground is a red- and green-lit fountain. The semi-circular areas to the right and left of the fountain are filled with restaurants

See also: All my Asia blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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