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Published: September 6th 2016
There are two sub-continents I have barely visited on this little planet up to today. I name West Africa and Central Asia. I only went to Ivory Coast and still have few places on the African continent to visit...as long as I can stay safe there.
But when it comes to the "Stans", safety as a traveler is not an issue in most of them, so here I am back on the road...back-packing between decent beds. Over the coming month, I'll go across five countries finishing by few gorgeous days in Turkey. You will not see any pictures of Turkmenistan. The country is on my list, but getting a visa for the reclusive state is a little too challenging with my current traveling. I have no intention either to visit Afghanistan or Pakistan....sorry, not on my list for a while, I'm not that intrepid at the end of the day! Smile!
I landed in Astana for a little city trip of two days. The city is the new capital of Kazakhstan since the end of 1997. I have actually "passed by" not that far away, taking the train 3 years ago all way from Moscow
to Ulan Baator. The train is passing just 600km north of here. There is no more need of a visa for Europeans visiting for less than 15 days, and I have to admit, the welcome at the airport, at 2am, was a pretty warm one. In the region, most of the flights do land and take off in the middle of the night, so the airport was a really busy affair.
I had no intention to check-in in my hotel by 3am. So I did like many, I slept on seats at the airport, and took the first bus to the city at 6am. My trip in few days time will include a long train ride. Buying last minutes train tickets can be a challenge, and forget doing this at a decent cost online. So by 7am, I was at the central train station. Mission...buying train tickets...that do not involve Astana....with zero knowledge of Kazakh...and near zero knowledge of Russian too.
I have my little note-pad with me, the friendly staff here phone with translation on...and we did it....a 24 hours train ride in decent comfort would cost me less than 30usd....but this is
another entry in a few days.
By 8.30am I have reached my hotel, the brand new Ibis. They are nice enough to allow me to check-in....and I have to admit, I'm not 20 anymore, the first thing I'm doing after a good shower is a nice nap to recover from a nice business class flight followed by camping in a airport!
Time to visit and discover this crazy place. Imagine, a new capital built in less than 20 years. The place remind me of a mix of Skopje and Pudong in Shanghai. Built it, and the people will come. This looks like the motto of the place. Imagine, it's 25 degrees outside...and this is by far the best time to visit the capital. In the middle of the winter, it's rather below minus 40 degrees here...no thank you! So everything seems to be built here to stay inside, let it be a car...or a shopping mall!
Sadly for me, this is not the good season for Opera or Ballet, so I may ask and try, but no ballet neither opera for me this trip. Sad! The choice of museums around is
not really world class, but they have some more than interesting building to visit. The first on is the Baiterek monument. The massive tower is the center point of the city. Going up is pretty cheap....you queue...with mostly Kazakhs, as they are not many foreign tourists here. The view from the top is half decent. The trick is the bronze palm of the president at the top. People queue for this...communist era is over, but clearly not the cult of the personality in the region!
Next, there is Khan Shatyr, the biggest tent ever built. The place is actually a shopping mall, with a water park on top. No doubt this place is more than welcome in the middle of the winter. Sad to see...globalization has hit here too....same brands as anywhere else in the world. After this, there is the pyramid built by Norman Foster to welcome the council of religions. I joined a group of Kazakhs for a bilingual visit....as if I had to wait for an english speaking only visit, I could have waited all day long.
Beside this, the are few mosques around, all new too. I also visited the
new Orthodox Cathedral, which is not even in the Lonely Planet as it is brand new. Don't think they have many tourists coming this way. No issues to take pictures and had a warm welcome from the local clergyman.
Sadly in Bangkok we don't find much Russian food, so I have to admit, instead of going kazakh way, I went for pelmenis an borsh on my first lunch. You can find also all over the place turkish food around. More sad, if you go to any food court in malls, 2/3 of the food on offer is either Burger King or Mc Donalds, no thank you!
This was it...very interesting visit...people are helpful everywhere....from helping you with directions in the bus, to simply stopping you in the street asking where you are from. I'm also more than impressed by the smiles all around. It is maybe because we are in the summer....not sure that would hold in the winter, but people are simply smiling, everywhere!
Next stop, I'm jumping a little, for 48 hours outside of the region, on a 3 hours plane ride...
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