WF traveller Peter Heywood visited Astana on his way to joining the Karakorum Adventure tour in June 2018.
From the air, Astana appeared dramatically from the empty Kazakh steppe, its glass, steel and marble buildings glittering in the dawn sunlight. My guide on the ground was Aliya, half-Kazakh half-Russian and a big fan of Dubai. “I like it there when I visit,” she explained. “It’s nice and warm.”
We drove into the city centre past posters and hoardings celebrating Astana’s 20th anniversary as the country’s capital. Almost every apartment block, retail outlet and architectural landmark looked brand new, from the seedy-chic GangstaCafé and Mafia Bar to the symbolic Baiterek Tower, the latter built in the shape of a poplar tree surmounted by a golden egg. I made a mental note not to visit the former.
After lunch we walked across Independence Square to the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, “the second largest in Central Asia,” said Aliya, grudgingly. It was warm and windy, and had clouded over. Outside the mosque entrance, a yurt had been assembled to give visitors a taste of Kazakh nomad living. Inside, we were offered tea by one of four women dressed in national costume; two or three teenagers, distinctly not in national costume, sat around mesmerised by their smartphones.
“Yurts are very warm in the winter,” said Aliya, pointing out the latticework of curved bamboo poles, the felt lining and the circular wooden ring holding the structure together. I had a hint of what was coming next.
“Astana is the second coldest capital in the world!” she informed me, proudly. “There can be snow here from November to April.” I sipped my tea appreciatively. “It can reach minus 50 Centigrade; when it’s minus 25 they close all the offices and schools. Nobody can start their cars!” Judging from the volume of traffic on the roads, I could imagine that this might cause a transport problem.
“What’s the coldest?” I asked.
I heard the tea-lady mutter something to one of her companions. Aliya harumphed.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said that I’m not telling you the truth,” said Aliya.
“She said it’s much colder than that.”
Baiterek Tower - image credit: Peter Heywood