How do you even start writing a blog post about something so big as the three years of one’s life spent living in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe (by the way, The Kazakh Steppe is the biggest of its kind in the world, occupying a third of the country)?! I guess you start with writing that first sentence, as everything else in life the most difficult is making that first step and everything after that somehow gets easier. So here you go, my first sentence was the question that I don’t really have an answer to but the first step is done so I’ll just keep writing…
Me and my husband have lived in Kazakhstan for three years (because of his work in hotel industry) before moving to Turkey in 2014 and it has been such an incredible, beautiful, exciting, unexpected, difficult, challenging, life-changing experience that from the moment I started this little blog of mine I knew that sooner or later I want to share at least some of that experience with all of you! So now, nearly 2 years later here it goes, I am FINALLY posting this! 🙂
You may wonder why it took me so long? Well, the main reason was because I had to find the time to organize all the photos because there were sooooo many and I obviously had to make the cut and choose those that I think will give you a feeling of the country and its capital Astana. By the way, Astana is the country’s capital since 1997 (it was previously Almaty) and it means “capital city” in Kazakh language.
This will still be a photo-heavy blog post because I’ll rather leave the photos to do most of the “talking” and tell a story of my time spent in this beautiful and fascinating Central Asian country.
Let’s start with Astana, modern capital city located in the North of Kazakhstan on the Ishim river that has the most beautiful blue colour in summer and turns to ice in those cold winter months…
This giant tent is Khan Shatyr Entertainment and shopping centre, a place where you spend A LOT of time in those long and extremely cold winter months! I’ll talk more about that later but in short, it just gets way too cold to spend any time outside so you basically go by car from one shopping centre to another and there you meet your friends for a lunch or a coffee, walk, use spa, go to the cinema, anything just to avoid being outside on those freezing temperatures!
This Pyramid is called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and was built to express the spirit of Kazakhstan, where cultures, traditions and representatives of various nationalities coexist in peace and harmony. It contains accommodations for different religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism and other faiths. It also houses a 1,500-seat opera house, a national museum of culture, a new “university of civilization”, a library and a research center for Kazakhstan’s ethnic and geographical groups.
Talking about this idea, I have to mention that I personally never had even one negative experience when somebody would discriminate me on the basis of my religion, nationality or anything else! Kazakhstan is the country with majority of its population (more than 70%) being Muslims and while there are numerous mosques, there are also churches of other religions and everybody is free to express and practice their religion freely and that means a lot today in this messed up world of ours!
This is Bayterek Tower, a monument and observation tower 105 m tall. The monument is meant to embody a folktale about a mythical tree of life and a magic bird of happiness: the bird, named Samruk, had laid its egg in between two branches of a poplar tree. Yes, I went up a couple of times and there is a beautiful view from up there! 🙂
One thing that is so typical about Astana is that there are huge buildings, monuments and skyscrapers being built all the time! And I really mean all the time, like day and night, 24/7! If you go away for few weeks, you can be sure that there will be a huge new building somewhere once you come back! 😀
I’ve already mentioned that Astana is located in the Kazakh steppe and steppe is a large area of flat unforested grassland, meaning there are no forests, mountains, hills but just flat land stretching for thousands of kilometres. They did plant some trees and greens in the city but you hardly notice that and for me personally that was one of the most difficult things to get used to, not having any nature anywhere in the city or its surroundings where you could walk, see the trees, listen to the birds and the sound of leaves in the wind. It’s a thing we mostly take for granted while we have it but once you live somewhere where it’s all just flat, you really start to miss the nature!
Saying that, there was one place in the city which was basically the only place with a bit of natural environment where you could have a walk (but not really in those coldest months!) and that was near the Ishim river. I was so grateful for that little piece of blue water and green land and was spending many hours there walking and chatting with my friends… And I have to say that the best thing I took with me and that will stay with me forever are those friendships made there in the Kazakh steppe. Friendships with people from all over the world, from Kazakhstan and Russia to Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine, UK, Croatia… Friendships where because of difficult circumstances you connect much quicker than you would in the “real world” and everything gets so much easier, even those long extremely cold winters suddenly are not so scary anymore when you have friends to spend countless hours together over hot cups of coffee and tea talking, laughing, sharing the good and the bad. When you live as an expat and I did in few countries already, the best part of it are all the wonderful people you meet and connect with and at the same time, the most difficult thing is to say goodbye to those people at the end…
Before we moved there I must admit that I didn’t know much about this country but I knew that it’s “somewhere there” in Central Asia and I knew that it’s big but I definitely didn’t know how big it is or anything else about it to be honest. Wait, I did know that it was a part of Soviet Union before it fell apart but that’s about it. Well, I won’t bother you with writing novels about it but here are some interesting facts that you maybe didn’t know:
- Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, at 2,724,900 km2, larger than all of Western Europe.
- Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world and the largest country that doesn’t have access to the ocean.
- Horses were first domesticated on the territory of the present Kazakhstan.
- Half of Lake Balkhash, one of the largest lakes in the world, consists of fresh water, the other half of the salt water.
- Kazakhstan has a space launch facility, in fact the world’s first and largest, Baikonur Cosmodrome.
- Kazakhstan’s national drink is fermented horse (mare’s) milk.
- The apple originates from Kazakhstan.
- A number of routes that comprise the ancient Silk Road, a trade network linking east and west, ran through Kazakhstan.
There are still so many interesting facts about this country but I promised you this post will be more about the photos! 🙂
Kazakhstan is also a land of contrasts!
Here are some photos from entirely other part of the country, southeast where it’s located the biggest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty, that was actually a capital until 1997. The nature there is just amazing, lakes, rivers, mountains, so so beautiful and completely different from the steppe. We rented a car there (with the driver because it was the only way to do it and not get lost in the wilderness with no civilisations nearby) and went on trips that would take hours and hours of driving on horrible bumpy roads but it was so worth it! Being there under that huge blue sky is what freedom feels like to me…
Talking about beautiful nature, about 3 hours drive from Astana you can enjoy Borovoe Nature Park that consist of few lakes and forest, there are also some hills believe or not! 😀 It was nice place to go for a weekend or a day trip from time to time but it is a bit too far away to go very often, specially when the roads freeze, it gets so cold and freezing winter winds start to blow…
Yep, that’s me holding a huge bird! 😀 The tradition of hunting with hawks and falcons is still going strong in Kazakhstan!
Talking about cold, let me say a word or two about the winters in Astana! Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world right after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and yes I always say that we survived three winters there with a certain dose of pride and accomplishment, because it’s kind of a big deal!
Not every winter is the same and there are some that are worst (read: colder!) than others and of course our first two were the coldest in a loooong time so I’m still surprised sometimes how we managed to survive. Ok, that’s maybe an exaggeration as we had a warm apartment and a car that would bring us from doors to doors but still, there were times when it would get so cold, like -44 C with freezing wind, that I would start having panic attacks if I was outside for longer that few minutes. I also experienced what it’s like to not cover your mouth properly and inhale that freezing air just once or twice, enough to ‘burn’ your throat and give you the most terrible sore throat ever! I also on quite a few occasions set at my desk with a ski trousers, 5 layers of clothes and boots because I just couldn’t get warm enough even with all the heating on maximum. And not to mention what that cold and dry air does to one’s skin and hair, let me just say that some brands of lotions and oils made a fortune on me! 😀
Oh I have to mention one more thing that was my absolutely worst! You know, when you have a city built with shiny stone and marble and for at least 5 months you have a thick layer of ice covering all its streets, pavement and stairs, than you just keep paying that expensive health insurance and say a prayer with each step you take outside in those winter months! So many expats ended up with broken legs, arms and all kinds of bones fractures, luckily me and my husband, besides ending up on our behinds for few times, didn’t suffer any injuries. I did, however, take with me a a terrible fear of slippery surfaces so now whenever I am somewhere where the ground freeze ever so slightly in winter, I start walking like a 80-year old grandma. Actually worst as on many occasions I had those brave grandmas walking faster than me on the street and well, that’s kind of embarrassing.
This is that beautiful blue river by the way…
This was the view from our window and your typical -40 C winter day. 😀
I hope you are enjoying this little photo story and maybe learning something new about the country you knew it’s “somewhere there in central Asia”. I could go on and on forever as It’s really difficult to put those three years into words and photos, there is just so much that I wanted to share! But I hope you got an idea about Kazakhstan and its capital Astana, about this beautiful part of the world and the one thing that is left is actually the most important part of it all and that’s why I wanted to conclude this photo-story with it, the people. What is country without its people!?
I will always carry those people and their beautiful souls I met in my heart. Even when we speak different languages, belong to different cultures and religions, have different shape of our eyes or colour of our skin, we are all just people living on this little planet of ours and we can communicate with warm smiles and kindness in our eyes, that is the universal language everybody understand…