Beyond Expo 2017: What can Astana Visitors Expect?

 Gilly Pickup

As one of the world's youngest capitals, modern and currently void of tour buses. Ice fishing in one of the world's coldest cities Ice fishing in one of the world's coldest cities. But perhaps not for long, as the fascinating city steps onto the world stage.

"Astana has been the fastest growing capital in the world for many years," says Yerbolat Uatkhanov, director of the English-language Astana Times. "If you live here or visit the city often, you will be at amazed how everything is being changed so quickly. EXPO became another keystone in its development." More specifically, Uatkhanov says he's noticed a rise in international visitors and improved infrastructure.

"For example, the city administration made a decision to construct a light rail transport (surface metro) to reduce traffic jams," he says. Regardless of whether you're arriving by air or road, Astana makes a dramatic appearance, rising from the barren steppe with foreign formations, some poking the sky. Astana brims with futuristic buildings, several designed by Sir Norman Foster.

Inside, it's an urban playground. Aside from shopping opportunities, there's a theater, a monorail, mini golf, a river (with actual boats) and even a beach resort featuring swathes of imported sand.

Foster's Astana credits also include the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a towering eyeful that glitters with geometric glass windows. Home to the country's Congress, the Palace doubles as a culture hub and center for Kazakhstan's various ethnic and religious groups.

Again taking into account Astana's climate, two sides of the pyramid move on roller bearings to allow for contraction and expansion. "There is a unique energy and character to the city, which is growing as new buildings emerge,"

"(Astana's) growth is driven by a dual environmental agenda, unified by the shared aims of providing shelter from the extremes of the climate and reducing energy use.

"We are currently designing a new mixed-use office and retail complex close to the 2017 Expo site that will bring together the public and private worlds of the shopping mall and office tower while making a positive contribution to Astana's urban fabric."

Mesmerizing museums

Another draw for Astana visitors is the blue-and-white marble National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The museum's Golden Hall houses thousands of Bronze Age artifacts, including the "Golden Man". Discovered in 1969 about 70 kilometers from former capital Almaty in a burial mound, this third-century warrior.

Meanwhile, the Atameken Ethno-Memorial Complex provides a fun way to see all of Kazakhstan's landmarks in just a few hours in miniature form. Travelers will feel like giants as they explore mini versions of the country's buildings, monuments, mountains, and lakes. For a deeper dive into Astana's culture and diversity, there's the Presidential Center of Culture of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The museum houses objects related to ethnography, culture, and arts, such as a traditional Kazakh yurt, furniture, and jewelry. A sensible choice of activity too, given that Astana is the world's second-coldest capital after Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Astana is home to roughly 70 saunas, and they're not just for relaxation.

Locals go for any and every reason -- to discuss business, meet friends or celebrate birthdays. Some saunas even have private conference rooms for business, while others are equipped with billiards and karaoke. The Ak Bulak Sauna Complex (Kilometer eight, Astana-Airport highway) goes even further with an entertainment hall and banquet table, in addition to the usual array of steam rooms and pools.

Versatile dining

In Kazakhstan, food is traditionally meat-heavy. "Kazakhs were nomads and most of them have never been planting growers," explains Uatkhanov of the Astana Times. "But even the poorest nomad had dozens of horses, camels or cows. Kazakhs didn't count sheep at all, because of their numbers. That is why meat is the most important thing in Kazakh cuisine.

"People who really love the national cuisine don't care about sauces and vegetables, but carefully choose any meat. That is why everything concerning meat in Kazakh (language) has hundreds of terms."

Another popular dish is shashlik, which is meat cooked on a skewer. A typical Kazakh feast comes with sides of cream, yogurt, and cheeses. Where to try Kazakh cuisine? Uatkhanov recommends Vechnoe Nebo for "authentic food and skyline views of Astana." "Arnau is probably one of the best restaurants in the city where you can try Kazakh food," he adds. "Ali Baba is the good option if you happen to be walking along Yessil river's bank."

The capital's young professionals flash cash at hotspots such as Chocolate Room (located on the bottom floor of Astana's Radisson Hotel) where stylish leather armchairs and a well-heeled crowd set the scene. The entrance declares: "Nite dancing: Astana never sleeps."

Provided you can get in. Most clubs have a strict door policy so determined clubbers may want to dress their best for any hope of partying until breakfast, though insiders say the staff is a bit friendlier with international clubbers.

Uatkhanov also recommends Icon Club, a massive space in the middle of the city that hosts a variety of DJs. For something more laid back, he recommends upscale brewpub The Barley, O'Hara Irish Pub, Brewery,

Where to stay?

Opening in July, St Regis Astana will tap into Astana's rich spa culture. Opening in July, St Regis Astana will tap into Astana's rich spa culture.

"Astana is still a largely untapped city and a fabulous jumping off point to explore the rest of the country, which has good infrastructure and excellent hotels," says Stuart Douglass-Lee, a vacation planner at UK-based Saga Holidays. Already home to many of the big global hotel brands like Hilton, Ramada, Best Western and Radisson, the city is welcoming several new luxury properties in 2017.

Abandoned luxury hotels that you can't afford to miss. The Presidential Suite houses a grand piano, wine vault and outdoor dining terrace with a hot tub.

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Category: Travel

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