Astana, Kazakhstan – one of the last great travel unknowns

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The world’s ninth biggest country is one of its last great travel unknowns.

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The world’s ninth biggest country is one of its last great travel unknowns. Though the outside world is gradually becoming aware of Kazakhstan, largely thanks to its oil and the antics of that pseudo-Kazakh Borat Sagdiyev, few have really explored this country of vastly varied attractions.

Easily the most economically advanced of the “stans,” post-Soviet Kazakhstan is reinventing itself as a uniquely prosperous and modern Eurasian nation. The leafy commercial and social hub, Almaty, has an almost European feel with its quality hotels, slick boutiques, chic cafés, and streets thick with BMWs and Mercedes. Astana, in the north, is being transformed at quick-fire speed into a 21st-century capital with a unique mix of Islamic, Western, Soviet, and wacky futuristic architecture. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet times, doesn’t encourage political opposition but is managing to forge a peaceful, multi-ethnic nation – which makes him, on the whole, pretty popular.

Around the fringes of the great steppes where the once nomadic Kazakh people – still famed for their horse skills and unique equestrian sports – used to roam, Kazakhstan presents an array of surprising adventures. You can trek on foot or horse in the spectacular Tian Shan or Altay Mountains, watch flamingos on steppe lakes, or discover mysterious underground mosques near the Caspian Sea. Community ecotourism programs in some of the most beautiful areas enable travelers to stay with village families at an affordable cost.

With travelers still rare here, a foreign guest is usually treated not just as another tourist but with real hospitality, and locals will often go out of their way to help you. Enjoy it while it lasts!

ETurboNews publisher Juergen T. Steinmetz experienced Kazakhstan hospitality first-hand during his visit to attend the UNWTO General Assembly in Astana this month. Here he shares his experiences.

Easily connected to the outside world with non-stop flights to both Astana and Almaty from Europe, India, and Asia, I arrived on a convenient non-stop flight from Frankfurt on Air Astana. The planes were modern air busses with not much of an entertainment system, but the food was fantastic.

The airport in Astana was very modern, transportation was easy, and we arrived at the 5-star China hotel after a 30-minute ride. Astana is a top modern city, just built within the last 10 years. As you look around, you are not sure if you are in Europe or Asia as the city is a melting pot of east and west and reflects the looks of the people, food, and customs.

Astana is a brand new city built for the people. The city reflects the diversity of the country, the wide open spaces and is modern and meant to be a government center for the country.

One of the highlights I experienced was the horse acrobatic event – what an amazing show of Wild Kazakhstan.

It was noticeable that the city is still in the making, and it appears the global economic slowdown may have stopped some of the many construction sites. From the plane you can see hundreds of miles of wide open spaces surrounding this capital city.

President Nazarbaev named it out of the blue in 1994 as the country’s future capital – Astana replaced Almaty in 1997. Since then its skyline has grown more fantastic by the year as a reported 8 percent of the national budget is lavished on transforming vast acreage south of the Ishim River into a new governmental-administrative zone with daring buildings combining Islamic, Soviet, western, and wild futuristic influences.

It is clear the Kazakhstanis are proud of their new capital, and as an exercise in nation building, its merits are obvious. It is a fascinating process to witness, and I am glad I had the chance to visit and experience this intriguing capital and country for myself.

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