Into Central Asia

Wow – what a whirl wind of a trip from towering mountains to vast steppes, from ancient cities and fairy tale cities straight out of a movie file set, to modern cities of gold, glitz and lights!! I am not sure words will be sufficient to describe the amazing things I have seen and experienced over the last 3 weeks but thankfully I have 100s of photos too 😂

I meet incredibly warm, welcoming and respectful people from all races and backgrounds, with incredible stories of oppression and independence, people living in yurts high in the mountains and those living in modern high rise ‘smart’ apartments.  I like to think of some of them now as friends whom I plan to stay in touch with and hopefully meet again. To say this is a region of contrasts is almost most definitely an understatement.

I think many people, including myself, come to the region for the Silk Road history but by the time I left, I had been mesmerised by more ancient history, as well as a much better understanding of more recent soviet times and independence.  Again, I was reminded that you cannot make assumptions about what you think people should think and feel about the past, based on want you have been taught about history

I am not quite sure how many blogs I will write – by country or by region as there is so much to tell 🤦🏻‍♀️

The region became known as Central Asia, not because it is the centre of Asia (as it clearly is not!) but because it was the central of the Silk Road (though to be honest this was a term given to the route in the 19th century) – the central of the ancient trade routes between Asia and Europe.  The meeting place of the most dominated and enlighten civilisations which all lead to the wonderful expanse of people, culture and architecture we see today.

History throughout the region is similar yet varied and throughout the 3 weeks we often came across the same characters.  So be prepared for history lessons dating back as far as 3500 BC, stories of conquers and defeats and those who history has declared ‘great’, such as the Persian Cyrus, the Macedonian Alexander, Genghis Khan and Timur.  I will try my best not to repeat too much and will try even harder not to bore you with it, but it is part of what makes this region so fascinating so can not be ignored or left out!

My incredible journey started with a not so incredible 4.20am taxi to train station and I was fortunate that there is a train that goes straight through from Cambridge to Gatwick – it takes two hours but at least I did not have to change trains so I could settle in.  As the trained passed through London, the sun was rising, and it was beautiful as we crossed the Thames.  5 minutes later the train was shrouded in morning fog!


My first flight took me to Istanbul, followed by a very swift march to the next gate in time for my connecting flight.  The airport in Istanbul is brand new, having opened in April this year- it is bright and shiny and modern will lots of western shops and restaurants, but it is lacking things that are now expected, such as taps to fill water bottles forcing people to buy plastic bottles 😡 and only 15 minutes of free wifi – on top of that you need a working mobile number to even access the free 15 minutes which I am sure some people don’t have!

I wonder if everyone understands the joy I feel as you watch everyone walk past the 2 free seats next to you … and they announce boarding is complete💃🏻 (time for a happy dance) 👏🏻👏🏻 .  Unfortunately on this occasion, the happy dance was a little premature happy dance as they moved someone to sit in one of the spare seats 😟 thankfully not both of them.

My first stop on this whirlwind tour of Central Asia was Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Quick Kazakhstan facts:

Currency:        Tenge (US$1 = T385) 

Language:       Kazakh, Russian

Size:                 2.7 million sq. km

Population:     18.5 million

After a few hours’ sleep (as I arrived at 3am), I meet with the group and Aijan, our guide who will be with us for the whole trip. She is from Kyrgyzstan and together with her Swiss husband (who she met whilst he was studying in Bishkek) are the founders of Kalpak Travel, the company who is running the trip.  They specialise in Central Asia tours and compared to other tour companies, it has been refreshing to get such a personal service from their small company.  Writing this after my trip, I can say they were exceptional and Aijan became like the little sister I never had.   

Many of the group had arrived the day before, so had already had time to get to know each all – incredibly out of 12 people there are 3 Elaine’s!!! We will see how that goes 😂

Nur-Sultan is the new name for the capital city of Kazakhstan, which before March this year, was known as Astana (which basically means capital) and it has been the shiny new capital since 1997.  FYI Nursultan is the name of the first president of Kazakhstan, who held power from 1990 when the country gained independence until March this year!! The renaming of the city aligned with him stepping down from power in recognition of his service – that said, according to the ‘west’ no election has held in the country since independence has been free and fair!

Speaking to the girl who picked me up from the airport, the city’s name literally changed overnight – she said, ‘we went to bed in Astana and woke up in Nur-sultan’. Many people still refer to it as Astana, as it was not their decision.  The name change must definitely be causing some confusion as my Boarding pass said Astana, but the gate and the boarding announcements said Nur-Sultan, I wonder how many people have missed their flights 🤔

Did you know that Kazakhstan is the world’s 9th largest country??  I certainly didn’t!  It is also economically advanced thanks to its oil and minerals (as are some of the other ‘Stans’).  My first impressions were that it was a weird combination of tree lined avenues and futuristic monuments.  They like to consider the city the ‘Singapore of the steppes’ 👍🏻.

That said, Kazakhstan (as with its ‘stan’ neighbours) only got defined borders in the 1920s and before that, the region was home to nomadic animal herders who travelled right across the Eurasian steppes.  In fact, the term Kazakh, comes from a Turkic word meaning ‘free rider’ or ‘adventurer’. I love that. 👍🏻 Perhaps I was a nomadic Kazakh in a previous life??

Between 1929 and 1993, the Soviet government started enforced ‘denomadisation’, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people dying of famine and disease.  On a more positive note, the Soviet Union are also responsible for the multi-ethnic country Kazakhstan is today, primarily because of the sheer diversity of those deported there by Stalin! 

Day 1 was cold with a bitter wind blowing off the steppes and I was glad for the thick jacket I had packed at the last minute with some hesitation as we set off to explore the city with our first stop being the 97m high Bayterek Monument. (The 97m corresponds to 1997 when the city became the capital.)  This white lattice tower, topped with a large glass orb is based on a Kazakh legend about the mythical Samruk bird, who lays a golden egg containing secrets to human happiness.  Apparently, the first President (Nursultan Nazarbayev) drew the concept on the back of a napkin (though I am not sure how much truth there was in that)!

When it was built in 2002 there was nothing else around it and even today you can look past the buildings and out to the steppes, just beyond the city boundary.  My first impressions are that it reminds me a little of Dubai, with flashy futurist buildings that seem to rise out of the desert!

Nur-Sultan is definitely a city built for the future with room to expand.  The old Soviet part of the city is on one side of the river and the 21st century part on the other side.  A Japanese architecture (Kisho Kurokawa) won a competition to design the new city layout and it is very much a planned city, growing all the time.  They even have a huge 3D plan of Nur-Sultan 2030 in the Palace of Independence which we visited.

Of course, the original nomadic civilisation of the region now known as Kazakhstan had no cities, they only built mausoleums to bury their dead.  We learnt more about this as we moved on to the National Museum, which is housed in another modern building, opened in 2014.  It is actually one of the largest museums in the world and upon entering, you are greatly by a large gold eagle that ‘flies’ on the hour.

One of it’s best collections are found in the Hall of Gold and it was here we first met the ‘Golden Man’, who has become a symbol of the countries national heritage.  It is believed that the Golden Man was a Saka warrior, part of the broader Scythian nomadic people who lived in the region in 2nd-3rd century BC.  He was found near Almaty in 1969 and his golden outfit shows the incredible use of gold in the early years of civilization.  It was also interesting to learn that things such as the traditional knowledge and skills in making yurts (Turkic nomadic dwellings) are listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I was excited to learn more about them in the coming weeks.

The National Museum borders on the city’s Independence Square, in the centre of which is the Kazakh Eli Monument – a large stellar with a sculpture of the Samruk bird (the same one that ‘laid’ the orb at the top of the Bayterek Monument.  The square is also home to the Palace of Independence (which houses the 2030 city plan) – a blue building with white beams which are said to represent the beams of a yurt, and the beautiful Peace Wall, a monument to those affected by the Soviet nuclear testing that took place in the country between 1949 and 1989. 

Oddly, the large square was completely empty! Perhaps it was something to do with the weather?  Our local Kazakh guide (Gaukhar) said it was a cold day, but I am sure it gets much colder in the winter with the cold wind blowing off the steppe.

At the far end of Independence Square, our next stop was the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Central Asia (some sources say the largest??).  70% of the population of Kazakhstan are Muslim but many are not practicing.  Religion was encouraged in the years of early Russian occupation in the 19th century and in fact they built mosques in rural areas to encourage the nomads to settle down, however in complete contrast, all religion was banned during the communist years of the Soviet Union.  The mosque can accommodate up to 10,000 people on holy holidays!!

After a busy morning, we were all ready for lunch – which turned out to be a banquet (as did almost every other meal we had).  It was my first chance to sample some of the local ‘delicacies’, including samsa (pastries with mutton or cheese), beef dumplings and a stew with horse meat and potatoes.  All were pretty good, even the horse meat – which is very popular in the region.

After lunch we visited Khan Shatyr, a giant tent like shopping mall, often said to be the most extraordinary building in the city so far (which is no easy feat).  It is 150m high and is made from heat absorbing material so it maintains summer temperatures even throughout the winter when it can be -30C outside.  While others went to look around the shops, I went straight to Starbucks to enjoy a dose of caffeine to get me through the rest of the day.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

Our final stop on our busy day around Nur-Sultan was the Expo 2017 area.  We started in the post office of all places.  But it was no ordinary post office but a post office of the future.  With Robert the Robot who could help you post a letter (sadly he did not speak English) and a virtual dressing room.  A prototype where you could try on clothes and then have them printed on a 3D printer.

The piece de resistance is the Kazakh pavilion – a unique spherical building, apparently the biggest spherical building in the world, which now houses a Museum of Energy.   We did not have long to look around the museum, but what we saw was incredible.  To be honest, you probably need a whole day to give it justice.  It had loads of interactive exhibits, with each floor dedicated to a different type of energy – future, solar, space, wind, biomass etc.

Outside the complex we bumped into same couple having their wedding photos that we had seen at the mosque.  They looked beautiful and some of the group joined them for one of their photos – for the first of what turned out to be numerous times during the trip.

I found it odd that I came to the ‘Stans’ for a glimpse in to the past but even on day one, I got a glimpse in to the future.  Nur-Sultan was truly surprising.

We had dinner in a fabulous restaurant with a view over the city.  Again, we had a mass spread of food – salads, samsa and horse again 🤦🏻‍♀️.  This time I was introduced to would quickly become my favourite – baursak (or borsok in Kyrgyzstan).  Basically, they are just fried dough so had can you go wrong lol.  They became known as my kryptonite, as I lost all my power – will power that is – when they were around.

And so, Day 1 came to an end and I was already enchanted by the region and was excited for the following 3 weeks.

3 thoughts on “Into Central Asia

  1. Sandy Webster

    You’ve sold me on this tour! Definitely will be adding it to my travels!!!

    Thanks for all your insights





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