After a surprisingly enjoyable 24 hour train journey, I emerged at Astana’s train station to warm sunshine and a clear blue sky, even at 7am. There are buses that run to the centre from just outside the train station and I jumped on one which stopped just 5 minutes from my hostel, Nomads4x4. Buses in Astana cost 90 tenge for all journeys and you just pay the conductor.
I had a quick power nap, grabbed some food and then set about exploring Kazakhstan’s modern capital. It only received the title in 1997 (passing from Almaty in the south) and since then it has seemed determined to earn its title as Central Asia’s Dubai. It’s an accolade that, since I wasn’t a fan of Dubai, I wish they wouldn’t strive for.
However the comparisons are undeniable. The blistering summer sun combined with the huge roads and soulless, modern architecture certainly brought back memories of my time in the UAE. There was no life behind anything – it was sleek and shiny but with no life behind the eyes. I was preparing myself for disappointment here.
But Astana has a secret weapon that Dubai doesn’t – greenery. On the wide open highways, Astana is Dubai by another name. But behind the towering buildings and along the river are wide open public spaces – parks, squares, exhibitions and more. Perhaps a lot of these are only present/in good nick because of the Expo but regardless, they brought a whole lot of vibrancy to the city that was otherwise lacking.
Surrounding Astana’s iconic Bayterak Tower were parks, sitting out areas, cafes and a temporary modern art exhibition which were bustling with families on this warm Sunday afternoon. You’d never get that in Dubai, primarily because you need to have the tenacity of a hard boiled egg to survive being outside for anything longer than 5 minutes.
The more you delve into Astana, the more you get an insight into its weird and wonderful architecture. There’s a circus which literally looks as though a UFO has plonked itself in the middle of the street, whilst there’s a shopping centre which is shaped like a huge cone pointing to the sky, with an outdoor space supposedly able to naturally maintain a warm temperature during Astana’s chilly winters. There is innovation and quirkiness here which gives it a charm you might not notice on first glance.
Nothing sums that up more than the World Expo. You can tell it’s such a big deal for Kazakhstan. Every city I’ve been to here is laden with posters and billboards promoting it. Every local I meet asks me if I’m here to see it. It’s the first major tourist event in Kazakhstan’s history and their pride is heartwarming to see.
I hadn’t heard too much about the Expo from other tourists before I arrived in Astana. The only account I got was from a woman in a hostel in Shymkent who told me she absolutely loved it… then proceeded to moan about all the things she hated about it for half an hour.
A day ticket is just 4000 tenge (around £12) but you most certainly get a lot of bang for your buck. I jumped on bus 70 which stops just outside the Expo. Immediately I was struck by the jewel in the crown of the uber-modern site, the Sphere. Dubbed by some as the Death Star (though apparently organisers aren’t happy with this comparison) the Sphere is Kazakhstan’s pavilion in the event. With a theme of “Future Energy”, the Expo is all about innovative ideas for preserving and creating energy. The Sphere is 8 whole floors of different energies – kinetic, biomass, space, water, wind etc. – and is a sort of interactive science museum which wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Trek movie. It’s seriously impressive, engaging and informative and I think they genuinely should keep it open as a museum once the Expo is over because it’s really well done.
I spent the entire morning in the Sphere, grabbed some food from one of the many stands and then tackled the country pavilions in the afternoon. Pavilion makes it sound like they’re little booths but some of them felt like full-on stadiums. There were a lot of countries there and the results were mixed. A lot of them followed the same patterns of showing you a video and then having a bit of a museum about what the particular country was doing in the field of energy.
The ones that stood out were ones that did things a bit differently. My favourite pavilions included Malaysia (a VR jungle experience), Korea (a CGI/dance show), UK (I had to say that! But it was genuinely cool with a yurt that lights to the touch), Austria (so much fun, basically just a playground) and Germany (an informative, diverse pavilion with a gorgeous energy show at the end). There are so many that you have to commit to certain ones and bypass others. Some, like Korea, Germany and China, always had pretty long queues though they moved quite quickly.
The entertainment doesn’t stop there though! Each evening they have some sort of show on for an extra 1000 tenge (about £2.50). On my particular day it was “Beatles go Baroque” which was an orchestra playing Beatles classics in the style of Baroque composers. I’m a big Beatles fan and it was great fun. We were all on our feet for a great finale of “All You Need is Love” complete with gigantic inflatable hearts.
It was a really fantastic event and it’s a shame it doesn’t seem to be getting the international coverage it deserves. Whilst this means less crowds which is great, you can see the thought and passion that’s gone into this event and it’s a shame more people won’t get to see that Kazakhstan is a hell of a lot more than Borat.