Trans-Siberian Part 4: The Epic Detour on the Trans-Kazak through Astana, Kazakhstan
A detour from Russia to Kazakhstan was pre-planned, but after hearing that Omsk was a bust we decided to waste no time and left the same day we arrived. Along with this change of country we also changed from rail to road for a brief stint since the train to Astana only ran every couple days. So after a midnight border crossing and a 15-hour bus ride we pulled in to the virgin mega-opolis in construction Astana.
After the USSR dissolved and Kazak became it’s own deal the president decided to move the capital in 1994 from Almaty to Astana, in 1997 he made it official and started dumping billions of dollars, 8% to be exact of the oil rich countries funds into turning Astana in the super capital of the future.
Being that Kazakhstan did come into all that sweet oil money about 20 years ago means that it is not the cheapest place to visit in the world. So, traveling on a budget to cool places means making sacrifices, in this case sleeping in the bus station hotel inside the bus station. Having traveled to 15 countries and counting now I’ve stayed in some real turd holes, but I’m going to put this in my top five. Was it the rotting mattresses with springs bent all the way to the bed frame, was it the dry wall peeling back to the floor, was it the thousands of cigarette holes burned into the linoleum, or was it the smell of mold, lost hope, and broken dreams that engulfed the room? Actually, it was none of those; it was the rats’ nest that was located in the corner just under Johnny’s bed. It was definitely the rats’ nest. The lone night spent in that room was filled with the scratching, the squeaking, and the running of rats knocking over everything in the room highlighted by a live mouse stuck to the sticky-trap directly next to the toilet. There would be no poo-ing in peace in Astana.
Yet, however shitty that room may have been, the city that lay before us was it’s opposite. Perfectly built over the last 20 years from the ground up and laid perfectly to a central plan much like Washington D.C. this city was like a feast for the eyes on a silver platter.
The Presidential Palace lay in the centerline of the city with huge white columns and a perfectly tiled turquoise roof, the same color as the flag. El Presidente spared no expense for this casa; I expect to see him on the next MTV Cribs, as his house is as big as a mall. I guess you get that sort of pull after running the country for 20 years.
Behind the Presidential Palace there is the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The Palace of Peace in Harmony is a giant pyramid that houses a congress where all religions of the country can exist together in peace. The building itself, a pyramid a top a hill, is a monument to religious tolerance. This is a major misconception of Kazakhstan, because it is a “Stan” it gets lumped into the category of being stringently Muslim, when in fact it is a very religiously tolerant and diverse country where Mosques sit next to Russian Orthodox Churches and everyone shares an understanding of getting along. Kinda nice no?
There are several other noteworthy architectural achievements in Astana, specifically the Bayterek Monument, a giant golden globe that sits atop a white lattice structure nearly 100 meters in the air in the city center, but there is strangeness amidst this structural glory. As my friends and I walked through Astana we noticed there were almost no people. In some parts it was almost like a ghost town. The locals explained to us that the city has been built faster than people could move to it and that the building far exceeds the population. Most of the city dwelling population still resides in the old capital of Almaty, so walking the streets of Astana can sometimes leave you with and eerie last man on Earth feeling in a sterile abandoned world.
All in all, Astana was a pretty incredible taste of the future and what an imbedded leader with a vision and an inexhaustible supply of money can achieve. It seemed to all of us that it was a real shame the world’s only view of Kazakhstan came from the movie Borat, where the people were portrayed as small village bumpkins that had sex with sheep. Hilarious yes, but definitely inaccurate. Kazakhstan has a virtual lack of a tourist industry, so the sooner you can see it the better, because you’ll feel like you’ve got it all to yourself. With our minds blown by architecture and our patience exhausted by bus station rats we got back on the Trans-Kazak Railway and made our way to Almaty, the old capital, hoping to find a city with people in the streets and place to rest our heads rodent free.