Kazakhstan: Following the Path of the Great Silk Road in the Land of Wonder

Declan Hughes, Fly Cruise Stay, reports from Kazakhstan and the PATA Travel Mart in Astana – where he met Declan O’Connell, Lee Travel.

The journey to Astana began at Dublin Airport with a quick 1h30m flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa’s newest bird – the Airbus A321neo, one of the quietest single-aisle jet aircraft I have ever had the pleasure of flying in. A pleasant stopover in Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge, courtesy of my annual Dragon pass, meant that I could catch up with some work on my trusty iPad Mini over a glass (or two) of bubbly, and then it was onboard Air Astana’s Boeing 757-200 for the six-hour flight to Astana.

Air Astana Boeing 767-300ER

Air Astana is the yearly winner of Skytrax’s Best Airline in Central Asia and India – and I could easily see why, with flawless service and good old-fashioned hospitality as it should be in every full-service airline. Full bar complimentary service, complimentary amenity kit, menu cards, spacious legroom, spotless cabin, great ambience – and that was just in Economy Class!

Astana Airport VIP check-in area

For any AV geeks out there, I returned on the last-ever commercial passenger B767-300ER to roll off the production line – a mere five years old and kitted with the latest inflight gadgets, widescreens, USB power ports, LED mood lighting, and very comfortable seating.

One negative with Air Astana is that, as with Etihad Airways and Emirates, it is not part of a frequent flyer alliance – Oneworld, Star Alliance or SkyTeam – which is a bummer. Being an avid collector of Air Miles and having flown to Honolulu for €27 return from Shannon with Delta Air Lines, Cape Town for €64 return with South African Airways from London Heathrow, and Dubai Business Class with Air France from Dublin via Paris Charles De Gaulle for peanuts, frequent flyer miles can be useful to accumulate.

Land of Wonder

‘Kazakh‘ means ‘wonder’ and ‘stan’ means ‘nation’, therefore Kazakhstan translates into Land of Wonder. Located in Central Asia, the Republic of Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and the largest landlocked country – being bordered by Russia, Turkmenistan (just!), Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It is also within kissing distance of Mongolia.

The diversity is outstanding, from north, south, east to west, with its vast mountains and lakes, as well as rich oil and gas fields, particularly in the Caspian Sea. Nomadic culture and Soviet culture intertwine, just like the movement in the final act of Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane (1942), in which the dancers display their skill with sabres. Kazakh and Russian are the two official languages acknowledged by the House of Ministries. Of the 18.5 million population, 1.1 million reside in the capital, Nur-Sultan (Astana). Standard time is six hours ahead of GMT.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation

Nur-Sultan

Nur-Sultan, the world’s newest capital, was named after ex-President Nazarbayev Nursultan and offers unique architecture. The city is divided into two banks: the old city is nestled along the right bank, while the new city sprouts quite the futuristic skyline from the left bank.

Baiterek Tower

Several architectural delights were designed by British architect Norman Foster, including the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (a pyramid-shaped cultural centre), the Baiterek Tower (nicknamed the giant lollypop), and the Khan Shatyr Shopping and Entertainment Centre, which has an indoor beach resort including sand brought from the Maldives – which may now probably need it back due to climate change! Another delight is the Astana Opera, the world’s third largest opera house, the acoustics of which are considered to be the best in the world.

Astana Opera

So many buildings are under construction at present, most of which are apartment blocks. Why? I ask myself, because existing apartments are lying empty. The opening line from the song Bohemian Rhapsody hums along in my head: Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy? Or is it a vanity project to build on a monumental scale just for aesthetics and no function or purpose?

There are so many apartments under construction in Astana that you could be led to believe that they are preparing for the end of the world – if you were to believe the Internet that Astana is not just the new capital of Kazakhstan but also the Illuminati Capital of the World. Seriously, there are more cranes here than anywhere I have ever seen – and probably will ever see again. For a population of just 1.1 million, the supply is far greater than the demand, so why the need for so many apartments?

Astana Expo 2017 heritage site

Astana was the selected showcase destination for Expo 2017 – with the Museum of Future Energy as the Kazakhstan pavilion – and, as a result, is quite a futuristic city. The average age of the country’s population is just 33 – a population, I might add, who are highly educated, kind, friendly, welcoming and made a lasting impression on me. The whole place just felt like home and had a positive vibe. The blue skies, clean streets, no homeless nor addicts, people dressed well, were healthy, happy and carried on without a pain, ache or frown to be had! They just glowed in every true sense of the word.

Museum of Future Energy

As clean and beautiful as Astana is, everyone I spoke with advised me that Almaty was the place to visit. Almaty was the old capital and apparently offers her visitors more character and heritage due to its historic architecture, mountains right on its doorstep and, of course, fascinating history.

A new capital such as Nur-Sultan, just does not cut it for me, especially when it is named after a still living ex-President, albeit a benevolent dictator. Think Las Vegas without the entertainment, gambling, all-you-can-eat buffets, strip clubs and bars. Perhaps even Dubai on a budget, but without the lavish finishing touches. Everything looks great from afar, but when you get up close you begin to see the cracks. It’s not that there was not enough money to build these modern marvels, but something tells me the government was short changed and could have done with someone to ensure the snag list was rectified prior to signing the cheque. Lots and lots of cracks here and there, shoddy workmanship and faults aplenty were to be found. Maybe in part it is due to the bitterly cold winters, because it has been known to go to as low as minus 45ºC.

PATA Travel Mart

My travels took me to Astana on the kind invitation from the Pacific Asia Travel Association to attend the three-day PATA Travel Mart from 18-20 September at the Korme Exhibition Centre. Usually I don’t get to meet anyone from Ireland on these trips, but to meet someone from Munster, the people’s republic of Cork no less, and having the same forename as me was a real treat: Declan O’Connell from Lee Travel, a great guy all round!

Declan O’Connell, Lee Travel, Cork

Our delegation stayed at the 4-star Hilton Garden Inn Astana, which has spacious, clean rooms and a nice bar, but offers a basic breakfast.

I also stayed an extra night at the 4-star Hilton Astana and got a travel agent rate of just US$104 for an executive room for two with lounge access and breakfast. An amazing property and stay – so much so I was delighted to present the hotel management with a framed Fly Cruise Stay Certificate of Excellence Award for exceeding our expectations in relation to service, facilities and amenities under our Tried and Tested programme. Not only did the property offer a pool, but also a kids pool, sauna, steam room, Turkish hamman, salt room, spa massage rooms, and 24-hour gym. It also has a very hip rooftop bar. Rooms were eye-popping in style and taste, with every luxury amenity to your desire. Not in an executive room? Don’t worry as a typical pint at the bar costs the equivalent of €2.50 maximum.

Hilton Astana

I tasted a pea-sized amount of smoked horsemeat for breakfast. Think smoked Bavarian ham that sticks to your teeth. Thank God for toothpaste, floss and mouthwash. I am not a big meat eater, I must add, but just had to try it! Believe me, it’s right up there, having tried stuffed insect burritos in Mexico City, raw chopped kangaroo tartar on a crisp in the Barossa valley in Australia, and ostrich steaks in the Kalahari in South Africa’s Northern Cape. However, the food was pretty good overall. The PATA Gold Awards Dinner and Awards Presentation served duck, while a private dinner invitation from Sandeep Jain of Indian tour operator Special Holiday Travel served delicious salmon.

Return Visit

I never got the opportunity to ride horseback way out into the wilds and get a flavour for Kazakhstan’s nomadic past, to roam the vastness of its wild and wonderous landscape, and stay a night or two in a yurt under the stars. But I intend to come back someday soon with my son Scott to do exactly that.

Declan Hughes in pensive mood ‘goes local’

By the way: if you imagine Kazakhstan to be several years behind Ireland, think again, because in reality it is several years ahead – even some of the park benches there are solar powered, complete with USB charging ports.

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