Our last stop in Central Asia is Astana, the shiny newish capital of Kazakhstan. If you had trouble coming up with the name of the Kazakh capital, you’d be in good company. To begin with, the capital was moved here from Almaty in 1997. And to make things worse, Astana holds the Guinness Book world record as the capital city with the most name changes in modern times. The town was founded in 1830 as Akmola, and has since been renamed Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Astana, Nur-Sultan, and then back to Astana.
Astana sits in the vast wide open flat steppes of northern Kazakhstan, so utterly unlike the mountain setting of Almaty. This part of the country is more linked with Russia than the rugged mountains of the south. After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh parliament soon planned to move the capital here, no doubt in part to stem any breakaway notions on the part of the large Russian population. Since independence, the percentage of ethnic Kazakhs here jumped from just 17% to over 80% as the city grew dramatically. With 1.3 million people, Astana is now second in size only to Almaty.
We decided to fly way up to Astana just to see the spectacle of it all. Fueled by big ambitions and oil money, this planned city features gleaming architecture, grand vistas, lush parks, and elaborate public art. The skyline is dotted with cranes in every direction, raising countless new luxury apartment blocks. It’s fun to see a place with so much growth, ambition, and energy — even if Astana lacked the culinary charms and inherent culture of a more mature metropolis like Almaty. After a couple days here, we were sufficiently wowed yet ready to move on.
That means making one more stop on the way home – Istanbul for a few days to celebrate my very own birthday.