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Modern city on the rise

Astana, Kazakhstan, may be only 30 per cent complete but it already offers plenty of grand architecture for tourists to take in

If you want to go somewhere exotic, but do not want to contend with hordes of tourists, give Kazakhstan a try.

The ninth largest country in the world, the Central Asian country was once part of the former Soviet Union.

Gaining independence in 1991, it has since been described by Lonely Planet travel guides as the most economically advanced of the "stans" - the others being Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

On a recent six-day trip there, I was surprised and impressed by its cities and enchanted by its mountains and wildlife.

The country's capital - and the best place to start your travels - is Astana, slightly to the north-east of the country.

Bold, striking architecture greets the eye at every corner.

No surprise, the city's symbol is a monument and observation tower, opened in 2002, that resembles a tree with a golden egg nestled at the top. Called the Baiterek, this building's name means "tall poplar tree" in Kazakh.

According to legend, this is the destination of the sacred bird Samruk, which takes refuge in the tree's high crown to lay a golden egg.

At night, the 105m-tall building lights up brilliantly in a myriad of colours. Walking among the ever- changing lights of the city, I felt like I was in Las Vegas.

Nearby, the six-year-old Kazakh- stan Central Concert Hall is shaped like a flower, with its petals animated through music.

At the other end of the city, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre looks like a giant transparent tent, a traditional nomadic building form.

  • GETTING THERE

    There are no direct flights to Kazakhstan from Singapore.

    Air Astana flies to Almaty from Bangkok five times a week on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The flight takes about 71/2 hours.

    From Dec 17 this year, the airline will also fly to Astana from Bangkok three times a week on Monday, Thursday and Sunday. The flight takes about 81/2 hours.

    Throughout the tour, we travelled by chartered bus. The city centre in Astana is about 20 minutes from the airport, and the city centre in Almaty is about 30 minutes from the airport.

The building houses an urban- scale internal park and shopping centre. It also houses an indoor beach resort.

The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre was completed in 2010, and designed by award-winning British architect Norman Foster, who also designed the Supreme Court Building and Expo MRT station in Singapore.

In Astana, Foster designed the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a pyramid-shaped building that represents all of the world's religious faiths, with its shape resonant of both a spiritual history dating back to ancient Egypt, as well as a symbol of amity for the future.

Completed in 2006, it houses an opera house, a range of educational facilities and a national centre for Kazakhstan's various ethnic and geographical groups.

It is easy to see that this is a modern city on the rise, although there is still some way to go. Only 30 per cent of the city has been built so far, and reports say the rest is slated to be completed by 2030.

In two years, a world's fair - Expo 2017 - will take place in Astana, the first time such a fair is held in Central Asia.

When the city is finished, I expect it would have the glitz factor to rival the Bund in Shanghai or Marina Bay in Singapore.

If you prefer something more laid back, try visiting another city - Almaty - Kazakhstan's second city and its former capital from 1991 to 1997.

Though still the largest city in the country, its buildings are smaller and more spread out. Nonetheless, some landmarks are noteworthy.

For example, the Almaty Central Stadium, built in 1958, was host to the Bandy World Championship in 2012.

The Circus building - home of the Kazakh circus artists - is shaped like a yurt, a traditional round tent used by Central Asia nomads.

There are regular performances, and tickets cost between 1,000KZT (S$4.90) and 4,000KZT.

The Ascension Cathedral - easily the most colourful building we saw during our trip - is a Russian Orthodox cathedral. The wooden building is constructed without any nails.

It appears cheery on the outside because of its caramel-coloured walls. But inside, there is a deeply religious and respectful atmosphere.

During our 20 minutes there, I saw women standing solemnly in prayer, lighting and holding candles. Images of saints - framed in gold - hang on the walls.

These attractions show a country that has modern elements, but also Soviet remnants.

Travelling between attractions can be cumbersome. I would not recommend taking the bus unless you have done your homework about the various routes.

Taxis are relatively inexpensive and the best option for tourists, but I would suggest getting someone to write your destination down in Kazakh or Russian first in case the driver does not understand English.

Kazakh and Russian are the main languages spoken in the country. Some signs and maps are in English, and some locals - especially the young - can also speak the language.

Almaty has natural offerings too, as it is located at the base of the Tian Shan mountain range, which also straddles China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The beautiful mountainous landscape can be seen from most places in the city, and skiing is also possible.

The Shymbulak ski resort, 2,260m above sea level, is less than an hour's drive from the city.

A one-day adult ski pass can cost between 2,800KZT (S$13.60) and 8,000KZT.

Open from December through April, it receives a great amount of crisp, cold snow and the weather is often sunny.

It has a ski school, snow park, jumps and a slalom course. There is also the option of hiking in the snow. Britain's Prince Harry was spotted there on a ski holiday last year with his then-girlfriend Cressida Bonas.

Though we did not ski, we hiked for about an hour. In the cool weather and refreshing mountain air, hiking was a delight and I did not perspire at all.

Under the azure sky, all I thought about was the scenery awaiting me beyond the next hill top.

If you would rather stay within the city, there is Kok Tobe, a mountain whose name in Kazakh means "Green Hill".

At 1,100m above sea level, this is the highest point of the city and the view is spectacular.

At its top is the Almaty Tower - the city's television tower - which is made of steel and can be seen from most parts of the city.

Near the tower is a recreation area with amusement park-type attractions, viewing platforms and a small zoo.

Here you can see animals such as broiler turkeys, red deer and a white peafowl.

If you are a nature lover, you will also not want to miss out on the Sunkar Falcon Centre (admission is 200KZT), which was set up in 1989 to protect saker falcons, an endangered native species that is rarely spotted in the wild.

"Sunkar" means "falcon" in Kazakh.

The centre houses more than 400 birds, including other native birds such as golden eagles and Himalayan vultures.

Bird handler Paul Pfander performs a daily show from April through November, where he showcases them swooping and catching their prey.

In Kazakhstan, nature and modernity sit side by side.

•The writer's trip was sponsored by Air Astana.


Fancy a horse meat steak?

Eating horse meat in Kazakhstan is an eye-opening experience.

As the world's largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan has plenty of such meat, together with beef, pork, chicken and mutton.

Horse meat is often served in restaurants. But admittedly, it is not for everyone.

Having tasted horse meat, I have to say it tastes almost like beef.


A dish of horse meat steak with ricotta cheese and spinach, at the Sadu Restaurant in Almaty.

To be more precise, it tastes like a cross between beef and venison - tender and slightly sweet.

Horse meat can be served as a steak, as it is with ricotta cheese and spinach for 4,850KZT (S$23.60) at the Sadu Restaurant in Almaty.

It can also be served in a mixed salad for 2,600KZT, like in the Farhi restaurant in Astana.

Horse milk is also considered a national dish. It is typically fermented as this makes it easier to keep in a nomadic lifestyle.

I drank it cold from a bowl in the Farhi restaurant in Astana, where it costs 750KZT a bowl.

My experience was that horse milk tastes sour and lighter compared with cow milk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'Modern city on the rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe