A Travellerspoint blog

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Spaceport Astana

Architect-buffs will love Astana while more political minds might wonder why the gas-money is spent on glitter and not utilities for the population.

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Kazakhstan’s only strongman (think Putin times 10), President Nazarbaev, decided in 1994 to move the country’s capital from Almaty to a new location: Astana (which fittingly means ‘capital’ in Kazakh) are being built from scratch. The hugely ambitious project, lead by some of the World’s most famed architects, is scheduled to be finished in 2030. So far have more than 12 billion US$ been poured into the city. The end result: a city resembling the 21st century more than any other. If aliens were to decide where to land, by just looking at our planet’s cities, Astana would without a doubt be their chosen spot.
Welcome to Spaceport Astana.
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Nurzhol Bulvar is currently on the southern edge of the city. By 2030 this governmental and administrative zone will be the city’s center.

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Just west of Nurzhol is this brand new, 150-meter high, tent-like structure. Build by transparent and heat-absorbing material the temperature is constantly just around 27 degrees. Includes a mall, a botanical garden, minigolf, a concert hall and a large aquapark at the top.

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The Bayterek Monument is a 97-meter high lookout tower.

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At the top of Bayterek you can place your palm in a print of President Nazarbaev’s while gazing out at his palace.

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Ak Orda, or the President’s Palace at the eastern end of Nurzhol Bulvar. Resembles the old palace in soon-to-be northern Astana, this one is just a lot bigger.

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The pyramid just across the river from the president’s home to the east, or Palace of Peace & Accord includes a 1300-seat opera hall, a space-like atrium for congresses and, at the top, the most awesome placed round table in the world.

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Conference table in the Palace of Peace & Accord, placed on top of a botanic garden, with a view of the city and white doves on the windows.

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Further east from the Palace of Peace & Accord stands the pillar of Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) 91 meters into the air. It got a 5 meter tall bronze statue of Nazarbaev at its bottom. Behind it is Shabyt (left), an art university, and the Palace of Independence (right) which a museum, a gallery and the country’s largest conference space.

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The Sultan Mosque is the second biggest in the country, and contains at the lower level a bath house, a restaurant and a (religious) souvenir shop.

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Much more to come! Inside the Palace of Independence is a full model of Astana 2030. It includes among other projects; a mini-Venice residence complex complete with channels; Batygai, a self-contained indoor town of 10.000 with schools, hospital, etc; Abu Dhabi Plaze, a cluster of towers reaching 372 meters; and instead of a metro an air-train network where the stations and tracks are lifted above the streets of the city.

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So welcome to Spaceport Astana, where the UFO’s have already landed… Or is it just the city’s circus building?

Posted by askgudmundsen 22:04 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged architecture modern astana Comments (0)

The guest is greater than the father

The biggest reward about travelling off the beaten track is neither bragging rights nor extraordinary sights. The title is a Central Asian proved about the importance of guests.

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Ask any businessman or diplomat about Kazakhstan’s greatest asset and they will point to the country’s vast oil and gas reserves. A chief might disagree and notice the caviar from the Caspian Sea. Ask a traveller, however, and the answer will always be its people.
Time and a time again I am reminded about the friendliness and hospitality of the Kazakhs, something that have been standing out since that first Kazakh jeep driver back in Mongolia who we traded music with.
It’s not something confined to Kazakhstan alone though. Every time you manage to get off the beaten track one is automatically transformed from being a tourist to a visitor – often even to a guest. And visitors are folks to be honoured in many – if not most – cultures around the world. Traditional belief in Central Asia is that guests are good luck, and thus are guest treated very well.

Guests = tea

Guests = tea

Unfortunately, when westerners leave home, and our reserved and suspicious nature (it seems like we’re always afraid that (nice) strangers will take our money), we leave for placed were we have ruined the initial signs of hospitality by making us self, the tourist, a commodity instead of a visitor.
Whether at the Red Sea resorts, the Thai islands, Cancun’s beaches or the likes we act like we would back in Europe and North America. The only difference is that we are letting loose because we’re on vacation. Getting loose in western terms indivertible seems to include throwing money around, and usually go hard on the alcohol. For what are Europeans and Americans experts at? Consuming. Spending money, and when on vacation we’ve usually been saving to really have a good time, burning even more money per minute than we do back home. And that counts charter tourists and backpackers alike – though it’s on different levels.

A reason to overspend?

A reason to overspend?

No surprise that locals greet these hordes of wild animals, who roam through every two weeks throwing around dollars like madmen, as businessmen instead of hosts. Some of the traditions persist, like offering guests tea, but I’d eat my hat on the fact that shopkeepers know it will make people stay and probably make them feel obliged to buy something.
Again, I would have done the same thing. The point of this isn’t to discourage anyone from there charter dream or backpacker’s paradise. The point is that you need to get off the beaten track to meet the hospitality that thrives in many cultures around the world. If you’re just looking for a good time, please stay at the resort or party-hostel. Walking home drunk in the middle of the night will probably get you robbed in many other destinations anyway.

When my family and I went off-road in an Omani valley back in 2009 was we invited to supper by the son of a local family. Hitching in a little visited part of Guatemala a local boy I hitched with invited me home to sleep at his family’s house instead of showing me to one of the hotels we walked past, when we didn’t manage to reach my destination before nightfall. In Minks a marriage couple drove me through the city to my hostel – before that had we uttered about ten sentences between each other on a four hour train ride.
Every single time they have refused any kind of payment – not necessary money. Some almost takes offence when I have insinuated to offer any kind compensation for their troubles.

Soldier feeding me

Soldier feeding me

Within the last 96 hours have the train conductor on the 48-hour ride between Astana and the Caspian Sea supplied me with tea (that you’re supposed to pay for), an army battalion on the same train feed me on their rations for the entire two days. Granted, depending on which ration they got hold on it tasted like anything from bad airline meals to canned cat food. But they loved it, so, so did I.
The latest shots of hospitality was received after travelling on a minibus between the city of Aktau and a placed called Zhanaozen, where I had to pit-stop before continuing to an underground mosque in the middle of a desert: A married girl (24-ish) translated to older ladies many questions to me on the two hour bus ride, everybody clearly enjoying themselves. Getting close to our destination I was asked about where I was going to stay and when I was heading out to the mosque.
The girl and her husband promise the rest of the bus to take good care of me, easing the ladies’ minds. I would have been happy if they’d just found a taxi that didn’t overcharge me. Instead they travel with me in the taxi, making sure I pay the real price, they then show me the hotel I wanted to stay at, negotiate a price for me (lower than my guide books quoted), and then they took me to the bazaar to find a jeep going to my destination. Here they sorted out that the jeep would pick me up the next morning before heading out.

Mosque to sleep in

Mosque to sleep in

As if that wasn’t enough I got their phone number and was told just to call them if anything didn’t go as planned, the next day. Then they – to my astonishment – apologised for not being able to be there getting me on the jeeps the next morning as they lived on the outskirts of town near the bus station…
I later stranded at that underground desert mosque, where the caretaker offered to let me sleep inside the mosque… That was until some businessmen dropped by to pray and taxied me the 285 km back to civilization – for free. Of cause they were going in the same direction, but according to local custom one usually pay for gas when hitching a ride. These guys straight out refused my offer of gas-money.

A free ride home

A free ride home

I’m going to bed promising myself that I will take this hospitality with me home. That when I get back to Copenhagen anyone carrying a large backpack or standing on a corner with a map is a friend of mine. A guest of mine for whom I’ll go out of my way to make sure gets wherever they are going safe and sound. Though I do fear that they’ll mistake my gesture with a crock’s bad intentions.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:13 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged culture tourist guest hospitality Comments (0)

The Pilgrimage to Beket-Ata

Prayer-sessions; walks around sacred trees; and underground mosques hundreds of kilometres from anywhere.

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The Mangistau Desert

The Mangistau Desert

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I’ve been on a religious pilgrimage. It is, however, the traveller’s duty to challenge him- or herself, to seek out new experience and most important of all: get under the skin of the nations they visit.
Just to get all the blasphemy out of the way, I still consider all that religion and spirituality mambo-jumbo from the past. Whether it be you invisible old man in the clouds or an increase in facility by walking around a sacred tree three times.
None the less does Kazakhstan, and much of rest of Central Asia, have a history of important religious centres of spirituality and religious learning. Thanks to Stalin’s cruelties and the Soviet crack-down on religious practices this is mostly nothing more than history.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Central Asia, and in particular Kazakhstan is now the Islamic world’s answer to what North-western Europe is to Christianity: A highly secular place, where the religious rules are supressed by the culture that have shaped the region over the centuries. Beer and vodka is readily available everywhere thanks to the Russians, and most people drink (too much). Women rarely cover their hair. Pork is rarely eaten, but mostly because pigs are terrible animals to herd on the vast steppes, not because of the dogma against it. Most people will need an imam to do the praying for them as they aren’t themselves able to read or site the scriptures – just like most Europeans will need a priest.
That said religious Kazakhs – though they rarely visit their mosques – will go on pilgrimages to certain holy sites. Usually these will be mausoleums of important Islamic scholars. It is their equivalent of Christians attending services on Christmas and Easter.

Pilgrims at Shopan-Ata

Pilgrims at Shopan-Ata

The pilgrimages are thus one of the most important religious undertakings for the Kazakhs. In Western Kazakhstan the most important place of worshipping is the underground mosques of Shopan-Ata and Beket-Ata, with the latter being the most important one. They are names after the Sufi (less known branch of Islam) scholars who withdrew to these caves for religious meditation in the later parts of their lives. A practice relating more to Buddhism than Islam.
Most pilgrims come here to pray for (religious) inspiration or for increased fertility. The latter not really something that is lacking in rural Kazakhstan where families usually have between five and nine children.
To get there minibuses drive the c. 300 km into the Mangistau Desert from the Caspian Sea coastal city of Aktau. Our first stop was a sacred tree close to a necropolis (a graveyard where a small house or wall has been built around each grave). Here was an imam waiting for us, and as the respectful traveller I joined the circle around the tree when asked to. It was indeed a strange feeling dropping to my knees together with the 8 pilgrims, holding out my hands (like I was feeling whether it had started raining) and receive the imam’s prayer and blessing. For what exactly I do still not know. It didn’t get less ambivalent when everybody got up, to walk around the tree three times, touching it every half round just to put the hand to our forehead receiving the tree’s fertility. Given the fact that the tree was nothing more than a dead lump of wood, this particular effect of fertility seems even more odd.

Inside Beket-Ata

Inside Beket-Ata

After this we continued to the underground mosque of Shopan-Ata. Carved deep into the rocks and mountains, often using existing caves, these mosques are impressive sights. Here did an imam perform another prayer sessions, before we walked to another sacred tree, finally getting to a well that contained sacred and blessed water for drinking.
Last stop was the holiest of sites, the very impressive Beket-Ata. A place of religious worth ship or not, the site was impressive. Placed on top of a mountain, overlooking a broad desert valley was a small complex consisting of a mosque where pilgrims (and me) were provided free meals and sleeping opportunities. In fact most pilgrims sleep there before returning the next morning.

Beket-Ata's underground mosque

Beket-Ata's underground mosque

From here a steep path lead down the side of the mountain to the mosque itself. The three connected caves would each serve a special purpose for a special prayer – and most pilgrims would attend a prayer session led by the onside imam. A few even asked the imam to make an individual for them – the only of his prayers that included the traditional bow towards Mecca. My guess would be that these were the Sunni pilgrims, the branch of Islam where the five daily prayers are mandatory.

Boring being the imam's son

Boring being the imam's son

No doubt the trip was a highlight of Kazakhstan. Especially the opportunity to come face-to-face with practices so far from my own mind-set was a very interesting experience. Even if you don’t join a pilgrimage and rent a vehicle in Aktau, Beket-Ata is a must-see just for it beautiful location and the share awesomeness of carving a mosque into a mountain.

Posted by askgudmundsen 03:49 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged mosque religion underground mangistau Comments (0)

Lost in the Desert

A visit to the desert where the Aral Sea used to be got added a little extra excitement when my driver wasn’t able to find his way.

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“Yup, we are lost,” my driver, Zhambyl, laughs. I can’t really tell whether the laughter is sincere or the nervous kind one put up when you don’t know how else to react… I smile, “We’re not lost we’re in the Aral Desert.” He doesn’t really understand me, but my smile seems to loosen some of the more tightened muscles in his face. “OK, this way!” He replies before choosing yet another random dirt track in the former seabed.

Zhambyl, my driver

Zhambyl, my driver

I’m visiting the Aral Sea or rather the desert where the Aral Sea used to be. The sea used to be one of the largest lakes in the world, but a Soviet agriculture scheme in the 60’s dammed the two big rivers feeding the sea. The result; the Aral Sea almost disappeared.
And so did we race off along the tracks of soft sand, which used to be the seafloor. ‘Race’ seems to be an honest description of Zhambyl’s driving. He clearly preferred to attack the dirt tracks at a speed between 80-100 km/h, only slowing down if he absolutely had to. This resulted some truly emergency breaking, not to send the jeep to airborne, in which a less alert passengers head could easily have kissed the inside of the windshield.

Seabed road

Seabed road

It’s almost improbable that we didn’t get into some kind of accident. Plenty of times did the wheels scream and Zhambyl would clearly lose control of the car once in a while. Half the time because he was paying attention to something else than where we was going (rather dangerous doing 80 in a snaking, bumping dirt track). To his credit he did do an outstanding job getting the car back in its preferred tracks.
Bouncing along like this I actually considered grabbing for the seatbelt. Then again, I wouldn’t insult his driving – so in a circumstance of traveller’s logic I endangered my life unnecessary not to insult a guy I’m never gonna meet again. Guys I figured that I might as well sit back, take a firm grip on the seat and enjoy the rollercoaster ride. If I had to go, I might as well go out smiling.

The former Aral Sea

The former Aral Sea

Which brings us back to the getting-lost-in-a-desert: Bumping along the same dirt track for the third time, I was trying hard to remember if the Aral Sea was a fresh water or salt water lake – just in case we were going to spend the night(s). The dust storm surrounding the car gives me a hit, since it’s not so much dust storms, but salt storms. Where the Aral Sea retreated, the last bit of water vaporized and left the dirt coloured white by the water’s salt. When that try dirt is winded up, it now creates big white clouds of salty dust, tornadoing around in the air.

Salt storm

Salt storm

In general the salt storms are a rather nice sight to behold – at a distance. In the middle of it, it’s as painful and ill-desired as any other dust storm. And just to add injury to insult; the Aral Sea not only used to be a sea, but also a chemical dumping ground, the salt-dust is known to be highly toxic. Thus making this area a rather unpleasant place to get stuck.
It did, however, come with a few nice surprises. Normally you can’t visit the flamingo’s inhabiting the shores of the current lake, but being lost we stumbled across a flock of them. And I got to see some local fishermen in action, as Zhambyl had to ask them for directions – not that they proved very helpful.

Asking for directions

Asking for directions

All in all did the crazy driving, the getting lost, the fishermen and the flamingos justify the rather steep 80 US$ price tag. Otherwise would the dried out seabed, the few rusting boats left in the desert and the lunch of Aral fish (full of toxic sand) have been overpriced. Not that I think it was particularly overpriced in terms of getting a driver and the gas being used to get to the sight. Though, once you’ve gotten out there it might be a bit disappointing.

Rusting ship

Rusting ship

All that said, and since I’m still able to post blog updates, you’ve might have figured out that we finally, crossing a corner of the Aral Sea in the process, made our way out. Eventually it took five hours to find our way out, from Zhambyl’s nervous laughter till we actually knew we were going in the right direction.

Posted by askgudmundsen 09:12 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged desert lost aralsk aral_sea aral_tenizi Comments (0)

Hiking the Tian Shan Mountain Range

This picture blog takes you on a two-day trek to 3000 meters above sea level, through pristine forest, across rivers to hot spring in a picturous valley overlooked by an icy glacier.

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The World’s highest mountains outside the Himalayas are found in Central Asia. In particular the ranges of Tian Shan, The Pamirs and The Hindu Kush, all including multiple peaks above 7000 meters. The Tian Shan is placed on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and China.
In the second largest alpine lake, Issyk-Köl is placed at the range’s foot in eastern Kyrgystan making the area perfect for hikes and treks (multi-day hikes). I did a two day trek from the city of Karakol to Altyn Arashan at 3000 meters – opting out of going a further nine hours to the glacier at Peak Palatka (4260m), as there will be higher peaks to come.
These are some of the pictures, the rest are found here.

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The village of Ak-Suu, the treks starting point.

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Beginning the trek

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The Arashan River and one of the many natural springs running into it.

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Russian bikers (who gave up half way).

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Half-way picture

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Local herders and their flocks where plentiful.

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Local herder’s summer residence.

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Peak Palatka (4260m).

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Arashan Valley where I spent the night.

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Arashan Valley.

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Migration birds.

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Morning shower.

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Peak Palatka nine hours (round-trip) away.

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Karakol valley during the return hike.

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Locals who wanted at picture when I returned.

Posted by askgudmundsen 08:53 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Tagged trek hike tain_shan aryshan Comments (1)

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