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Kazakhstan - Land of the Great Steppe
April 23, 2017, 1:46 pm
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Ranked as the world’s biggest landlocked nation, Kazakhstan stretches out from Siberia in the north up to the deserts in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the south, and from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east.  The vast country is covered by five climatic zones and two time zones offering visitors a geographic diversity that includes snow-capped mountains, glaciers, coniferous forests, large rocky canyons, pristine mountain lakes and amazing rivers among many others.

Astana: The country's new capital has risen fast from the northern steppe and is already a showpiece for 21st-century Kazakhstan. It is scheduled to go on rising and spreading into a city of over one million people by 2030. Its skyline grows more fantastical by the year as landmark buildings, many of them by leading international architects, sprout in a variety of Asian, Western, Soviet and wacky futuristic styles. Several spectacular structures are open to visitors and it is hard not be impressed by the very concept of the place.

Almaty: This leafy city with a backdrop of the snowcapped Zailiysky Alatau has always been among the more appealing Russian creations in Central Asia. This is Kazakhstan’s main transport hub and a place many travelers pass through. Stay a few days and you will find that Almaty is quite a sophisticated place — one for enjoying green parks and excellent museums, shops and markets, and for eating, drinking and partying in some of Central Asia’s best selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. This is not to forget the great mountain hiking and skiing which are available right on the doorstep.

Aksu-Zhabagyly Nature Reserve: This beautiful 1319-sq-km patch of green valleys, rushing rivers, snowcapped peaks and high-level glaciers, abutting the Kyrgyz and Uzbek borders, is the oldest (1926) and one of the most enjoyable and easiest visited of Kazakhstan’s nature reserves. The diversity of life in this area where mountains meet steppe is great for botanists, birders and nature lovers in general. Some of Kazakhstan's best nature guides are based locally, making this also a good base for visiting other regional attractions including the Karatau mountains, steppe lakes, deserts and historical/cultural sites like Turkistan and Otrar.

Palace of Peace & Accord: This beautiful, glass-and-steel pyramid was opened in 2006 as the home for the triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions, hosted by Kazakhstan. The half-hour tour shows you a 1,350-seat opera hall, the 3rd-floor atrium where the religions congress is held, and the apex conference room with windows filled with stained-glass doves. Full of symmetry and symbolism, the pyramid is beautifully illuminated and a highlight of the city.

Central State Museum: Almaty’s best museum takes you through Kazakhstan’s history from Bronze Age burials to telecommunications and the transfer of the capital to Astana, with many beautiful artefacts. Hall 1 deals with archaeological finds and early history up to Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan). Next to it is the ‘Open Collection’, an exhibit of outstanding ancient gold adornments, mainly from Scythian burials between the 6th and 3rd Centuries BC. The ethnographic display in hall 2 features a finely kitted-out yurt and some beautifully worked weaponry and horse and camel gear, in addition to musical instruments and exotic costumes going back to the 18th century. Halls 3 and 4 deal with the 20th and 21st centuries, including exhibits on some of Kazakhstan’s many ethnic groups.

Karaganda Ecological Museum: Run by a dedicated environmental NGO, Karaganda Ecological Museum has to be the most imaginative museum in the country. Everything can be touched, and this includes large rocket parts that have fallen on the steppe after Baykonur space launches and debris collected from the Semipalatinsk Polygon, the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons. Other display topics include the saiga antelope and chemical safety in Kazakhstan. The guided tours, available in English, are well worth it and are best requested in advance.

Yasaui Mausoleum: The main chamber of the mausoleum dedicated to the 12th-Century Sufi saint and poet Kozha Akhmed Yasaui is capped with an 18 meter-wide dome, above a vast, 2000kg, metal kazan (cauldron) for holy water, given by Timur. Around this central hall are 34 smaller rooms on two floors. Yasaui’s tomb lies behind an ornate wooden door at the end of the main chamber.

The right-hand corridor contains the tomb of Abylay Khan, leader of Kazakh resistance to the Zhungars in the 18th century. Off the main chamber's far left corner is the mausoleum’s carpeted mosque, with a beautifully tiled mihrab (Mecca-facing niche). Except in the mosque, visitors to the mausoleum do not usually remove shoes though women normally wear headscarves.

Khan Shatyr: Astana's most extraordinary building, the Khan Shatyr is a 150m-high, translucent, tent-like structure made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a heat-absorbing material that produces summer temperatures inside even when it is minus 30 degrees Celsius outside. Touted as a 'lifestyle center with world-class shopping', from outside it resembles nothing so much as a leaning circus tent, while the multilevel interior contains yet another shopping mall and food court and also several other attractions for children and adults. These include a drop tower, flume ride and 500m-long monorail and, on the top level, the Sky Beach Club with a big swimming pool, sandy beach, palm trees and water slide, where those who can afford it can imagine they are on a tropical coast in the middle of the Eurasian steppe.

Bayterek Monument: An Astana centerpiece, the 97m-high Bayterek monument, is a white latticed tower crowned by a large glass orb. This embodies a Kazakh legend in which the mythical bird Samruk lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness in a tall poplar tree, beyond human reach. A lift glides visitors up inside the egg, where you can ponder the symbolism and enjoy expansive views. A plaque invites visitors to place a hand on a gilded hand print of the right hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and incumbent President of the independent Republic of Kazakhstan. Visitors are encouraged to make a wish while placing their hands on the president’s handprint and gazing eastward towards his palace.

 

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