The Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan is home to some of the most modern architecture in the world
“How would you feel about riding a horse in Kazakhstan?” my travel editor asks.
“That would be the great,” I reply without really stopping to think that I haven’t actually gone riding for almost 20 years.
Still, it’s no different from riding a bicycle – once you’ve learned you never forget – and galloping across Kazakhstan’s endless plains after a sedentary life in the office sounds like much too good an opportunity to pass up.
And so it is that on a cloudy October day, I find myself with a group of other journalists boarding an Air Astana flight to Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan. The country’s largest city, Almaty remains the cultural centre and is a charming place boasting historic architecture, a beautiful landscape, friendly citizens and cuisine that takes it cue from the horse.
Among the sights not to be missed is the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox church that’s located in Panfilov Park. The second tallest wooden building in the world, it has miraculously survived the regular earthquakes that affect this region.
With Almaty’s location in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan, a variety of outdoor activities are available to entertain the visitor. Skaters will feel their adrenaline soaring on a visit to Medeu, the outdoor speed skating and bandy rink that hosted the Asian Winter Games in 2011. Located in Medeu Valley, or the valley of Malaya Alma-Atinka River, the rink sits 1,691 metres above sea level, making it the highest skating rink in the world.
We travel up to the mountain ski resort of Chimbulak for lunch, our stomachs rumbling nervously as we take the cable way up to the Big Talgar at 3,200 metres yet still managing to enjoy the amazing views of the snow peaks and the Tien-Shan mountains glaciers.
Later, back in town, we head over to the Eurasian Diamond Club, a private horse-riding facility where Kazakhstan and German horses are bred for racing. I quickly realise the folly of my galloping dream and content myself with steering my mount on a slow walk of a circuit that’s surrounded by mountains.
The Kazakhstan passion for the horse is part of its rich nomad heritage. The life of a nomad in Kazakhstan was unpredictable, with long hunting trips and frequent relocations and the constant battle with predators over grazing grounds. Today, urban folk enjoy an easier ride in every sense of the word, though many still choose to take to horseback in their leisure time.
Eating horse is normal here too. At the fresh market, locals enthusiastically shop for horsemeat, which surprisingly is more expensive than beef or lamb. Thais are totally unaccustomed to an equine dinner but it’s impossible not to at least sample a horsemeat steak and take a sip of a mare’s milk. Like lamb, horsemeat tastes good but I find it a little tough to chew and the strong smell is definitely unappetising. The milk tastes a bit sour and I’m relieved when to our guide warns us not too take too much, as it could upset our delicate stomachs.
After three days in Almaty, we fly north to Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital since 1997. A largely new city, founded by the country’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Astana is often called the second Dubai and is aiming to be the modern architecture hub of Central Asia.
You get an idea of just how modern the city is from the tower of Astana-Bayterek Monument. Towering above all other buildings at a massive 105 metres, its shape represents a poplar tree holding a golden egg. These come from a folktale of the tree of life, with Samruk, the magical bird of happiness, said to have laid its egg between the branches of a poplar tree.
Another landmark is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Designed by the British architects Foster and Partners, the pyramid portion of the building is 62 metres high and sits on a 15-metre high earth-covered block. Though the landscaping of the park rises up to cover the lower levels, the block is at ground level.
The design is of five “storeys” of triangles, each triangle boasting 12-metre side. The lower three storeys are clad in pale granite while the upper two rows, with four triangles per side, form a glazed apex and feature stained glass designed by Brian Clarke that incorporates doves.
Nearby is the Nur-Astana Mosque, the largest mosque in Kazakhstan and the biggest mosque in Central Asia. Its 40-metre height symbolises the age of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations, and its minarets standing 63 metres high represent Muhammad’s age on his death.
Amidst all this grandeur is a giant transparent tent that’s home to the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre. This hip shopping centre was also by Foster and the 150-metre-high tent spreads over an area larger than 10 football stadiums and features an urban-scale internal park, shopping and entertainment venue with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, shopping centre, minigolf and indoor beach resort. The fabric roof is constructed from ETFE-cushions suspended on a network of cables strung from a central spire.
The latest building is open is the Astana Opera, which is based on sketches made by President Nazarbayev. It’s the world’s third largest Opera House with an auditorium that holds up to 1,250 people in a 19th century-style setting.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air Astana.
If you go
_ Air Astana flies from Bangkok to Almaty daily. For more information visit www.AirAstana.com