Nur-Sultan was my first taste of Kazakhstan. Ask anyone about the place, and words like bizarre, weird, and dark tourism are likely to arise.
Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) is the newly crowned capital of Kazakhstan smack dab in the middle of nowhere. It sits just East of the center of the country, atop an endless steep. Winter temperatures reach a shocking -40 degrees C making it the second coldest capital city in the world.
To begin the story of Nur-Sultan, I must first tell the story of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s famous long-standing president (a term I use loosely). Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet times. He has a reputation for being Central Asia’s friendliest dictator, and a keen fondness for his face on billboards, booklets, and posters around the country. I also imagine that he has an eclectic sightly gaudy taste for fashion and design.
Take Nur-Sultan for example, a city littered with grandiose monuments, statues, and fantastical futuristic architectural buildings with barely the population (sub 1M) to support or enjoy any of these bizarre masterpieces. If Las Vegas and Moscow had a lovechild, you would get Nur-Sultan. The president has erected a 2km plaza lined with grand archways, fountains, and the crazy buildings, all perfectly symmetrical, extending through the centre of the city to the Presidential Palace.
It’s a beautiful jaunt, producing picture perfect views from all angles, yet strangely haunting due to the sheer lack of people. The streets, and seemingly entire city are deserted until around 7 pm when the workers return home.
Despite the quirks of Kazakhstan’s leader, he has done some good things for the country. Kazakhstan is the world’s 16th largest oil producer, and the large mix of cultural backgrounds and religions all seem to reside in harmony. Regardless, Kazakhstan is still a very poor country. Locals we spoke to said the minimum wage is around $100 USD a month, with the more successful middle class making around $660 USD a month. Travelling outside of Kazakhstan is virtually impossible because their currency is worth nothing (according to locals we met).
On July 6, 1997, Nazarbayev relocated Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty (the largest city) to Astana. This became known as Astana day, non-coincidentally the same day as Nazarbayev’s birthday.
Where did the name Nur-Sultan come from? you may ask.
The city’s name has a long and complicated past. Established in 1850 as Russian Akmola, it was renamed to Tselinograd in 1961, briefly returning to Akmola after the collapse of the USSR, later renamed to Astana (Kazakh for capital) in 1998, and once again renamed to Nur-Sultan in 2019 as an ode to none other than Nursultan himself.
Nur-Sultan is a lot of things, but bland is not one of them. It’s not at the top of most traveller’s destination list (unless you’ve got a twisted dark political tourism allure) and it doesn’t even make Lonely Planet’s top recommendations for places to see in Kazakhstan.
Nonetheless, we spent three intriguing days exploring the city, and peeling back a new layer of the city’s character and culture each day.
Admiring the bizarre buildings, circus tent shaped Khan Shatyr shopping mall, and ominous looking Bayterek Monument, is nearly a day in itself. We went on a hunt for Nur-Sultan’s best craft beer bars (failing miserably, as the taxi delivered us to a deserted construction site), peering through all the gifts the president has received from other world leaders at the Museum of the First President (where they strangely require you to cover your shoes with plastic bags, so as to not damage the mediocre carpet), and I even did a pole dancing class where I made a new Kazakh friend who we went out to lunch with the following day.
Even though the city has a way to go culture-wise (it’s not the most soulful place), it is setup to support a thriving future population with plenty of kid’s playgrounds, green parks, and large open spaces. Nur-Sultan the city that often gets overlooked on traveller’s agendas, or written off as boring and weird, got a big green tick in my book, making it an excellent introduction to Kazakhstan.