By : RAHIL SHAIKH
NUR-SULTAN, KAZAKHSTAN :
On a freezing January evening, when my dorm friends, Zhuldyz and Kamila, at Saint Petersburg University, where I’m currently pursuing my Masters in Psychology, casually asked if I’d like to visit their country – Kazakhstan – little did they expect me to reply in the affirmative. “I will come in July,” I said. A few Google searches later, after checking out pictures of Astana, I was completely flabbergasted by its splendour and all thoughts of going home to India for the holidays flew straight out of the window. Fast-forward to June, I surprised my friends with my Kazak visa and it was only after I earnestly started hotel hunting in Astana, did it actually dawn on them that this was for real and that I was indeed flying to their hometown! My large-hearted friends generously invited me to stay at their house in Astana, I graciously accepted, and began planning my trip to Kazakhstan.
Flight tickets were booked from Pulkovo Airport, Saint Petersburg, to Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev International Airport, Kazakhstan. On the day of departure to Nursultan, while my roommate, Edgar, and I waited for Zhuldyz to get the car to load the luggage, a BMW 3-series pulled up. “Now, wouldn’t it be cool if that BMW was our ride,” I thought. Lo and behold! The driver door opened and Zhuldyz, all smiles, stepped out of the car. Tossing the key fob towards me she said, “What are you waiting for? Load the luggage and drive.” It was my turn to be caught completely off-guard and it did take me a few seconds for reality to sink in and for it to eventually dawn on me that this beauty was indeed our ride to the airport! I wasted no time in stuffing the boot of the BMW 3-series with all our luggage and getting behind the wheel. The 180 BHP, 2.0-litre powerhouse of the 320i had me grinning from ear to ear for more reasons than one. Not only was it the first time that I was driving a BMW, enjoying it tremendously, even more than the 2017 Mercedes-Benz C-Class that I often drove back home but also the fact that the 4-lane highway to Pulkovo Airport from Petergof saw the baby Bimmer effortlessly touching speeds of 140 km/h with a mere tap of the throttle. This trip to Kazakhstan had started off splendidly and I was definitely going to make the most of it!
We flew Belavia (Belavia Belarusian Airlines) and the three-hour layover in Minsk added an even bigger smile on my face as my Indian credit cards were finally working here! Soon, we were airborne again and within the next five hours we would be touching down in the showpiece city of 21st-century Kazakhstan – Nur-Sultan. After arriving at the beautiful Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, I was pleased to see that the immigration line was short but even more pleased was the immigration officer when I replied to her questions in what I believe was fairly fluent Russian. ‘Welcome to Nur-Sultan’, she said with a smile, as she handed me my passport, happy to converse with an Indian student who did a fairly good job with his newly acquired language skills.
The ride to Zhuldyz and Kamila’s home from the airport was in a rusty Datsun on-DO, certainly not the most comfortable sedan, and starkly different from the plush baby Bimmer that I had piloted only a few hours back. The smoky smell and clearly worn-out seats inside the on-DO were a clear reminder of the fact that the car had clocked over two lakh kilometres but it was still going strong and that was remarkable about this Japanese sedan. Sadly, being tired and hungry after what seemed like a really long journey, none of us could keep our eyes open for long during the ride home.
After arriving at Zhuldyz and Kamila’s home, and exchanging greetings with their mother, Simbat Dzhakupova, I was invited to the dinner table where she had prepared a feast for us. The dinner table had a delicious spread with quite a variety of food. The thing that absolutely stood out, for me, was Manti (a type of dumpling hugely popular in Kazakhstan) and I helped myself to one too many, and after gorging on the freshly prepared home food, which like me, most students living away from home miss, I finally called it a night.
As luck would have it, we had brought the sun with us to Nur-Sultan and the next day, 6th of July, happened to be the day when Nur-Sultan was celebrating its 23rd Birthday! But as mall rats, our first destination had to be the Mega Silkway Mall on the Qabanbay Batyr Avenue which didn’t look large from the outside, however, was enormous on the inside with Geely car exhibits such as Coolray and Emgrand GT and innumerable shops, it was starkly different than what I had imagined it to be. After touring the mall and quite a few shopping bags later, we stepped out and what did we see? The Astana Expo building was lit up in the most stunning colors and the background sound was that of roaring of car engines – pure melody to my ears! Much to my surprise, there was a car exhibition going on there! I lost count of the numerous cars that I saw there but it was when I saw the all-carbon Nissan R34 Skyline and the classic white Toyota Supra that I realized that this trip had already been well worth it. The McLaren P1s, the Mustangs, all of them had their place in the exhibition. However, the child in me could not take my eyes off the R34. After ogling at the cars to my heart’s content and numerous clicks later, we finally left.
Nur Sultan is divided into two sides, the left and the right, by the Ishim river. While the Left side of the city is well-developed and houses the administrative buildings, malls, the Astana Expo, and other architectural masterpieces, the right side of the city is largely residential and while it has more of the old Soviet vibe to it, it also does boast of some modern architecture to its credit. Living on the right side and travelling to the left side daily, during my stay there, was a novel experience for me. Every day, I saw something new as the city showed me how the two halves of the city lived. On one side of the river lived people who drove Mercedes’, Audis and BMWs, and on the other side of the river, lived people with their beaten down Ladas, old Datsuns and timeworn Toyotas, etc. It was just one river dividing the city into two halves, and yet, each half told a remarkably different story.
The Water-Green Boulevard, right in the heart of Astana, is specifically made for pedestrians and one day we decided to enjoy a tranquil walk there. A slight drizzle and a slight wind during our walk made that beautiful evening breezier and fresher. At the heart of Water-Green Boulevard is the Baiterek tower. The Baiterek tower is exceptional and even more so at night when it dazzles in all its brilliance. Though the observation deck at the top was closed to tourists because of the rains, it looked stunning even from below so much so that my eyes were glued to it for what seemed like a really long time and my spell was only broken when the aroma of a hot steaming cup of chai brought me back to my senses. We sat in the park, enjoying the quiet atmosphere with little drops of rain falling down on us as we sipped Chai. Afterall, is there anything really better than Chai, rain, and the company of great friends, especially in foreign land?
Next on my list was a visit to the entertainment centre, Ailand, which has an Oceanarium that has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most distant from the ocean! This oceanarium’s main walkway was covered with thick acrylic glass letting us get a brilliant view of the marine life there. Sharks, turtles, crabs, sea horses, they had almost everything there. While the kids were busy gawking at the sharks, I was admiring the colossal and majestic turtles swimming along quietly. Though this oceanarium is not big, at 3000 Tenge, it is relatively affordable and if you happen to be a marine life enthusiast, you should definitely check it out.
The day I spent in Astana happened to be a Friday and so naturally, I headed to the majestic Hazrat Sultan Mosque for Friday prayers which also happens to be the largest Mosque in Central Asia and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful ones out there. With the rain clouds hovering over the city and with small rays of sunlight peeping through them, as the light fell on the Mosque, I was completely mesmerised by its splendid architecture. The white building of the mosque is as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. The huge chandelier inside the mosque looks absolutely stunning and with a capacity for 10,000 people, it definitely is huge. It was quite an exquisite experience offering my prayers there and the peaceful environment inside the mosque made me feel really calm within. Definitely a “Must Visit” place if you’re holidaying in Nur-Sultan.
Next was a trip to Astana Opera. Nope, I’m not an Opera person, but Astana Opera was a unique experience for me because of its spectacular architecture. The building was not just massive but also captivating and of course, needless to say, the people visiting the Opera were all dressed to the nines. I felt a little out of place there in my jeans, shirt and sneakers, but quickly consoled myself saying that I was merely a tourist visiting Kazakhstan on a student budget. The swirling staircase to the balcony area of the opera was straight out of a fairy-tale and we shot several reels and videos there. All the attendants were extremely polite and spoke English pretty well which I’ll confess came as a surprise to me. Step outside the Opera house, and you can see the entire city spread out before you. The view is breath-taking and you can see architectural masterpieces. In fact, even sunsets here are totally mesmerizing and I can only imagine how they would look in the harsh winters.
Two days were also spent in the picturesque Borovoe, popularly called the “Switzerland of Kazakhstan.” While the early morning three-hour train ride to Borovoe was hot and uncomfortable, the beautiful landscape from the train windows made it well worth it. On reaching Borovoe, the whole atmosphere changed. The pace of Astana was left behind as we arrived in the laidback Borovoe. A bus ride to Terrassa Park, where we were staying, wasn’t the most comfortable one but we finally reached our destination – Lake Borovoe. Terrasa Park is a good resort with its own private beach on one side and a view of the mountains on the other. Soon enough I got comfortable in a hammock and spent an entire afternoon relaxing listening to music, sipping mocktails and munching on the delightful Samsas that we had brought along.
In the evening, we rode bicycles around the lake. I was finally on two wheels after what felt like an eternity and it was the most amazing feeling ever! The ride was a bit tough but I enjoyed it. The separate cycling path made it a piece of cake although there were occasional tourists walking on the bicycle path. Startling them was fun but nobody got mad at us for doing that. As the sun set, the view around the lake seemed to get even more picture perfect. A rain shower made my surroundings prettier and as I cycled, I remember myself clicking pictures from the camera of mind. It was almost like as if I was cycling on a movie set and this is definitely one solid memory of Borovoe that will forever be etched in my mind.
The following day in Borovoe the air was fragrant thanks to the numerous flowers and trees all around us and the sun was shining bright but the air was cold, thanks to the lake. The three of us just lay in our hammocks, relaxing, tired from all the cycling the previous evening. The clouds continued their journey, making it sunny and cloudy from time to time. After lunch at a nearby doner Kabab we came back and slept some more. Towards evening, when it was dark, we decided to go for a boat ride in the dark and boy was it scary! With the moonlight shimmering on the water body, the pin drop silence that was occasionally broken by us paddling the boat and the silhouettes of the mountains surrounding us, I remember telling myself that taking this boat ride at 9pm was easily one of the craziest, boldest and by far one of the best decisions that I had made on this trip to Kazakhstan.
Next day, we returned to Astana and my trip to Kazakhstan was nearing its end but we weren’t leaving before celebrating Kamila’s Birthday! I must mention that the best food that I was treated to was at my friends’ home and their parents were outstanding hosts always urging me to eat more than I could. The highlight for me was Manti, Beshbarmak, and the Beef skewers prepared by their father, Sergey Dzhakupova. I just couldn’t get enough of all the delicious food that was served to me with so much love by my friend’s mother because I “look so thin” which I would partake of sitting in the front yard of their house with their family and frankly, I was beginning to feel a little sad about returning to Saint Petersburg.
A few days later my Kazak holiday had come to an end and as my friends and I flew back to Saint Petersburg I was filled with mixed emotions. I took in a lot from my first "International holiday" to Kazakhstan but I was sure about one thing... this certainly wasn’t my last one there. If somebody asked me to fly to Astana tomorrow, I would do it in a heartbeat, and why not, afterall, the city has so much more to offer than what I had seen in the last ten days that I had just spent there. However, the next time I visit the country, I plan on visiting Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, because I’m confident that just like Nur-Sultan, Almaty, too will be a bundle of surprises and needless to say, I just can’t wait to explore it.