Larger than all of Western Europe, Kazakhstan’s vast expanse encompasses the Great Steppe, the heights of the Tien Shan Mountains in the south, the exquisite lakes and valleys of the Altai Mountains in the northeast and the archeologically rich desert coast of the Caspian Sea in the far west.Now, this land of rich history, welcoming people and whirling bazaars shares its wonders with a curious world. Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, with 17 million people, has great potential to develop ecotourism. The country has huge amounts of open space and opportunities abound for tourists to visit snow-topped mountains, deep forests, cool lakes, vast steppes and rich wildlife. Thanks to idealistic people like Dagmar Schreiber, ecotourism is slowly becoming more popular.
Schreiber, a German living in Kazakhstan, has devoted the last 20 years of her life to helping rural villages in Kazakhstan explore opportunities in tourism. Schreiber studied philosophy in Leningrad (St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the World Bank study project on living standards in Kazakhstan in 1994.
During this three-year project, she fell in love with the country and decided to dedicate the rest of her professional life to it. During numerous far-reaching trips, she became aware of its enormous potential for tourism and formed a small, Berlin-based tour agency in 2003, specialising in environmentally friendly tours of the real Kazakhstan to reveal the country at its best as a fascinating and rewarding destination.
Schreiber, an expert with over 14 years of experience in the country, has written the unique 568-page volume “Kazakhstan – Nomadic Routes from Caspian to Altai,” which has already become one of the most definitive English language works about Kazakhstan.
Lavishly illustrated with over 300 colour photographs and 19 maps, the book contains everything from travel information to sections on Kazakhstan’s Silk Road and nomadic past to chapters on business, natural resources and commerce. The book is an invaluable resource for business visitors to Kazakhstan who seek to better understand the country’s culture and potential. It also highlights the enormous potential that Kazakhstan has for tourism and the country’s great beauty, culture and diverse history, right up to the achievements of the present age.
In her book and travel guide, Schreiber describes many attractions of the country for the intrepid and less-intrepid traveler. According to her, all sorts of pastimes are available, including trekking across the boundless steppe, adventure skiing in stunning mountain scenery, seeing lakes and wildlife of the lush Tien Shan and Altai Mountains, visiting ancient mosques and caravanserais of the Silk Road or viewing the amazing treasures of the museums of Almaty and its graceful Bauhaus architecture.
The work was produced with support from the Embassy of Kazakhstan in the United Kingdom. It also contains a foreword by the Duke of York in his capacity as patron of the British-Kazakh Society. In it, he stresses Kazakhstan’s great promise in the areas of business and tourism, writing: “Kazakhstan now features increasingly on business people’s travel itineraries; but the riches and beauty of its vast and varied geography have yet to be discovered by more than a relatively small number of intrepid travelers. I have been fortunate enough to have seen at first hand some of Kazakhstan’s imposing mountain scenery, the beauty of the steppe and the majesty of its desert, rivers and gem-like lakes. The country truly offers travelers a unique combination of adventure, history, culture and legendary hospitality – all set against a backdrop of pristine landscapes.” About Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, the book says the following:
“If you want to get some idea of what Akmola, Tselinograd or Akmolinsk was like, you should do it now. Many old houses on the right bank of the river are still standing, mostly in the area between the railway station and Moscow Street, but also east of Pobeda Avenue. There is little hope, however, that many of them will survive the coming years, since systematic neglect has left them in such state that razing them seems to be the only practical solution. Curiously, and in contradiction to the norm, this city’s most interesting sights all date from very recent times.
As you drive from the airport towards the city, the first thing that stands out from a distance is a very tall structure on the right, crowned by a golden, glittering globe. This is the Baiterek observation tower, the “Tree of Life.” It was President Nazarbayev’s idea, and he also has a clear view of it from his living room, for his new residence is located in full sight of the 97-metre-high structure. According to legend, the magic bird Samruk would lay a golden egg on the top of every tree that was out of reach to humans.
All the secrets of human desire and passion were hidden inside the egg, as well as the answers to all their dreams for the future. With the building of Baiterek the egg is no longer out of reach, since two elevators whisk visitors up to the golden, gleaming globe set within the opening concrete “branches” of the white-trunked tower.
From this vantage point, looking out through the gold-tinted glass, you may not grasp the secret of life’s passions and desires and the key to their satisfaction – but at least you can admire how the president’s vision of the future is rapidly taking shape.
Baiterek occupies the centre of a huge quadrangle, the showpiece of Astana’s recent development. Occupying the eastern end of this long rectangle is the marbled splendour of the Presidential Palace, while facing it, albeit from a considerable distance, is the glass-fronted facade of the KazMunayGas building in the west.
Between the country’s political focal point on one side and the headquarters of the country’s most powerful business corporation on the other, two rows of impressive buildings – housing top government and business offices – make up the remaining sides of this elongated rectangle. It makes a powerful statement of economic wealth – no doubt the intention – but it also happens to be a pleasant place to walk, since the quadrangle’s inner space has been made into an attractive park, with flowerbeds and modern bronze statues of stylized traditional figures.
Walk towards KazMunayGas and on your left you’ll see the Islamic Centre and country’s largest place of worship, the Nur Astana Mosque, completed in 2005 and a gift from the Emir of Qatar to the citizens of Kazakhstan. [The newly opened Hazret Sultan mosque on the right bank is now even larger than the Nur Astana Mosque. – The Astana Times.] With space enough for 7,000 worshippers, its 40-metre height symbolizes the age of Mohammed when he first had revelations from God, and whose gleaming, 63-metre-high minarets symbolize the Prophet’s age when he departed from the world of man. You can enter the mosque on any day except Friday.
A wide road leads north from here towards the river and the right bank of the city. On a green hill to the left of the road, a colossal Kazakhstan flag waves in the steppe wind. This is the Independence Memorial, built in an area which was long-considered untouchable. (Previously this was the site of the Victims of Totalitarism Memorial, which is now in the village of Malinovka, west of Astana.)
Closer to the river is another grand dome supported by pillars. This is the Saltanat Reception Palace, where state and other official receptions and banquets are held. Nearby is the Atameken Ethnic Memorial Park (6 Kabanbay Batyr Street), which features a 1.7-hectare model of Kazakhstan, highlighting many architectural and other interesting sites around the country.
It is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The large Central Park occupies the wedge of land created by a 90-degree bend in the Esil River; it is very popular with the city’s residents, offering peace, shade and shelter from the dustiness of the streets – the constant construction and perennial winds of the steppe often combine to make walking around town unpleasant. Within the park are cafes, a Fantasy World with carnival rides, ponds and many nooks and crannies where people relax on benches or picnic under the trees.Cross the bridge over the Esil River and the large building facing you is the Presidential Cultural Centre on Republic Avenue, a large, white building shaped like a giant yurt with a blue dome, which houses a large library, a concert hall and a museum of Kazakh history.
The Presidential Cultural Centre, with its blue dome in the shape of a yurt, was completed in 2000; a new national university was opened, the Eurasian Gumilyov University, named after the spiritual father of the notion of a united Eurasia; and many modern architectural gems have followed. The mix in building styles gives an impression of a capital where Western and Eastern cultures meet. Turkish and domestic construction firms have built – and continue to build – colourful skyscrapers of many different designs on the right bank of the Esil River, seating a skyline worthy of a new metropolis.
Astana is neatly split down the middle by the Esil – but it wasn’t always this way. The old town of Akmola was situated almost entirely on the river’s right bank, with only the city’s central park and a few roads on the left bank acting as a buffer for the open steppe to the south.
This area, however, was designated as the site for a brand-new city that would rival the ultra-modern metropolises of Dubai and Hong Kong – and so it has turned out to be. In fact, one could say that the fantastic city development plan drawn up by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa has in fact been overtaken by the reality and successes of the achievements so far.
The new Presidential Palace, the Baiterek observation tower – a landmark for the city and the country – Kazakhstan’s largest mosque, the modernistic KazMunayGas building, many more government and business complexes with glass and steel facades, gigantic residential complexes in imperial styles, massive hotels, an exhibition centre, a monumental leisure centre, an oceanarium, a national library and archives, a special zone for diplomats. There is no end in sight to the building boom on the Esil’s southern bank. In 2006, Sir Norman Foster’s architect firm completed an inspirational glass pyramid named the Palace of Peace and Harmony that has garnered praise around the world; it was created to be a meeting place for the leading representatives of world religions.
Such was its success that Foster’s company has been commissioned again, this time to build an even bigger construction, a colossal 150-metre-high, tent-shaped cone named Khan Shatyr, which will – when it opens in 2010 [which it did – The Astana Times] – provide 10,000 of the capital’s residents and visitors with a massive recreation centre protected from the elements by a transparent plastic compound that absorbs the sun and regulates the temperature inside, allowing people to sip coffee and even sunbathe by an artificial lake while it is well below freezing outside (during the cold steppe winter).
Meanwhile, flowers, shrubs and trees planted on spacious greens throughout the city attempt to reduce the effects of the extreme weather caused by Astana’s continental climate. With Astana, Kazakhstan is presenting a completely new, ultra-modern face to the world, one that shows its ambitions both within the region and on the global stage, and also its economic and financial power. Economists say that the President has allocated over US $10 billion for the construction of his new city – and that’s without taking foreign investment into account.
The original plan was for the President’s dream of a true capital to have come to fruition by the year 2030, but the actual growth in population puts these expectations in the shade (the 500,000th resident was born in 2002, a milestone originally forecast for 2007). In 2010, the metropolis should already have a population of a million people, and the city’s area is now three times larger than it was in 1997.
Wander down the river promenade and you’ll be part of a vibrant scene as people go walking, skateboarding and jogging by; across the river the aqua park is full of life. Everywhere, businesses, cafes, restaurants and hotels are emerging. A lively nightlife has developed, and most foreign embassies have now moved from Almaty to their new home. The new metropolis is being accepted, and all those banks and enterprises who initially refused to move from Almaty to the steppe have had to reconsider.”