Contributed by NUSS member, Dr Seow Onn Choong
It was a chilly three degree Celsius when our plane landed at Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport, the international airport of Astana, in the wee hours at 4am on 2 May 2023. The area was quiet and it seemed like we were the only group in the airport.
After exiting from the immigration counter, the NUSS tour group – all 25 of us, followed the tour guide to the bus. As the tour bus entered the city of Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, it was really surreal. Not only did the city look ultra-modern, but every building looked brand new! What’s more, the roads were wide and the whole city was well lit. Our tour guide, Mr Vladimir, explained that the city is very new as Astana was merely a small village 25 years ago.
After a short rest, we hit the road again. With daylight, we could see a very well-designed city with many modern buildings with unique architecture.
A region rich in culture and history
First stop was the Astana Opera. Known as the largest theatre in Central Asia, we were surprised by this large building, reminiscent of those grand old European classical opera houses. The guide even managed to sneak us into a hall to observe a choir practice which was ongoing at that time.
Mr Vladimir shared that the Five ‘Stan countries of Central Asia were conquered by Tsarist Russian Empire over more than 150 years ago. Following the Russian Revolution, they all became republics in the former Soviet Union. Thus, it was not too long ago that Russian was made the official language. The guide also elaborated that the Five ‘Stans are Muslim countries with rich history greatly influenced by Persia and Turkey.
We also visited a museum which was dedicated to the first president following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an impressive exhibition of his struggles to lead the country to modernisation. Fortunately, the country of Kazakhstan is blessed with oil, uranium and many resources, which helped fund its development.
At the centre of the Astana Expo lies a unique, huge glass spherical building called the Nur Alem. Although it was closed for renovation, we were able to access the building for a quick tour. On the top floor was a display of the city’s development plan. Our guide also shared that the government had sought out international planning experts to help its planners build Astana.
Another highlight was the Astana Grand Mosque. with the main dome being the largest in the world. Standing under it, one can’t help but be struck by its size and grandeur. Amazingly, the whole complex was built within three years during the COVID-19 pandemic and opened in 2022.
Abundance of scenic beauty
Next, we flew to the beautiful city of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. There, we saw the real Kazakhstan with buildings dating back to the Soviet era.
We were whisked by cable car to a ski slope just half an hour from the city centre. It was very idyllic and felt like we were magically transported to the ski slopes of Switzerland. I am sure that this venue would become a ski destination for Singaporeans in future.
The ‘Stan countries and their roles in the development of the Soviet Union over the last hundred years cannot be decoupled. This was especially highlighted in the Memorial of Glory, a memorial complex in Almaty which was installed in memory of the able-bodied soldiers who were sent to the frontlines during the Great Patriotic War in the second World War. Those left behind toiled tirelessly to produce all the necessary materials needed at the warfront. The scale of the battle casualties was deeply etched in the people’s minds.
Next, we headed to the Green Bazaar, an iconic local market filled with the nation’s fresh produce. To our surprise, there was even a section selling pork!
Historically, the inhabitants of Central Asia were nomads. Thus, we were treated to a visit to a typical village to learn more about the villagers’ way of life and a show of horsemanship.
Next stop was Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Lacking mineral resources compared to its neighbours, this country is much more involved in agriculture.
There, the tour group look a long bus ride around the country’s largest lake, Issyk-Kul. It is the seventh deepest and tenth largest lake in the world by volume (though not in surface area) and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Due to its high salt content, the Issyk-Kul Lake never freezes, making it an important stopover point for migratory birds. We also learnt more about the life of the Dungan and Uyghur ethnic groups over lunch in their own homes.
The agricultural land around the lake looks very much like California. It is semi-desert environment but due to the water from the snow peaked mountains, the people there enjoy a thriving farming lifestyle.
The tour group was also treated to a thrilling demonstration by an eagle hunter. Each member took turns to hold the eagle in their hand, providing a great photo opportunity for many of us!
As usual, all good things must come to an end. Our final dinner in Central Asia was filled with song and laughter. A splash of vodka further heightened our spirits as we enjoyed our last meal in Kyrgyzstan.
The group started off the tour as strangers but bid each other farewell as friends after exploring Central Asia together for 10 days. Thank you Ms Irene Foo of Aveson Travel and Mr Vladimir for taking care of us throughout this wonderful journey!