Mobile phones
Getting around

Astana, Malinovka, Almaty

19.8: Bishkek -> Astana
20.8: Astana
21.8: Astana and Malinovka
22.8: Astana -> Almaty
23.8: Almaty -> Beijing

Planning and overall impression

Kazakhstan is not exactly a place you would visit for a holiday. The reason I decided to go there was that I knew Astana is a capital with a very interesting architecture and because I asked myself what would be a cool, odd place to visit from Beijing.
By the end of July 2015 I had cancelled original plans to visit North Korea due to all those restrictions to travel around and take pictures, and then started considering Astana, as a possible place to visit.
Kazakhstan is a relatively wealthy country in central Asia, probably due to the oil sector. Good infrastructure, good roads. Astana is a very cool capital, with lots of modern architecture and lots of development ongoing. The countryside is flat, dull and unimpressive.
Almaty was a bit below expectations. There is not that much to see there.


Travelling across Kazakhstan is not cheap. Hotels cost as much as in western Europe, and food and transportation as well.


I didn't try out the local food (is there any?) and instead ate mostly in international cafes/restaurants, in food courts or fast food restaurants. Possibly there is local cuisine, but I couldn't find it.


I stayed in good, medium class hotels in Astana and Almaty.

Money  / Exchange rate (August 2015)

1 Euro = the Kazakh Tenge jumped from 210 to the Euro to 280 to the Euro during my visit, making my stay a bit cheaper.
1 Euro ~ USD 1.10
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

Plenty of ATMs from which to withdraw cash available everywhere.

Mobile phones and prepaid cards

I bought a local SIM card of Beeline at the airport in Astana. 1500 Tenge for the SIM card with a 2GB data package (valid for one week?). 30 minutes of calls (national only) included; calls to Malaysia are 120 Tenge/minute. The salesperson suggesed to use Skype to make calls. The SIM card had only 100 Tenge of balance left, so I bought a 2000 Tenge recharge.

Internet access

Either in the hotel using the hotel WLAN or with the smartphone


Mixed weather: I had some great sunny days in Astana (moderate temperatures), followed by an overcast day, and some heavy rain in Almaty.

Health / Vaccinations

Probably none needed for Kazakhstan

VISA / Entry requirements

Luckily I didn't need any visa to enter Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan seems to be a pretty safe country.

Recommended things

Things to avoid

Getting around

Because I was only in two cities, I didn't rent a car+driver this time. In Astana I used taxis to get around (and I chartered a taxi for the Malinovka trip), while in Almaty I walked around the city.

Back to the Kyrgyzstan 2015 travelogue

19.8: Bishkek -> Astana
Business hotel. 14400 Tenge for a stylish room with A/C, fridge, WLAN, phone, some furniture (table+chair, cupboard, clothes hanger). Breakfast included. The heating seems to be on in the toilet (floor heating), i.e. the floor feels warm. Breakfast included. The location is not perfect (5km from the Bayterek monument), but this was the only affordable option with A/C, and I wanted to have A/C as the temperatures were forecast to reach 35°C.
Weather: sunny, blue sky in Bishkek. In Astana also sunny, later in the afternoon some cloud cover.

After checking out of the hotel, at 8:30am I get into the taxi to the airport. The drive proceeds smoothly and at 9am we reach the airport. No charge for the trip (it is covered by the room rate of the Silk Road Lodge).

Major mess at the Bishkek international airport. There is no queueing system at all, so all the queues at the various check-in counters mix up totally and it takes a while to understand which queue is for which flight. Then people have the habit to jump queue. As I'm not that used to jumping queue I'm one of the last to check in.

Another queueing mess at the passport control counters, again caused by the lack of a queueing system and the lack of queueing discipline of the people here. Women with a child in their arm happily jump queues and then call all the members of their extended family to join them. Also, the passport control officials are quite slow.

Then, once in the departure hall, I notice that there is no gate number on my boarding pass. Turns out that there is just one gate on the left side which is active, through which all passengers pass. The other gates are closed.

There is also some lack of control at the boarding pass check. Nevertheless I'm on the plane at about 10:25am and I have an emergency exit window seat, which sort of compensates for the inconvenience of the Bishkek airport.

The Air Astana plane is an Embraer 190 jet with a 2-2 seat set up, and is quite full (I'd guess 3/4 full). It touches down in Astana airport at 12:10pm; by 12:20pm we leave the plane.

Things then proceed quite smoothly: I get through passport control (guy asks why I'm travelling to Kazachstan; seems positively surprised that I'm here on a holiday) and immediately after that retrieve the luggage.

Then I get some cash (and on two ATMs for some reason my bank card I use for withdrawals doesn't work) and purchase a SIM card. 1500 Tenge for the SIM card with a 2GB data package (valid for one week?). 30 minutes of calls (national only) included; calls to Malaysia are 120 Tenge/minute and here the lady suggests to use Skype to make calls (I wonder if the data connection is fast and stable enough). The SIM card is of Beeline and has only 100 Tenge of balance left, so I buy a 2000 Tenge recharge.

By 1pm I'm in a taxi on the way to Astana (distance seems to be 10-15km; cost is 2500 Tenge). The first impression of Kazachstan is definitely good: high living standard, good infrastructure, efficient procedures. While driving to the hotel I see a modern city, with lots of cool buildings and lots of construction ongoing.

Astana lies at 320m altitude and at 51° latitude, i.e. as north as Düsseldorf or London. Much further north than Bishkek, which is about as north as Rome. You can see the difference of latitude in the sky. The light is much different from the one in Bishkek.

After getting settled in the hotel, I walk to a nearby cafe where I order a pizza. The pizza is properly cooked, but a bit tasteless. Looks like they forgot to add the right spices. Not cheap by the way, I spend about 3000 Tenge for the pizza and a soft drink.

By the way, I notice that very few taxis are passing by the street. This means that waving a taxi along the street could mean a very long wait.

I go back to the hotel and ask the staff to call a taxi for me. 15 minutes later the taxi is finally here. For 900 Tenge the driver will bring me to the Bayterek monument. We arrive there at 3:50pm.

The Bayterek monument looks like a high tech thing of steel and glass. It's a big golden sphere on the top of a metallic tower. A lift brings on the top for 500 Tenge (lift has no A/C; inside it's quite hot). Inside the glass ball you can walk to a higher level. People then queue up at an even higher level for some reason. The views are not bad, but the damn coloured glass makes everything yellow.

From the Bayterek monument I walk towards the presidential palace. This a quite cool white palace with a turquoise dome with a golden pin on top. It's more like the palace of a king than a government building.

There is very little security in the streets and near the palace, despite being close to the presidential palace and the parliament building. Seems like people here are not paranoid about terrorism. I can move around freely, take pictures of everything, without any policeman or security person harassing me.

Not so many people on the streets and not so many shops. Actually in this area I don't see any shop. There is not so much life in Astana, or let's say in the centre of Astana.

I slowly walk back westwards, towards Khan Shatir. It's now 5pm and the sky is getting a bit overcast. I discover a big mall on the left side. Modern building, shops selling almost exclusively western branded stuff. I have some food there in a KFC restaurant.

When I'm done it's almost 6pm. I continue walking towards Khan Shetir and discover another mall (this one has a supermarket open until midnight). Finally I reach Khan Shatyr at 6:40pm.

Khan Shetir is like a big conical tent of plastic. The interior is air-conditioned and contains another shopping mall, again selling western branded goods (are there no Kazach goods in Kazachstan?). At this time of the day Khan Shetir is full of people. There is a food court on the third level and on the fourth level there is a children fun fair. I guess Shirley and the kids would love this place. Not so easy to get from one floor to the next, because there are only few escalators.

I have some noodle soup in the food court, then get out of Khan Shetir shortly before 8pm. Now the sun is very low and is illuminating the big arch and the theatre to the left. I shoot some photos in this nice evening light, then wait for the blue hour to come.

At 9:20pm, when I'm finally done taking the last picture, I walk to the supermarket in the mall and buy some food and drink. Then, when I'm out again I look for a taxi. Not so easy to find one. After some waiting finally a taxi shows up. I take that and because the driver doesn't speak English I call the hotel and ask them to explain to the driver where they are. I'm back in the hotel at 10pm. The driver charges me 1000 Tenge for the trip (no meter).

20.8: Astana
Business Hotel, Astana
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day.Thin clouds layer in the morning.

In the morning I leave the hotel around 10:20am and take a taxi (800 Tenge) to the Palace of Peace & Accord, a glass and steel pyramid behind the presidential palace.

I walk to the nearby Hazrat Sultan mosque and have a closer look. When I walk inside, I can't find a large prayer hall. Rather, the interior of this building looks like a hotel or café.

For the next hours, until 2pm, I will explore the area behind the presidential palace, then cross the river and slowly walk to the Kepyeh mall for lunch.

Basically Astana at the moment is very, very photogenic. Pretty special and unconventional buildings and monuments and nice parks everywhere.

 Around noon time (12-1pm) the streets are full of people (probably taking their lunch breaks). I walk to the Kepyeh mall where, shortly after 2pm, I have some lunch. Then, at 2:40pm I take a taxi back to the hotel.

This taxi apparently is not a taxi. It's just a car with a detachable taxi sign on top (magnetic fix). I have no problem with other drivers, but this driver initially requests 1500 Tenge and only later agrees to lower the price to 1000 Tenge.

In the hotel I take a rest for a while. Then at 6pm I check with the reception if it is possible to book a car + driver for tomorrow, to go to the Korgalzhyn nature reserve. A couple of phone calls later it turns out that it's 12000 Tenge (one way only) and 16000 tenge for a six hours return trip.

At 6:40pm I get out of the hotel and slowly walk into town. I discover a beautiful park along the river, with a fun fair for kids and lots of people. Then I walk into town until the big round square near Khan Shetir where I do some blue hour photography. After a brief stop in the supermarket, I take a taxi (1000 Tenge) back to the hotel.

21.8: Astana and Malinovka
Business Hotel, Astana
Weather: overcast and rainy in the morning. Cold (< 20°C) and windy the whole day (need to wear a windbreaker jacket for most of the day). The sky opens up starting from noon onwards for a few hours.

Due to the bad weather I only leave the hotel after 12pm. I take a taxi to the Atameken theme park ("Atameken - Map of Kazachstan"), where there are miniaturised versions of the attractions of Kazachstan: famous buildings, monasteries, mausoleums, mosques etc.

It's actually not far from the hotel, but the taxi driver does not know how to get there. Also, I had found a webpage showing this place as being several km north of the hotel, while it turns out to be about 2 km south of the hotel. In any case, it takes almost half an hour to reach this place, as the driver keeps erring around the streets (and then wants 1000 Tenge).

The Atameken map of Kazachstan (entry ticket: 400 Tenge) is at first sight not that impressive. But then, it turns out to be an interesting source of information about places in Kazachstan and place names in Astana. For sure Kazachstan has a good number of interesting places to visit, but the tourist infrastructure is quite underdeveloped. Huge distances between places, which make it difficult to reach the various sights.

By 1:30pm I'm done with the Atameken site, then I initially walk back to the hotel thinking of having lunch and then resting in the hotel. Then I realise how close I actually am to the Presidential Cultural Centre, a place I was planning to visit because of its museum and I walk there instead.

When I arrive, I see a half-demolished building with broken windows and scaffodling everywhere. Looks like either they are dismantling this place or restoring it. In any case it doesn't look very open.

So I just walk back to the hotel and in the lobby ask them to check how much a round-trip by taxi to the Malinovka memorial (which should be 37km west of Astana) is. This is the Alzhir memorial, dedicated to the victims of Stalinism: a detention camp for women during the Stalin era. Initially I'm quoted 8000 Tenge, which later become 10000 Tenge. By the way, lots of waiting and discussion to get this trip arranged.

And I'm not even sure if this place is really interesting. But I'd like at least to do one trip out of Astana to get an impression of how the countryside and the villages near Astana look like.

It's 4pm when I'm finally in this taxi (by the way, it's actually a standard car without any taxi markings or labels). Getting to the memorial takes about 40 minutes, because there is some traffic jam in Astana. Outside of Astana the scenery is remarkably unimpressive: good roads, but everything is flat, steppe-like, no trees, nothing particularly interesting to see on either side of the road.

So, around 4:45pm I start exploring the memorial site. There are some structures (models of barracks), statues outside the actual museum. Inside the museum (ticket: 200 Tenge; you must deposit your bags in the storage room) there are exhibits and many photos showing the lives of women who ended up here. Only some exhibits have explanations with translations into English, otherwise everything is in Kazakh and Russian.

It's a pretty sad place, with kind of a solemn, serious atmosphere. Makes you wonder how terrible life was in the past was for people who happened to be interned in such camps. Sad stories of women separated from their chidren, children not surviving in these camps etc.

At 5:25pm I drive back to Astana, arriving at the hotel by 6pm. Then I walk to a nearby cafe where I have some dinner. After that I look for a supermarket where to buy some food and drinks. I walk around a lot, but on these streets there are mainly shops selling clothes, cafes, fast food places, banks, but no shops selling food. No 24h convenience stores, which in some other cities are at almost every corner. It seems that the area around the hotel is a high-end one, with rich, sophisticated people.

Finally when I am almost about to give up I see a supermarket in one side street behind the Business Hotel. So close to the hotel but I never saw it.

The plan for tomorrow is to catch the 11:30am flight to Almaty, arriving at 1:10pm and spending the rest of the day visiting Almaty.

22.8: Astana -> Almaty
Golden Palace hotel, Almaty. 17900 KZT (63€ at today's exchange rate) for a nice room with A/C, modern infrastructure, (small) LCD TV, phone, table+chair, fridge, cupboard, electronic safe, toilet with shower and hairdryer. Breakfast included in the price. The only issue is that the tap water has a strange smell (which goes away if you let it run a bit). About 3-4 km from the national museum and 3 km from Panfilov park.
Weather: some clouds but otherwise good weather (a bit cool) in Astana. Overcast and rainy in Almaty: with some interruptions it rains non-stop until the evening. Quite cold in Almaty.

After breakfast I check out and by 9:30am I'm in a taxi to the airport (2000 KZT). At 10am we reach the airport. I check in (again some people jumping the queue but nowhere near as messy as in Bishkek. I must say that at this time of the day the check-in counters are pretty empty. Indian-looking lady with kids in front of me flying to London: what has she been doing in Astana?

I go through security and proceed to the gate. The 11:30am Air Astana flight to Almaty takes off at 11:44am and touches down in Almaty at 1:10pm. Then things proceed smoothly: by 1:30pm I have the luggage and fetch a taxi (airport to Almaty 3000 KZT fixed price) and at 2pm I check in in the hotel.

After settling down, at 2:50pm I ask the reception to call a taxi. Will be here in 15 minutes I'm told. So I buy some groceries in the meantime and then take the taxi.

At 3:15pm I'm at the Central State Museum (ticket is 300 KZT), which is supposed to be one of the highlights of Almaty. It contains a number of collections about the history of Kazachstan, from prehistoric times until now. Some sections require additional tickets (1000-1300 KZT). There is a big section on World War II. Overall the museum is a bit disappointing, because the exhibits are quite unimpressive and fail to give a good insight into the history of Kazachstan. The National Musum of Mongolian history in Ulan Bator and even the Kyrgyz museum in Cholpon-Ata were better.

Around 4pm I leave the museum and by now it has started to rain. The most logical thing now would be to find a shopping mall (or another museum) and stay there until the rain ends. The problem is that I don't know where the nearest mall is and also it seems complicated to get a taxi (not so many of them on the streets).

So I walk around a bit, getting wet pretty quickly and by luck and coincidence by 4:30pm I find an underground mall near the museum. And this mall even has a cafe and a small food court. It was about time, because my shoes are all wet. This mall seems to sell fashion items and clothes and souvenirs, and seems to be on the elegant side. Several wedding parties doing photo shoots in this mall.

I have some meal (tuna pizza) around 5pm in the cafe, then at 5:45pm get out again. Now it has stopped raining. I check my guidebook and decide to walk to the Panfilov park, to have a look at the Zenkov cathedral. So I walk along Furmanov street for a while.

This seems to be an elegant shopping street, sort of the Champs-Élysées of Almaty. Many high end shops and cafés, tree line on both side of the road, every now and then some small park or green area. Overall, pretty fashionable street.

At 6:45pm I'm at the Zenkov cathedral. Quite cute building and would look even better if the sun was shining, but just now it's still raining. Inside there is a function going on, so I can't walk in and take pictures. So I decide to walk back to the hotel and return tomorrow when - hopefully - the weather will be better.

Walking back slowly with a number of stops I reach the hotel one hour later at 7:45pm. My shoes are really wet. Maybe I should have taken a taxi, but I wanted to get a feeling of Almaty. In the evening I discover that yesterday the Tenge fell by 25% compared to the Euro (from a rate of 210 Tenge for one Euro to 280 Tenge for one Euro). This pretty sharp drop makes my stay cheaper.

23.8: Almaty -> Beijing
My apartment in Beijing
Weather: despite a rain forecast, sunny with some clouds and no rain the whole day in Almaty. Relatively fresh (peak temperatures probably not higher than 25°C).

After breakfast I ask for a taxi to the Kok-Tobe cablecar. I'm planning to go to the panoramic tower and shoot some photos of Almaty from there. The taxi driver drops me off in a place about 500-800m from the base station of the cablecar. So I walk to the cablecar base station and there I see that the cablecar is closed, because some works are ongoing on the building of the base station. In more concrete terms, there is just the frame of a building, but no ready building.

 I walk slowly from there to the Respublika Alany square. On the way I discover a metro station. Interesting - so Almaty has an underground line or network. Then, from there I slowly walk along Furmanov street towards the Panfilov park. There are lots of Italian restaurants and cafes in Almaty, also a number of shops with Italian names. Either there is some kind of Italian connection or people here consider Italian food and brands to be very sophisticated.

At 11:30am I reach the Zenkov cathedral. A function is going on right now and in any case photography is not allowed inside the church. And I must say that the church interior is not terribly impressive either.

 So I rest outside for a moment, then walk towards the east where I discover some pretty cool bronze statue groups of the Soviet era, apparently commemorating the great patriotic war. Further on there is the museum of Kazach musical instruments (ticket: 300 KZT), which I visit. The exhibits give an idea of what traditional instruments Kazach people have used in the past to make music.

Then I walk to the nearby Green Market, which is listed in the LP guide as one of the places to visit. It's a relatively modern building, where mainly food (fruits, dried fruits etc.) is sold. Around it there is sort of a bazaar with souvenir shops, shops selling nonsense and useful things, clothes etc. Next to the Green Market there is an a bit old-fashioned shopping mall with many small shops.

I buy some freshlly squeezed orange juice (a 0.5l bottle for 500 KZT; freshy squeezed pomegranate juice would have cost 1500 KZT for a bottle) and some round flat bread which turns out to be uneatable, because it is probably several days old.

Because it's now 1:20pm I have some lunch in a Burger King restaurant on the other side of the street. The sandwich they serve (grilled chicken) is actually quite good.

At 2pm I walk to the Central Mosque, which according to the LP guide is one of the largest in Kazachstan. Well, compared to the mosques in the Middle East this mosque is very small and unimpressive. No huge prayer hall with impressive decorations.

It's now 2:15pm and I wouldn't mind taking a taxi back to the hotel. The problem is that there are no taxis, and those few ones which pass by are all full. Apparently you have to wave down normal cars as if you were hitchhiking. Then cars will stop and offer you to bring you where you want to go.

In any case after some waiting I walk back to the hotel, arriving shortly before 4pm after many stops along the way. In the hotel I take a rest. In the evening I take a shower, pack my bags and check out.

I'm at the airport at 8:35pm. There I check in and have some dinner. Then I get quickly through passport control and the security check and proceed to the gate. Again Air Astana have given me an emergency exit seat, very good because I can stretch my legs.

Boarding starts on time and the plane (a Boeing 757) takes off with five minutes of delay. After a short night the plane lands in Beijing shortly before 5am local time.

Copyright 2015 Alfred Molon