Exploring the culture and history of three major cities in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is both familiar and unfamiliar to many Chinese. We hear about this neighbor to the west all the time in our country's massive plans such as the Belt and Road initiative. We know that there are a lot of ethnic Kazakh people in China. And there's Kazakh singer Dimash, who soared to popularity in China in recent years after he participated in a popular Chinese music contest.
But if you ask your average young Chinese what they know about Kazakhstan itself, their answer is going to be very limited. Compared to our neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam, India or even Bhutan, Kazakhstan is an off-the-radar tourist destination.
So what's the country like? And what are its people like? It was with these questions in mind that I embarked on my journey to three cities in Kazakhstan. Coincidentally, all of them are either former or current capitals of Kazakhstan.
Astana: futuristic capital
I arrived in Astana, a roughly five-hour flight from Beijing, early in the morning. It was mid-September, still summer in Beijing, but Astana felt like winter with its single-digit temperatures and crisp air.
I later learned that the real winter in Astana is much colder and can drop to as low as minus 50 C, making it one of the coldest capitals in the world.
Astana is also one of the youngest capital in the world. Twenty-one years ago, the leaders of Kazakhstan moved the capital from Almaty to the centrally located Astana because the former capital, on the border, was considered to be in an inconvenient location and too overpopulated.
For someone from China, it's hard to understand Kazakhstan's definition of "overpopulation." Even today, the population of Almaty, at 1.8 million, is less than one tenth of that of Beijing. But Kazakhstan's decision to move its capital is definitely one of the most ambitious plans in human history. Astana was built from almost nothing. Even its name, which means "capital" in Kazakh, was newly designated 20 years ago.
I spent my two days in Astana in awe of its striking modern and futuristic architecture, designed by some of the most prominent local and Western architects. There is the huge tent-shaped Khan Shaty Entertainment Center and pyramid-like Palace of Peace and Reconciliation designed by Norman Foster, the Baiterek Tower, shaped like the "tree of life" in Kazakh folklore, and numerous high-tech, modern buildings in Astana's Expo site where the 2017 Expo was held. The golden, glass and blue-colored skyscrapers form an impressive skyline. For me, the city is a showcase of Kazakhstan's ambitions - to be the Dubai of Central Asia.
But if there's one thing that the metropolis lacks, it's probably people. Although the authorities told us the population of Astana is 1 million, making it the second most populated city in Kazakhstan, it still feels eerily empty. There are few pedestrians on the street, and we didn't see a single open-air restaurant or café during our two-day visit. The modern buildings seemed to add to the coldness of the city.
Turkistan: ancient city
My second stop in Kazakhstan was Turkistan, an ancient city in the south of Kazakhstan which used to be the capital of the Kazakh Khanate from the 15th to 19th century before the Russian conquest.
Turkistan's contrast to Astana was striking. It was sunny, sandy, and very traditional. We were given a warm welcome by a group of young Kazakhs dressed in traditional clothing, who sang and danced to the music of the dombra, a Kazakh lute, and showered us with candy. They also invited us to their yurt and served us with camel milk, horse meat and a variety of traditional confectionaries.
The highlight of my Turkistan trip was the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a UNESCO world heritage site that was built in the late 14th century on the orders of Timur, the then ruler of Central Asia. An outstanding example of Islamic religious architecture from that era, the mausoleum features glazed tiles with geometric patters, fine inscriptions on the walls and texts from the Quran on the domes.
Turkestan is also not faraway from Otrar, a city built in the 8th century along the ancient Silk Road and the birth place of the medieval philosopher and scientist Al-Farabi. Due to time limits, we didn't make it to the site, but instead visited the State Historical and Cultural Reserve Museum, which provides an informative introduction to Otrar.
Almaty: city of color
Before seeing Almaty for myself, I had already heard about it numerous times from the Almaty people we met in Astana, most of whom moved to the capital in recent years to pursue their careers.
Talgat Zhumagulov, chairman of the International Information Committee, told us proudly that Almaty is the most beautiful city in the world. When I arrived in Almaty, I could see what he was saying.
Almaty exudes a vibrant liveliness. This was probably because we visited in September, when the city celebrates Almaty City Day through a rich series of cultural events. During this time, it's hard not to stumble into an open-air concert in a public square or a celebration in a park. The artistic vibe in the city was just stunning.
We had the honor to attend the opening ceremony of the Almaty Film Festival, see the celebration of AppleFest, the traditional festival of apples, in the First President's Park and enjoy a performance featuring international folk musicians at the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. We also visited the A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts, where we saw an impressive collection of traditional and modern Kazakh and Russian paintings.
The city itself is a pleasure to walk through. Arbat Street, which is a pedestrian street, offers boutiques, cafes and beautiful fountains. Classic Russian and Soviet-style architecture reminds you of the history of the country. And wherever you are in Almaty, you can see the Alatau, which means "colorful mountains" in Kazakh.