It's funny, nowhere in China ever felt like home - you always knew you were in a foreign place. Arriving in Ulan Batoor felt a bit like Auckland. I don't know why, I thought it might be the era of the buildings, the mish mash of old Japanese cars or maybe the size of the place. Don't get me wrong the amount of Gers around the city are definitely Mongolian but there are things that take you back home.
Coming to Astana felt homely again! It was definitely having a meter on the taxi that triggered it! After that just being in an oversee-able sized city instead of the metropolises of China, was enough to make us feel comfortable. We stayed in an apartment in the 'old' part of the city. Sorry to keep making comparisons to China but usually there the 'old' part of town was the most desirable place to be... Not so in Astana. When the taxi pulled into the street, I double checked the address thinking "oh shit..." The apartment was lovely and spacious - I was just a bit worried about getting to and fro once you left the gate. It looked like a badly kept part of what I imagine Russian suburbs look like. The tar seal on the road was crumbling and dug up in parts. The houses were like ugly 70's design, with the front doors as one piece of sheet metal hiding the inside front door (it gets cold in these parts I hear), poorly kept concrete gardens. I won't go on but I'm just trying to paint the picture a bit for you
As our first impression, it took a little while to warm to the place. About 60 minutes if I recall properly!! Just the first visit to a corner shop to buy water - Maaike came outside with a surprise for me - DIET COKE AND SPARKLING WATER!! A double happy deal!! I guess it had been a while before I'd seen my two favourites and both in one shopping bag WOW! Astana could do no wrong after that!
In actual fact it more than delivers on the wow factor! It's absolutely futuristic in architecture and culturally it's very European in feel and behaviour. It was for us a total shock factor, coming from the mountains in Mongolia to the warlike atmosphere of Urumqi into this haven of third worldliness. We actually couldn't stop smiling for two days! So many amazing structures and buildings with this beautiful relaxed atmosphere. In fact it was so relaxed we renamed it the 'city of love' (well lust actually, it seemed there were so many couples making out). Or maybe it was spring or just travelling with a 15 year old who seemed to have an antennae for inappropriate behaviour.
Night time was another extravaganza of colour and lights! Astana is being invested in and rebuilt as the new capital of Kazakhstan. It's architecture incorporates the influences important to the evolving identity of modern day Kazakhstan - the nomadic Kazakh people, the old Soviet era, the strong Islamic influence and the desire to be a bold new identity in Central Asia.
We moved onward to Almaty via the overnight train. On the train Maaike and I were in close quarters with a family of four. The compartments were meant for four but both children were small. I kind of think in a train compartment small children should be counted as people too - they are far more disruptive than any other train passengers I can think of ( except that one Chinese man that had swallowed a working chain saw which kept running all night). My fantastic husband and wonderful man johan was with an incredibly lovely lady that fed us all on "kartuska and fried chicken" YUM
Almaty is so different to Astana, it's another experience in itself. An older town with many parks and tree lined boulevards it has that sleepy quality that grows on you - especially in the heat 30 degrees+.
There's lots to see in Almaty but you need to look for it and be there on the day, I think.
Our mindset was somewhere else when we visited. We needed to arrange visas and permits for Tajikistan, research and book more flights and make decisions on "where to next"... Fortunately the wifi here is great and fast, restaurants have great food - everything we needed to relax, refresh and recharge before we head of to the great unknown of Tajikistan!