Astana, Kazakhstan: First Snow, Bayterek, and an Embassy Escapade

Greetings from Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia, where I’m en route from Astana, Kazakhstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Below is a wrap-up of my first week on the road, complete with pictures and a comical adventure at the Russian Embassy.

First, I must say—how Sacha Baron Cohen came to choose Kazakhstan as the homeland of his Borat-personality is completely beyond me. Trust me when I say that Borat and Kazakhstan are about as similar as an ice axe and a potato.  Moving on.

Due to both language barriers and permission issues, I spent the majority of my week working; yet while my foray into Kazakh culture was short-lived, I managed to pick up a couple of information bytes you might find interesting:

  • Astana is a relatively recent capital, having moved from Almaty in 1997. Behind Ulan Bator, Mongolia, it is the second coldest capital city in the world. I was fortunate enough to experience the first snow (and cold front) of the season. The formidable taste winter made it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, therefore I was a bit dubious when I heard Astana had an aquarium that boasts over 2000 different kinds of sea life. Yep, it’s true. Turns out that the aquarium also boasts the longest distance to an ocean of any aquarium at just over 3000km.

In an effort to transform Astana into a new and distinct beacon of Central Asia, the Kazakh government has raised the foreign investment floodgate and allowed a deluge of money to pour in. One manifestation of this transformation can be seen in the city’s changing architecture—unusually modern buildings that are trippy enough to make one wonder what hallucinogens the architects had access to at the time of blueprint sketching. A big egg. A saucer arena. Lights. Lots and lots of twinkly, sporadic lights.

The best building to start at (and the only one I had time for) is Bayterek, the chief symbol of Astana’s new status as capital. While many locals think it looks like a lollipop, Bayterek was actually built to resemble a poplar tree. Something about a Kazakh myth with a bird that lays an egg in a poplar tree. I think a snake tries to eat the egg, and a brave hero kills the snake, or something like that. Anyway, the building is tall and pretty and lights up at night.

Oh, and it has a really cool deck that, at 97m high, overlooks the entire city. A prime place for some urban shots of Astana. The viewing platform has a gilded hand print of the Republic of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. They say that if you place your hand in the imprint and make a wish, it will come true.

My wish, you ask? I wished for a Russian transit visa. Which brings me to the most ridiculous part of my week in Astana.

An Escapade at the Russian Embassy

With 2 days left in Astana, my colleague, out of breath, knocked on my door and told me the news—apparently, we needed that Russian transit visa after all. Getting from Astana to Dushanbe, as you might imagine, is a tricky process. While our company originally told us that the transit visa was unnecessary, they didn’t know that in order to pick up our bags in Moscow, switch airline carriers and fly to another domestic airport, we needed a 3-day transit visa. Oops.

Now, assuming one’s paperwork is clean, a Russian visa usually takes 2-3 weeks to process; yet after speaking with the Russian Embassy in the U.S., we learned that we could purchase an emergency transit visa at the Russian Embassy in Astana. It would cost between $50 and $100 and could be issued in 1 day. Simple enough, right?

Wrong. To make a long story short, the bureaucratic-blackhole-process took most of the day. The Embassy visa official, or Mr. Stick-In-The-Butt as I’d like to call him, was not the most gregarious of characters. Not only did he (purposefully?) withhold information from us, but somehow the price of the visa went from 8,000 KTZ (around $50) before lunch to 48,000 KZT ($320) after lunch. At one point I thought about a bribe, but the translator didn’t think it would have been a good idea. Hey, it worked in Nigeria!

After I turned in my application, Mr. Stick-In-The-Butt sternly stated (insert Russian accent here), “I need to ask you some questions.” Sure. No problem. I got nothing to hide, my friend.

Are you currently taking drugs?


Are you on drugs? Because item 27…it is very strange, what you did here.

Item 27 wasn’t even a drug-related question. It had asked me to list all the information for the last two places I had worked. Since this is my first post-college job, I wrote, “THIS IS MY FIRST JOB – N/A.” He made me cross it out. We spent the next couple of minutes politely discussing the finer points of my entry into the Russian Motherland, then I sat back down for another 2 hours before finally receiving my visa.

Giddy as a school boy, I skipped out of the Embassy with my colleague only to find that we were trapped in the compound because, wait for it, the damn door had frozen shut. Icing on the cake. Fast forward 30 seconds and the security guard attempts to pry it open with brute force….to no avail. Fast forward 20 minutes and he tries his might with a hammer…again, to no avail. Fast forward 45 minutes and he tries, this time more cunningly, to thaw the lock by a newspaper-fueled fire…to no avail (I thought it was quite a nifty idea, actually). Finally, just over an hour later, a third-party shows up with a tool kit to save the day. Really? An entire hour?

A comical end to an un-comical day, and an interesting end to an otherwise standard week of scuttling from supermarket to mall and back. Hope you enjoyed the update!

Until next time, where I will report from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Nazdarovye (Cheers)!

11 thoughts on “Astana, Kazakhstan: First Snow, Bayterek, and an Embassy Escapade”

  1. Awesome post. I enjoyed following your Russian embassy story the day it was happening on Twitter, it was good to read more details about it! Hope the rest of your trip goes great.
    .-= Nate´s last blog you =-.

  2. The door was frozen shut…man, that is hilarious! Well at least it is to read about, I can imagine the reality was quite a bit less funny. Thanks for sharing the story and teaching me a new thing or two about Kazakhstan (although I admittedly, knew next to nothing about it in the first place..)

  3. hahaha AP that’s hilarious!!! I can’t believe you were frozen inside the embassy. You can’t make this stuff up. Reminds me of the time I got locked inside a shower stall in Turkmenistan… yikes. Hope you’re having an amazing time in Nepal!

  4. Nice web log. I always have thoughts about traveling to Eastern Europe but always been held back by fund limitation. Reading about your whole experience and how things can sometimes be so unpredictable really amazes me.

  5. I have always dreamed of taking a trip to Russia! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. It was such a fun and refreshing post to read! You are an amazing writer!

  6. I’m only reading this because I wondered what was the coldest capital city in the world and my search brought me here. How pleased I am it did. This is a lovely, funny post that I found most entertaining and, what’s more, I now know that the second coldest capital city is Astana, your description of which teases me to try to visit such an exotic place. Many thanks…

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