Postcard from… Astana

Astana is officially the second coldest capital in the world, number one being neighbouring Mongolia’s Ulan Bator.

This winter the temperature gauge lingered at a low minus 40 degrees. Before I came to Kazakhstan I had witnessed what I thought were cold winters but I never actually owned a fur coat. Now I have three.

Travelling from your apartment to the office can be a challenge due to the bitter cold, but with underground parking in the office centre and in apartment blocks it is possible not to actually go outside into the chill. Those who do park their cars and 4x4s out on the street have installed remote control ignition mechanisms where they start the car by pushing a button from inside the snug office, wait for the vehicle to warm up inside and only then go out into the car. The temperature in Astana can change very rapidly: it was minus 40 only a few weeks ago but now the temperature has warmed up to a sweltering plus 30 degrees.

Astana is a very pristine city and it officially became the new capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. There has been a great deal of focus on construction of new shiny buildings by internationally acclaimed architects, including Norman Foster. The buildings are all so new that even at night they sparkle, making it feel like Christmas all year round.

Most tower blocks and buildings have been given nicknames by locals, all well known by taxi drivers. For example, Magisters’ office building Astana Tower is better known as the Banana, probably because it’s a yellow and conspicuous tower block. The offices of KazMunaiGaz are called the Grain elevator, Samruk Kazyna’s is the Bucket. Astana’s most famous landmark – the 22 metre high Lollipop, which is officially called Baiterek – symbolises a nest on a tree where a magic bird laid a big golden egg. Locals say that if you place your hand to the top of the monument you will have plenty of gold and good luck.

The city has some great restaurants offering various cuisines. One street known by the locals as Food lovers’ Row has a line of big houses all offering food from around the world. For more high-status locations one can always pop by the Radisson Cigar Club, which is frequented by Government officials, expats and the nouveau riche.

The Kazakhs are renowned for their hospitality. A guest of honour may often be presented with a sheep’s head at dinner. I have seen many visitors gobsmacked when presented with this delicacy. The sheep’s eyes are considered the finest part. Locals will only later tell you that you are not advised to chew on them, just suck out the juicy bits. The meal can be washed down with either horse or camel milk, the former tasting fizzy, almost like coca-cola, the latter rich and creamy.

If you’re up for these delicacies, extreme weather experiences and the feeling of Christmas all year round then Astana is the place for you.

Marta Khomyak is a partner in Magisters’ Astana office