Cosmopolitan

 Almaty and Turkistan, Kazakhstan

Fresh from a speedy, comfortable overnight train ride from Karaganda, Almaty and its walkable, leafy streets, convenient buses, and relatively new metro felt a lot like a detour into my comfort zone: this is easily my favourite city of the trip, and a place I definitely wouldn’t mind living in. Unfortunately, having to deal with visa bureaucracy for the next parts of my route cut short my time here, but I tried to make the most of it.

More than any other place in Central Asia, Almaty feels positively European. The crowd is international. The city is laid out like a grid. Cafes and restaurants of all price ranges and cuisines line the streets. Signs in English make a slightly more frequent appearance. The bazaar is organised like a giant, clean supermarket, though it’s definitely still a bazaar, selling some eye-catching foods (including an entire horse meat aisle) without the typical chaos. There’s even a pedestrianised street lined with juice stalls, ice cream carts, souvenir sellers, musicians, artists, and restaurants. Rather than visit any museums, having visited enough in Astana and Karaganda, I chose to just soak in the atmosphere. (And of course, splurge on some wonderful meals!)
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Rising

 Astana and Karaganda, Kazakhstan

Travelling 1200 kilometres and 21 hours by bus from Bishkek to Astana (plus another two hours by public transport after I was dropped off my Russian bus unceremoniously just outside the city, too sleepy to attempt to figure out a more direct route), the differences are stark. Gone are the mountains, replaced with endless flat steppe. Flat flat flat. Nothing. It sure makes for a smooth car journey though, at least, and Kazakhstan, being a far more prosperous country, has some excellent roads — necessary, given that it’s the 9th largest country in the world. And being so far north, I found the temperature markedly colder, needing a jacket even in the day time.

That’s hardly the best way to begin to describe what the heck Astana is, the city that jarringly rises from the middle of nowhere to break the flat landscape.
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