It was our first day in Kazakhstan and after a mere 2 hours’ sleep and some excellent jam-filled croissants, we met our local guide Olyssa for a city tour.
Our first stop was the Hazrat Sultan (Holy Sultan) mosque, opened in 2012 and the largest mosque in Central Asia, accommodating 5,000 worshippers. We visited this first as it was Friday and the mosque would be closed to visitors in the afternoon. I always travel with a headscarf in my bag for visiting religious sites, but this time there was no need to deploy it. After removing our shoes, Olyssa and I had to put on special petrol blue hooded robes which were provided. It was very light inside the mosque – all pale blue and gold. Olyssa explained that blue and gold are very important colours in Kazakhstan, and appear in the nation’s flag. Among the treasures on display inside were a medieval manuscript Koran and a version engraved on silver plaques.
Next we visited Independence Square and the Independence Monument. Nearby was the ‘Peace Wall’ ending an a leaf-shaped structure with video screens, though we could not get close to the latter as there was some form of official event.
Our next stop was the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, only 5 years old and therefore not mentioned in our guidebook. In the entrance hall a giant golden eagle and orb are suspended from the ceiling. There is supposed to be a show at noon where they move, but unfortunately there were technical difficulties so we were not able to see it in action. The psychedelic tree of life installation on the way into the Hall of the Golden Man was however working, and was certainly something a bit different. The Golden Man is an archaeological find from near Almaty: a burial containing many intricate gold pieces that would have formed part of a costume. Other burials with similar artefacts have been found subsequently. We didn’t have time to see the whole museum, which is huge, but we but we did visit the displays about cosmonauts, ancient history and modern art and sculpture, as well as Kazakh culture.
Lunchtime, and we were taken to a huge modern Kazakh restuarnt which offered a choice from two set menus. I chose menu B: soft cheese with pumpkin sponge and redcurrant coulis; sturgeon in a dill broth with noodles; pumpkin and lamb dumpling; cheese ice cream with watermelon. It was a modern presentation and all delicious, though for my taste the starter and dessert could have been reversed. Neil had melon salad, tomato soup, ‘veal’ (aka horse) with pumpkin puree and apple sorbet. Both were served with very milky tea. Certainly the best meal I had had in Central Asia so far.
After lunch there was a change of tone as we went to the ALZHIR Akmola camp for the wives and families of traitors to the Motherland. It opened in 1938, at which time there were just 3 barrack rooms. There were many more by the time the camp closed. There is now a memorial complex on the site. The ground floor of the museum is about oppression generally, whilst the upper floor is about the lives of the women in the camp. They worked during the day cutting reeds, which were used for mattresses and to make bricks to build barracks. Some women also worked in the clothing factory, sewing clothes for the I nmates and later uniforms for Red Army soldiers during WW2. There was also a video film showing interviews with families and survivors. The women were not allowed to write to their families for eighteen months after being taken to the camp. Their children were taken from them to an orphanage at the age of 3. Over a thousand babies were born in the camp as a result of rape. A disturbing reminder of Soviet times.
I visited Nur-Sultan in September 2019