Spotting UFOs While Exploring Both Ancient and Futuristic Cities in Kazakhstan

This post is also a throw- way back to the time just after my studies in Malta. In this story, I tell you a little about the was up to when my career as a perpetual traveler finally began to flourish.

As you may or may not know, I started my business five years ago (almost to the date); during the time I spent living in Mexico and Belize in early 2015. When it all started, I was writing a lot for my blog; I even wrote and published an e-book – which didn’t go too well.

At some low point, I became a bit unsure of the path I had chosen, and I actually returned to Germany in august of the same year. I needed time to think about how to move forward. I needed to decide whether I should remain unregistered from Germany or take a step back and give the whole “normal” thing a try. Another option was to maybe go study some more in the meantime. Needless to say, there was a lot of uncertainty at this time of my life.

It all stemmed from the fact that I really wasn’t sure if doubling down and going all-in on my business was the right thing to do. All I knew is that I still wanted to live tax-free, so I decided to keep thinking about it while going to study Entrepreneurship in Malta – which hindsight, was not the right thing to do.

Either way, I still go to travel around a bit while living in Malta for four months. I started school in the fall of 2015, and during this time, I made plans to visit Kazakhstan at the end of the semester.

Luckily, I was able to plan the trip so that it would start as soon as my in-between semester holiday started. The semester ended with a European Students for Liberty conference in Prague, and the best *most affordable* flights I could find were from Ukraine, I believe they were 140€ return.

Let me tell you a little bit about Kazakhstan before we continue…

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really know much about this country. I actually had some pretty funny misconceptions that taught me some life-long lessons in travel… but I’ll tell you more about that later. I want to take a moment to give you a little background on the history of this exciting country.

For starters, did you know that Kazakhstan is by far the largest country within South-Central Asia? It is a completely land lock, as it borders Russia, China, and the nations of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth biggest country when looking at size, and it is more than twice the size of the other Central Asian states combined. Its lack of significant historical sites and endless boring planes have put many off Kazakhstan, while many still are captivated by the barrenness and mystery of this undergod state.

Nonetheless, it was my first port of call on my Central Asian adventure, and there was actually much to enjoy. You should know that Kazakhstan is the wealthiest country in Central Asia, due to its vast oil and natural gas reserves.

It was evident around the country that it has inherited the culture and feel of the ancient Silk Road, Nomadic lifestyles, and the Soviet Union, all of which had a part to play on its formation. This blend makes Kazakhstan so different from any other country in the region and in the world.

A little history…

Native Kazakhs are a Turkic ethnic group that migrated into the region in the 13th century. These people united as a single nation in the middle of the 15th century.

In 1936, Kazakhstan became a member of the Soviet Republic. At this time, the land was overcome by the Russians in the second half of the century. Today, it is an independent country with the main religion being Islam.

During the launching of a 1950s and 1960s agricultural program, Soviet citizens were incentivized to help grow Kazakhstan’s northern pastures. This borough on an influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities), which in turn skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence has caused many of these foreigners to emigrate.

Modern Kazakhstan runs by a system of a social hierarchy where leaders use state resources in order to secure the loyalty of patrons in the general population. These informal relationships can reach from the very top of the state down to individuals in small villages. – Can you say deeply rooted corruption?

This system is also characterized by significant nepotism and complete dominance over political and economic affairs by the president and his allies.

However, you could say it’s not as critically authoritarian in government, only when compared to the bordering nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and China. 😉

Since it’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government has allowed foreign investment to flow into the country. With it, came T=the development of significant oil and gas reserves, particularly in the north and west, has consequently brought a large amount of wealth to the country – though like in any genuinely corrupt state, the money falls into the hands of just a few.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has now been labeled a middle-income country and is already classified with a high human development index. If you ever get the chance to, go see it for your self, I found it to be an astounding country withy diverse landscapes and many attractions worth the while.

Making my way to the capital of Kazakhstan

Right after the conference in Prague ended, I took a nice little train ride to Ukraine and flew from Ivano-Frankivsk (a small town in Ukraine) straight to Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan).

Ukraine – Learning at train stations and working from open wifi is my favorite activity. Must be a weird sight for Ukrainians seeing me like this for 2 h. #mobileoffice

Ok, I need to sidetrack a little, Astana was the name of the capital when I visited. In March 2019, it was renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the departing Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nursultan took over the role of capital city from Almaty (the largest city) in December 1998.

Nursultan (Akmola) is the second-largest city in the country, and it took over the role of capital city from Almaty (the largest city) in 1998. It is located near the Ishim River in the northern part of the country. The original town of Akmola (then Astana from 1998, and from 2019 Nur-Sultan) became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, and since then has developed economically into one of the most modern cities in Central Asia.

Modern Nur-Sultan is a planned city, following the process of other planned capitals. After it became the capital of Kazakhstan, the city dramatically changed its shape. The Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa designed the master plan for Astana. The town has grown and continues to grow quite rapidly. So, If you want to see what Akmola (Astana previous name) looks like, you need to do it now as the old city is disappearing quite rapidly.

I was definitely excited about this adventure; keep in mind that this was my first proper trip after having spent almost six months in one place. Sadly, I wasn’t super prepared. You see, in Europe, spring was just beginning, and that is the type of climate I packed for. I wasn’t super aware (back then, I didn’t do much planning for my trips) of what the weather would be like in Kazakhstan in March.

So I just flew with my light jacket and my hand luggage to the dead of winter. Somehow I had it in my mind that Kazakhstan was quite warm, simply all dessert, until I learned the hard way that this was not the case, it was actually -4 F°

In Fahrenheit it doesn’t sound as cold as it was, anyways, it was frigid when I arrived, and I had no winter clothes with me. So as soon as I went out in Astana, the first thing I did was buy a warm winter jacket, and then I was ready to explore the city. It was after this trip that I learned to make sure I do propper research and know exactly what to expect from a new place.

During my stay in Astana, I lodged in a hostel with some other friendly people; we even attended a Medieval Times dinner and a show together. This is an exciting dinner with a show based on medieval rivalries between German and Austrian knights. It was a 2-3 hour dinner program of knights in combat, horses, falcons, swordplay, jousting, and games of skill. It was something unique and fun.

Happy New Year! Didn’t know, but in Kazakhstan 2016 just started 😉

Medieval Times – And the Kazakh national sport is… Sword fencing… Kind of. Ukraine surprisingly won against Russia, but obviously (had to) lose against the Kazakh team 😉

You should know that at this point in my traveling career, I was still using a couchsurfing platform, not for finding places to stay, but rather to meet people.

Side note: I don’t use that platform anymore. Still, I just recently heard about it again because now you have to pay for its use or something like that – anyway, it just so happened that during that trip I met this really lovely Kazakh on the site, and he offered to drive me around the city for a whole day to see all the main attractions.

This was actually super wonderful because Astana is not really a city to be explored on foot. It’s a massive metropolis with an industrial feel — wide and long alleys with few crosswalks. So, it was really convenient to have someone from the town showing me around by car.

Especially considering the temperatures during my visit. Fun fact:
Astana is the second coldest capital in the world – followed by Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia. The winter average temperature drops to a frosty -40 F°, while summers can reach +100 F°.

As mentioned before, Astana is really famous for its futuristic buildings, all of which were the focus during my sightseeing tour. Astana, which means The Capital City in Kazakh, is a city that was created to be blatantly big. After all, it is supposed to reflect the commitment of a new country to establish its post-Soviet identity. Being built with oil money, it also includes all the luxury treats an average petrol oligarch couldn’t do without.

As I was being driven around by this nice guy, I remember being in awe of all the exciting sights and his kindness. To this day, I still appreciate this gesture from that complete stranger.

The new pride of Astana – the first McDonald’s of Kazakhstan just opened 2 weeks ago. Huge crowds, 50 working staff – seems to be a profitable business 🙂

First, we saw the Bayterek Tower, which was the first example of a futuristic building I saw. It is a monument and observation tower- a major tourist attraction for foreigners and even the native Kazakhs. Nicknamed “Chupa Chups” by the locals due to its similarity to a giant lollipop, the structure is 320 ft high, and it offers a great view of the city as well as an art gallery, a small aquarium, and a restaurant.

Bayterek Tower – The lollipop of Kazakhstan

When you’re in a capital city such as this, you have to visit the Presidential Palace. The Ak Orda is the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. The whole project was built in three years; it was officially opened in 2004, just over a little over a decade before my visit.

Ak Orda Presidential Palace

As you may know, the main religions in Kazakhstan are Islam and Christianity, the former being the first (about 70-30 split). Anytime you are in a rich, predominantly Islamic country you should check out their mosques, you’re sure to find at least one famous, opulent and grandiose place of reverence. Astana is no exception, it has two famous mosques, and we visited them both.

First, during the daytime, we stopped by the Nur-Astana Mosque, the third-largest mosque in Central Asia. Its construction was completed in 2008, merely eight years before I was there. I learned that its 40-meter (131-foot) height is meant to symbolize the age of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations; the minarets, being 63 meters (207 foot) in height, represent Muhammad’s age at the time of his death. The space has the potential of hosting 5,000 worshippers inside, and 2,000 worshippers outside the mosque, truly majestic.

Nur Astana Mosque

The second mosque we visited after sunset, because it’s supposed to be most beautiful when lit up, and it was indeed stunning. The Hazrat Sultan Mosque is the largest in Kazakhstan and also one of the largest in Central Asia. This mosque is located on the northern side of Independence Square, and it can host over 10,000 worshipers for service. Its four minarets are 252 feet high, and the dome has a height of 168 feet, definitely more substantial than the Nur Sultan Mosque.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque – This is what happens if you illuminate a mosque totally white at night…

Independence Square (Kazakh Eli Square) is the main square in the capital. It was created in October 2009, and just months before my visit, in September 2015, the square Transformed into a historic village in honor of the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate. The area is the centerpiece to many of the most notable buildings and attractions of the city.

While in the area, we also visited the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. This is a 203 ft high pyramid which serves as a non-denominational national spiritual center. Kind of like the one in Las Vegas, but instead of hosting a casino, this pyramid is supposed to help bring together world religious leaders looking to find common ground.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation – The Pyramid

Astana was also the city where I saw my first UFO! The Astana Metropolitan Circus is meant to be proof that aliens exist, as they parked their spaceship in Kabanbay Batyr 5. The building was then reconverted into a venue hosting events and gigs throughout the year.

Metropolitan Circus – A UFO landed tonight in Astana. The aliens took me to perform some crazy experiments…

Last, we went to a crazy place called the Khan Shatyr. It is one of the biggest tents in the world, big enough to hold 10,00 people. It kind of looks like a drunkenly leaning circus tent, but inside, it contains a park, a shopping, and entertainment center with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, minigolf, and an indoor beach resort on the top floor. It even has it’s own monorail line with several stops.

The shopping center hosts all the name brand stores, fashion boutiques, and high-tech stores; there, you’ll find anything you may want or need. Moreover, the frame is wrapped by a quilted heat-absorbing transparent material. It works by allowing sunlight through, trapping heat inside, making it able to produce summer-like temperatures, even in the coldest months.

At the top of the mall, they have the Sky Beach Club. This is another beautiful place where you can find reprieve from the bitter winter. At this beach club, t is easy to feel like you’ve escaped to the ‘tropics’ as you spend the day in a swimming pool with an imported sand beach, a sauna, palm trees, oh yeah, and a water slide.

Khan Shatyr 30 degrees celcius, warm sand, refreshing water, alcoholic drinks and great views – I like the Sky Beach Club on top of Khan Shatyr shopping Center. A nice refugee in cold Astana 🙂

I actually spent some time at this beach club, even though it was quite expensive. I think around 50 euros for the day, way more than what an average Kazakh can afford. It was also a splurge for me as a poor student, but I really wanted to treat myself and enjoy several hours relaxing in the warmth.

The area was actually pretty cool; it had some wonderfully warm pools and some really stunning city views from the sauna – Definitely a much-welcomed refuge from freezing temperatures outside. We also visited a few more shopping centers; it was interesting to learn that life in Kazakhstan revolves quite a bit around shopping centers.

Finally, the best moment to get a glimpse of the city’s skyline is at sunset – the Golden Hour – this is when skyscrapers glimmer above the surrounding plain, check it out…

Astana at night

It’s -20 degrees, snow storm and the big river completely frozen. Next time I will look at the climate more closely before I book a trip 😉

Astana by night is the real deal when the megalomania is dipped in thousands of colors…

Being in Astana was an exciting experience; I stuck out like a sore thumb. I mean, I was one of the *very* few foreigners, and it was self-evident that I didn’t belong. People were naturally curious; there were even a few girls asking me where I came from and wanting to know more about me, super strange feeling to be on the receiving end of curiosity.

Astana is quite unique. Consider mixing up Dubai and Los Angeles, put it into nowhere and add some Kazakh flair. Ah yes, and make it 50 degrees Celsius cooler… 😉

After my time in Astana, I traveled to Shymkent, which is much further south, closer to the border with Uzbekistan.

The long journey to Shymkent

On my way south, my flight was delayed and then again. Overall, it was delayed for over 13 hours, and I spent the whole time at the airport. It’s actually the longest I have ever waited for a delayed flight.

After already 4h waiting on the delayed flight, a mob of angry Kazakhs occupies the gate. Let’s see what the night will bring…

In fact, all of the flying I did within Kazakhstan was quite an adventure. National flights are done with airplanes that are not even allowed to fly to the European Union; it’s considered a security risk since the aircrafts don’t meet safety standards or regulations.

15 hours later. I am still awake. Let’s hope the plane is going now..

Eventually, I did make it safely into Shymkent and was happy to see mountains again.

Shymkent- Finally I see some moutnains again

Shymkent is a city in the Kazakh Desert and is the third-largest and most populous city in Kazakhstan behind Almaty and Astana. Although to me, it had more of a run-down, small-town, soviet vibe. It does have lots of parks with interesting sculptures and monuments. I was surprised that the temperatures were still quite cold despite us being much further south.

Shymkent Views

During my brief time in Shymkent, I also recall meeting a nice girl, and we traveled together to Turkestan. Shymkent’s location makes it an excellent base for exploring other areas like Turkestan.


Let’s give you a little more background on this exciting territory.

For starters, Turkestan is a tiny, ancient city in the Kazakh Desert. To understand it’s importance, you should know that Kazakhstan mostly lacks the kinds of Central Asian historic towns that make Uzbekistan a popular travel destination, for example. However, the exception is this small, relatively well preserved, 1600-year-old city. In the 11th century AD, the Sheikh Khoja Ahmad Yasavi turned the town into the region’s main hub for learning, drawing scholars from across the land.

Mosaic Walls

In the late 14th century, Timur, who ruled the area as part of the expansive Timurid Empire, commissioned the creation of a massive mausoleum in his honor, the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. This is to this day Kazakhstan’s most prominent historical attraction, a major Muslim pilgrimage site, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

A nice Hummer Limo that fits right into the ancient vibes of the city.

Very Persian styled mosque

Nice little local pets

More views of the Mausoleum

Once my new friend and I arrived in the city, we hired a taxi driver that took us sightseeing all around town. To be honest, I don’t really remember much, other the mausoleum. After a full day in Turkestan, we went back to Shymkent.

From Shymkent, I was planning to go to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. However, I totally underestimated the distance between these two places. I was aware that Kazakhstan was huge, but I didn’t understand what that meant in distances.

I thought I could go from Shymkent to Bishkek in a day and from there continue east to Almaty. Well, the real numbers turned out to be much higher than that. I was told that from Shymkent to Bishkek, it actually takes three days by bus and more than that from Bishkek to Almaty.

A trip this long would have left me with not much time to see Kyrgyzstan, so I just decided to stay in Kazakhstan and make my way straight to Almaty.

The journey to Almaty was not a smooth one, by the way. Once again, I had issues with transportation delays. This time, I bought a bus ticket, and when I got to the station, the bus didn’t depart because it didn’t have enough passengers on the route. I ended up having to wait another 9 hours for the bus to fill up and go finally.

I don’t miss the typical hassles of being a poor traveler. If this had happened today, I would have probably just taken an uber to my next destination. But alas, I waited the full nine hours for this bus, only to have a rough overnight ride to Almaty.

Let’s talk about Almaty

As previously mentioned in this article, Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan and still the largest and most populous city in the country. It is a financial and cultural center of Central Asia, boasting moderately-sized tourist and expatriate communities.

Stunning Sunset Almaty

I was delighted to arrive in this city, on a clear day you can see the beautifully rugged, snow-capped mountains, right at the city’s edge. Almaty is sloped from south to north, which makes navigating the streets pretty easy. Basically, if you are going uphill, you’re headed south.

Almaty – Wow. Great views from my hostel for the last days in Kazakhstan -)

Almaty is in the top 50 most expensive cities worldwide for ex-pats to live in, more expensive than Toronto, Los Angeles, or Hamburg. Still, if done carefully as I did as a poor student, Almaty can be as cheap as many South American and Eastern European cities. Fun fact: A year after I was there, the town became part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the area of music.

The mighty Tian Shan mountains rise over 5000m -)

Part of being on a budget meant that in Almaty, I also stayed in a hostel. The place was pretty quaint, and it had some charming views of the city. I found this town also had a very soviet flare to it. Nonetheless, I still found it quite nice and not run-down like Shymkent.

Capitalism meets communism

During my time in Almaty, I got to do some more sightseeing. One of my favorite attractions in the city was the Ascension Cathedral (aka Zenkov Cathedral). It is a Russian Orthodox cathedral, which was completed in 1907. It is unique because it is made entirely out of wood but without the use of any nails. It is 184 feet tall, and it’s supposed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world.

Soviel Monuments meeting Orthodox church

Ascencion Cathedral – The beautiful wooden Zenkov cathedral in Almaty -)

The beautiful wooden Zenkov Cathedral in Almaty.

From there, we visited other sights of worship, both Christian and Muslim, and the old town of the city.

The unique thing about Almaty is its setting and landscape; the city lies beautifully at the foot of a stunning mountain range. And just like every propper soviet city, Almaty too, has a cable cart that leads up to an amusement park and ski resort on the mountain.

I could post pictures all days. Full WiFi coverage of all the Ski area.

It is called Shymbulak, and it is the largest ski resort in Central Asia. It is located in the upper part of the Medeu Valley in the Zaiilisky Alatau mountain range, at an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,200 ft) above sea level. The area is actually trendy for its mild climate, large number of sunny days a year, and the significant amount of snow it gets through the winter (from November all the way till May).

Tempted to go skiing

View of Almaty City far below -)

When I visited the park, it was filled with plenty of people. I went up on the Ferris Wheel to get some dazzling views of the city and the mountains. I also went to check out their skiing amenities, which were actually quite excellent. I didn’t actually go skiing, but I took the cable cart all the way to the top. Up there, I was at 2,000 meters of altitude- that was the highest I had ever been up until that point.

Relaxing in the snow on 3200m with a good book, enjoying the sun and the views -)

While at the summit, I enjoyed having snow in late March, I walked around and chilled in the sun for a little and worked for a bit. After some time, I went back down the mountain to discover some more of Almaty.

What a beautiful day. Now back in the noisy city.

I ended up visiting the Green market, or ‘Zelyoni Bazaar’ in Russian. It is a huge market with all sorts of products, from fresh vegetables, dairy, and meat products to nuts, spices, plants, and other non-food items. The meat section includes horse sausages and is a bit challenging to the nose, so vegans beware. The prices in the market increase seasonally, and unless you come from Tokyo or London, you will find it quite expensive.

Green Bazar – Green Bazar – 50% of my work time consciously just consists in wandering around lazily to generate new ideas and prepare articles mentally. For that reason, I especially like visiting bazars with their multitude of smells and impressions – a hotbed for creativity -)

Almaty – nice pictures all around

Reaching 371,5m, Almaty Tower is the tallest free-standing tubular steel structure in the world… -)

After a few days in Almaty, I was supposed to head back to Astana to catch my flight back to Ukraine. The timing of this trip was not ideal because when I booked my flights back in November of 2015, my dates were utterly restricted by my school calendar. After Kazahstan, I was supposed to go straight back to Malta to start my second semester in school.

Be that as it may, all the plans changed pretty quickly, and by Christmas, I had already decided to drop out of my program. So, when it was time to leave Kazakhstan, I didn’t catch my return flight to the small town in Ukraine. I ditched the cheap ticket and bought a direct flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, instead. This was the point at which I re-committed to my career as a perpetual traveler.

What changed you may ask? Well, in February, I launched another book, which I wrote by working 12 hour days for about six weeks, doing absolutely no traveling. I published this book right before going to Prague, and by the time I was in Kazakhstan, I already saw profits from it. That was my first real financial success as a full-time traveler and freedom coach. Since then, this project has been earning me about 1,500 to 2,000 euros a month.

I should mention that this trip was one of the most challenging travel adventures I had had up until that point. This was in part because I couldn’t speak the language at all. I had cero understanding and familiarity with Kazakh or Russian; also, very few people spoke any English, let alone German. I mostly communicated with hands and feet, and it somehow all worked out. I got to see the destinations I wanted to, even with all the crazy travel delays.

All in all, I really enjoyed this trip. A lot of things changed for me during this time, I learned a lot of lessons on this trip, and I can say it was the beginning of a new life for me.