Astana is a city most people probably can’t place on a map, but since being allocated as Kazakhstan’s new capital in 1997 and being built, essentially from scratch, into a sparkling metropolis in preparation for hosting Expo 2017, we think that’s bound to change pretty soon.
From signs plastered on every city bus to small placards in even the tiniest rural towns, it’s pretty clear that Expo fever has swept the nation and although we were on the opposite side of the country, we knew it was an event we didn’t want to miss.
Since the inaugural World’s Fair that was hosted by London in 1851 and gifted the city with the Crystal Palace, subsequent events have had a habit of leaving behind a legacy landmark.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Seattle Space Needle and San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts are all fine examples of what these events left behind and this year is no exception with Nur Alem, a fully spherical structure sitting as the centrepiece of Astana’s Expo for 2017.
The World’s Fair represents a coming together of science, technology and art in a cultural exchange of ideas. The theme this year is future energy with a focus on renewables and Astana’s goal of becoming a city of the future.
With a suite of futuristic buildings fit for the latest sci-fi film already scattered around the city, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate city or concept to thrust Kazakhstan onto the international stage alongside over 100 other presenting nations.
As a visitor the complex is huge and unless you have several days, you likely won’t be able to see it all.
If you’re visiting Astana for Expo 2017, even for just one day, here’s how you should spend it.
This reflective blue sphere is the impressive showpiece of the entire complex and houses Kazakhstan’s national pavilion and the Museum of the Future.
Meaning ‘Light of the World’, the eight story glass building is the largest of its kind in the world and the first fully spherical building to be created, and if you ask us, it’s pretty damn cool.
The ground floor focuses on the culture and traditions of Kazakhstan and leads you to a one-way elevator system that lifts you to the very top.
Each level has a different energy focus including space, solar, wind and so forth and as you move through, the displays are part wacky science museum, part creative artistry.
Follow a glass skywalk that hovers precariously over the lower levels (those with a fear of heights beware!), charge your phone at one of several solar powered charging trees, join a virtual bike race or be blasted by a wind tunnel as you move along the spiral walkway that leads you through the floors of the sphere.
Special performances are also held several times a day – circus artists perform daring stunts in the Wheel of Energy on the kinetic energy floor while aerial performers can be found on the ground level stage.
Sitting at the heart of the Expo, Nur Alem is definitely the main event and gets crowded fast. Arrive early and start here to beat the rush.
There are over 100 countries with exhibits at Expo 2017, many with individual pavilions, others in a shared plaza complex. Even with two long days spent exploring the complex, we were never going to be able to see them all, though we sure did try.
The presentations that blurred the lines between science, art and technology with interactive installations, dance performances, light shows and short films were the biggest winners in our books.
Of the international pavilions we visited, these were our favourites:
United Kingdom. This beautiful interactive art installation surrounded by a 360-degree composite image of the countryside looks at how we affect the environment around us. There is no queue to get in though it can get busy inside the main installation.
Israel. A light and dance show alongside information to communicate the country’s plans for future energy. Queues between shows last for around 8 minutes.
Korea. An artistic video of Korea’s development over time and a fun animation (definitely geared towards children) of how we should be moving toward cleaner energy sources. Queues can be long (close to an hour) as the show itself lasts for 30 minutes. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
Switzerland. Give us free food and we’ll love you forever! Switzerland’s pavilion combines the stunning scenery of Zermatt and its solar powered Monte Rosa hut with a cooking demonstration of a national dish, Rosti, complete with samples to taste.
Lithuania. Nicknamed ‘Magic World’, Lithuania’s main laser display was chosen by organisers as the best spot for selfies in the whole complex. Want to see why? You’ll have to check it out for yourself!
Germany. Charge your battery with knowledge from the displays then watch the solar system swirl in the final presentation.
Honorable mentions go to Austria, Monaco and Finland who present a technicoloured blur of interactive motion, a dance of moving mirrors inspired by the ocean and a unique cultural perspective.
Several pavilions have VR applications where you can, for example, be transported to the plazas of Monaco, experience the best natural sights of Georgia or take a tour of a Russian copper factory.
Dance and music performances also happen numerous times throughout the day at various pavilions.
After Nur Alem, these presentations are Kazakhstan’s other main offering and take the audience through their vision to transform Astana into a smart city of the future.
With a functioning hydroponic tower garden, several light displays and a look at what our future cities may become (spoiler: all those futuristic sci-fi movies combined), these centres are definitely worth a look in.
A strong message in these pavilions is that the future is for the children, and so naturally, most of the presentations appeal to that audience.
If you like contemporary art, this small gallery is definitely worth a stop. The collection on the upper level, Artists & Robots, showcases pieces from around the world that are designed by the artist but created by a robot.
Cirque du Soleil. The internationally renowned circus act has come to Astana performing their show Reflekt and tickets are an absolute bargain. Though officially all tickets are sold out until the end of the event, we did hear of same-day tickets being sold from the ticket booth outside the Cirque du Soleil auditorium. It may pay to ask and see what they say. Shows run Wednesday through Sunday.
On entry, you will receive a schedule of the entertainment program for the day, but tickets for special shows should be booked as far ahead as possible here.
Wear comfy shoes. The complex is huge and you’ll be doing plenty of walking so don’t skimp on comfortable footwear.
The staff speak English. The pavilion staff are trained to give their spiel in English as well as Russian so don’t be afraid to ask for extra information if they don’t immediately offer it. If the exhibits are really busy they may forget to ask, or you may be allocated a private escort to translate as you move through the pavilion.
Bring water. If you plan to spend all day in the complex, you’ll need to keep hydrated as there’ll be plenty of time in the hot sun.
Come early. Mornings are the best time to visit when temperatures are cooler and the queues much shorter. Nur Alem in particular and some of the more popular international pavilions get crowded quickly, particularly when local school groups begin to arrive, so get there early and see these displays first.
Don’t try to see it all. The complex is huge and packed full of exhibits. If you’re short on time, come with a plan of which parts of the Expo you really want to experience and forget the rest.
There’s plenty to eat. The bulk of restaurants and fast food stands are housed in the two commercial pavilions. The lower levels tend to have the more expensive restaurants, ones that have main branches in Astana itself, while upstairs you’ll find cheaper fast-food joints. Scattered around the complex are also plenty of cafes, ice-cream stands and other quick food options.
Buses from the centre run to the Expo regularly and cost 90T per person. Just pay the attendant when you are on the bus. Download the app 2GIS for offline bus routes to and from anywhere in the city.
Otherwise, taxis gather outside all the exits and can take you anywhere in the city, just be sure to negotiate the price ahead of time.
Same-day single entry tickets can be purchased for 4,000T at any of the entrance gates around the complex. You will have to pass through a security checkpoint so don’t have anything on you that you shouldn’t. Once you’re inside the gates you may not leave and return on the same ticket.
If you’re arriving in the city with Air Astana on an international flight you are eligible for a free entry ticket for Expo 2017 which can be redeemed here.