For most of us, Central Asia is a vastly unknown territory, especially when it comes to congress destinations. Yet, many explorers and caravans have travelled through this land since the days of the Silk Roads. Kazakhstan stands out from the other four Stan countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) — for example, the cities of Almaty and the new capital, Astana, have started the race to attract conventions and events. But let me first tell you what a Stan country is. Stan means "stony field", but it has slowly evolved to mean "place of" or "land". In turn, Kazakhstan means "The Land of the Great Steppe".
I have enjoyed reading the stories that English non-fiction writer Christopher Robbins has written about Kazakhstan. His book 'Apples Come from Kazakhstan' is subtitled The Land That Disappeared. It has become a reference book for people who want to get to know Kazakhstan. There is no better introduction than to briefly follow Robbins on his travels through this former Soviet country, which also had the unfortunate reputation of being a place of exile. Kazakhstan, a country larger than the whole of Western Europe, has a population of 15.4 million. To the south lie the Tien Shan mountains and, in the centre, a vast, empty steppe and apple trees grow wild everywhere.
If you stand at a bus stop in Almaty in summer, you can almost certainly pick an apple from a tree, and trust me, apples taste better in Kazakhstan. Tulips are also native to the region, and in spring the foothills of the southern mountains turn into a sea of beautiful, colourful tulips. Coming back to the English writer Robbins, he was good friends with former President Nazarbayev, the man who proved that the country had survived and was not 'the land that disappeared', as Robbins wrote with a certain intention to say the opposite.
In the Soviet era, Kazakhstan was part of a larger whole, but since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the country has actually reappeared on the map and is doing its best to become a strong and prosperous state. Kazakhstan has not disappeared, but rather appeared! And the cities of Almaty and Astana have become very attractive for congresses. It's worth getting to know the country!
It's strange for a European to end up in a completely new city. There are no old houses or buildings, no individual houses or small, cosy streets, just majestic flat blocks and wide streets - I'm talking about Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. Once again I refer to Robbins' book, remember I mentioned earlier that he was very good friends with President Nazarbayev? In the book, Nazarbayev emerges as a wise leader who recognised the failure of the communist system and had the best interests of his people at heart.
His priorities were on economic development, national prosperity and peaceful inter-ethnic relations, especially between Kazakhs and Russians, who respectively make up just over and just under half of the population. Nazarbayev was lucky in that the north-western part of the country is rich in oil, which was exploited in recent years with the help of Western oil companies and brought an economic boom to the Kazakhs.
The former windswept and lifeless steppe-town of Akmola was declared the new capital by Nazarbayev in 1994, and three years later there was a massive shift of civil servants from Almaty. Astana is now bursting with the latest government buildings and apartment blocks, and some spectacular new monuments, including the construction of a new prestigious building commissioned by Nazarbayev: a huge winter tent, modelled on the traditional yurt, in which Kazakhs can have summer fun in winter. Because it can be cold there in winter and hot in summer!
The former capital of Kazakhstan is Almaty, which means ‘'full of apples’'. It is also sometimes said that the apple was born here. Many visitors love this city because it has a long history and is surrounded by rich nature. There is also a famous ski resort nearby, Shymbulak. Almaty was the capital until 1997. Then Astana (also known as Nur-Sultan) took over the torch and Almaty has continued to revel in its rich past. I had the advantage of walking around Astana for a few days and exploring some of the iconic convention buildings and conference hotels, including the Expo Business District, which houses the ultra-modern Class A Business Centre, the Astana Congress Centre and the EXPO International Exhibition Centre, which hosts the highest level of convention, exhibition and trade show events.
The Convention Bureau of Astana is also well developed and has a lot of experience in organising congresses. Anyone looking at the list of congresses in Astana will be surprised. The Astana Congress Centre spans three floors and is bathed in light. Last but not least, the five-star Hilton Astana Hotel and the Mega Silk Way shopping and entertainment centre are easily accessible.
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