Friday 11th August - Entering the death star
Rest days are a rare thing on the Mongol Rally but we were well overdue for one. Plus how could anyone resist the amazing city of Astana?! This city only became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 (previously it was Almaty). Basically there was nothing here in 1997, in a similar fashion to Dubai the whole place was built up from scratch. It was quite evident walking around that numerous buildings had been modelled on other cities. There was even one that looked identical to the Gherkin building in London. Astana has been labelled by The Guardian as the weirdest capital city in the world. The presidential building has copied the White House in Washington DC. There is a huge glass pyramid which has been named the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. The city is home to the worlds largest tent which has a massive shopping centre inside and the buildings give it a very futuristic skyline. Definitely a weird place. Since becoming the capital the population has more than doubled. Temperatures drop down to -35 degrees here in winter. As Aussies who love summer we had no idea how they survive this sort of weather. They must have incredibly thick skin in Kazakhstan, that or they're half polar bear (it's probably the latter).
Our first destination for the day was Expo 2017. It just so happened the Mongol Rally this year coincides with the world Expo which is being hosted by Astana. Expo occurs every three-four years in a different country (Australia hosted it in 1988!). Astana won the right to host in 2012 and started building in 2014. The theme for Expo this year was 'Future Energy'. A total of 115 countries were participating, unfortunately Australia wasn't in it. We were a bit disappointed by this but oh well, plenty of other countries to check out. We drove over to the site of Expo 2017, parked the car, bought tickets and started exploring. Firstly we had a look at Spain's exhibition. Basically we hit the countries that had the shortest lines, however, eventually lined up for Germany which was known to be one of the best exhibitions. Germany handed you a little white block as you entered, you then used this little block to activate computer screens which gave you info about renewable energy. There was also an amazing laser show at the end which everyone powered by combining their white blocks.
Next up we visited a kids science show which also had a fun exhibition with energy related things for kids to try. Our stomachs were grumbling so we fed them at a small German restaurant. We followed this with a visit to exhibitions by the U.K., Italy, Poland and even Vatican City. Poland had some great interactive displays where you press a button and a flower of plant scent sprays out. Their info boards explained how Poland is committed to preserving the numerous forests they have. Vatican City had a laser show where you sit in a tent and listen to a philosophical explanation of the planet earth we've been blessed to look after. As with a number of the exhibitions we were asked on the way in by staff what language we speak. Upon answering English we were given a headset which would translate the laser show for us.
Walking around Expo it was obvious we were most likely the only non-Kazakhs there. We didn't see any other Westeners at all; the young volunteers though were quite happy to practise their English skills on us and help out with directions. We did however finally meet some Westeners at the USA exhibition. We lined up for ten minutes to get in and sat down to watch a video in a large room. Before the video started the volunteer asked if anyone needed English translation. The four of us put up our hands (of course we were the only hands up in a room of 100 people). Pat shouted out "the Australians need English!" The volunteer then proceeded to explain things in Kazakh then kindly re-explain in English. After the short video we went and spoke to the American representative. He asked if we were really from Australia. Of course we were! We told him about the rally and that we had to come and see our allies exhibition. He said their participation in the Expo was super last minute. Quite hilarious he said this because ten minutes later we were walking out having just watched an incredible laser show that would have cost them millions to make. The USA exhibition proved to be the most elaborate and expensive one we'd visited, quite funny for a 'last minute' thing.
Following USA we walked to the huge building in the middle of the grounds. It was built especially for Expo and is the largest spherical building in the world. We had affectionately been calling it the Death Star all day (Star Wars reference). A massive snake line was out the front which we eventually got through to enter the Death Star. Inside were some amazing exhibitions including one about the Mongolian landscape complete with spring scents being emitted from the vents. We were keen to go up the lift to the top of the sphere however quickly changed our minds after seeing the humongous line. No thank you. We chose instead to just stop by a little souvenir shop on our way out of the building.
Exiting Expo we decided to drive over to the famous 'I love Astana' sign in the city centre. We all took a tourist photo with the iconic sign. The building in the backdrop quite reminiscent of Dubai's Atlantis Hotel (we did mention that Astana has been modelled on a number of cities). Next to the sign is the largest tent in the world which has a shopping centre inside. Of course we weren't going to visit Astana without going into the worlds largest tent. To add to Astana's weirdest capital city status the tent has a beach resort inside with sand imported from the Maldives. It also has a drop-ride and children's theme park on the top level. Definitely not what we were expecting in Kazakhstan!
We walked around for a bit then decided we'd eat at the food court upstairs. Despite all having intense KFC cravings we went for different meals; the KFC line was insanely long. It's as if Kazakh people think there's gold flakes hidden in the chicken. James had a beer with his meal which is sold all over the food court, when else can you say you've had a beer in the worlds biggest tent? After dinner we left the shopping centre to walk toward the Bayterek Tower. The symbol of Kazakhstan. It's meant to represent a mythical tree of life where a bird laid its egg in the crevice of the two branches. We walked down the main strip to find that there were 115 painted statues representing each country at Expo. Walking among them we admired the detail and iconic symbols of each nation, Brazil of course had Cristo Redentor on their statue.
A number of art installations were positioned on the main strip, all with a theme related to future energy to commemorate Expo. The most interesting among them, windmills made out of plastic bottles. Finally we came to the Bayterek Tower, quite a sight to see with its beautiful golden ball in the middle. James had decided to return to the hotel by taxi to figure out some money issues. The rally is definitely not a cheap endeavour. Haylee, Pat and Natalie thought they'd join the line for the Tower and check out the bar up top. We changed our mind pretty quickly though after being told at the ticket counter that the wait to get into the lift would be one hour. Astana is an extremely cold city; and by cold we mean freezing your ass off in Antarctica cold. Go figure we quickly discovered that Astana is the second coldest capital city in the world. It was supposed to be summer yet we were all in our warmest jackets shaking like a chihuahua. We decided to go to a nearby hotel and find a bar to stay warm.
The Ritz-Carlton was nearby, why not rock up to the fanciest bar in the whole city? We waltzed into the main reception wearing the clothes we'd been in all day, Haylee in dirty converse shoes, Pat in his cargos and Nat with her backpack on. The security guard told us of a bar on level 18 so we jumped into the lift to go up there. Underdressed as we were the pretty ladies at the front desk walked us over to the bar and sat us down. Everyone else in the restaurant was dressed to the nines enjoying expensive wine and here we were in our Mongol Rally 'hasn't been washed in 25 days' clothing. The bar tender at the Ritz-Carlton was only young. He ended up introducing himself as Fender and had some long chats with us about living in Astana. He'd made a video about the city using his drone and showed us it on youtube (see the link here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPDKEgX92kc). An hour later we'd also met Alisa, she'd been working at the Ritz for a short time and was originally from Moscow. She gave us some great tips on shopping centres to visit in her city. Fender invited us to party on with him at an Irish pub after he knocked off at 1am, it would have been awesome save for the fact that our bodies were begging for sleep. We caught a taxi back to where our car was parked instead of walking, none of us were keen on enduring the freezing temperatures outside.
Driving back to our hotel Patrick got waved down by a policeman. Pat had been silly enough to turn on our incredibly bright light bar as he couldn't see some of e speed humps on the road. Fortunately the policeman was sympathetic to our need for some extra illumination and let us go without a fine. Winning!