New horizons in Kazakhstan
A military cadet gazes up at the Baiterek Tower. (Eric Lafforgue)
‘I hate this city, I hate this city, I hate this city!’ For the first six months after moving to Astana – Kazakhstan’s spanking new capital built by presidential decree in the middle of the country’s vast empty steppe – Akmaral Aidarbekova complained bitterly about the place on a daily basis. The pavements were unfinished, forcing pedestrians to wade through deep puddles of melting snow, and there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. The weather was extreme too, with bitterly cold winters that dropped to -40°C and baking hot summers that soared to over 40°C.
A young, single woman in her midtwenties working as a lawyer in the Ministry of Finance, Akmaral had been obliged to relocate north from the old capital Almaty, like thousands of other government employees. ‘I was not happy to come here,’ she says. ‘I arrived on Valentine’s Day in 2000 and it was so windy, I was nearly knocked over. And it was so cold. February is the month of the buran – snow blizzards which last for two or three days. I was worried that the whole winter was going to be the same.’
The decision to make Astana the capital was taken in July 1994, and the move began three years later. As Peter the Great built St Petersburg on a swamp and Philip II of Spain turned a dusty village into Madrid, so Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, decreed that a rundown steppe town bang in the middle of nowhere should be transformed into the nation’s capital. The city chosen for the world’s greatest architectural makeover had previously been in long decline, inhabited largely by a Russian population of impoverished agricultural workers. Its concrete tower blocks were crumbling, the peasant housing like slums, and the infrastructure chronically rundown. Not to put too fine a point on it, the place was an absolute dump.
Suddenly, tens of thousands of government employees had to move north as various ministries transferred sections of their operation to the city over a period of two years. No capital has ever been relocated in such a short time. The president explained the rationale by saying that Almaty had grown from a manageable population of 400,000 to 1.5 million, and had simply run out of space to expand. The city’s mountains, while providing a beautiful backdrop to the old capital, helped to trap pollution. On top of this, Almaty was prone to earthquakes. Geographically, the old capital was in the extreme southeast corner of the country, near the border with China, and cut off from the rest of the republic. The rich oil fields of the Caspian Sea lay over 1,800 miles to the west, while there were unstable neighbours less than a couple of miles to the south. Astana, on the other hand, was perfectly placed in the very centre of the country.
But even the president, when planting a tree in the early days of the city, conceded: ‘It is windy up here, isn’t it? It certainly is windy.’ Later, he would try to put a patriotic spin on the new capital’s harsh climate: ‘This is normal weather for this place. It is the weather of our native land and of our forefathers.’
‘It took me about three years to change my mind about Astana as the city changed around me,’ says Akmaral. She married and moved into a modern apartment. ‘Now it feels like a real city, with cafés and restaurants and parks, with lots of things to do,’ she says. ‘I don’t even mind the winter now – it’s cold but also dry, and there are beautiful sunny days.’
‘I didn’t mind coming here,’ says Akmaral’s husband Maghzhan – known to his Western friends as Mac. ‘I felt very good about being at the beginning of something, involved in building a new capital for my young country. It felt like being part of the future rather than the past.’