‘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.’
Astana’s architectural style can best be described as idiosyncratic. The variety is a dizzying mix of clashing shapes and colours, yet is oddly suited to a nation made up of 100 ethnic groups following at least 30 different religions. The oriental post-modernism takes some getting used to, although the locals have domesticated all the thrusting modernity by giving many of the buildings homely nicknames according to their shape: a canary-yellow skyscraper is known as the Banana Building; seven squat cylindrical constructions are called the Seven Beer Barrels; and a pair of circular towers are the Ice Cream Cones. The Cigarette Lighter was so-called before it suffered an alarming fire. Inevitably, such an ambitious building project has had its failures: one building is known as the Titanic after a huge crack appeared in its foundations; another, threatened by a crumbling riverbank, has been dubbed the Kursk after the ill-fated Russian submarine.
The Ministry of Finance building gives the impression of a dollar sign, while the sweeping curves of the new stadium look, well, sporty. The National Archives are housed in a grey-green egg, the circus in a flying saucer, and there are now massive, California-style shopping malls, 24-hour supermarkets and numerous cafés and restaurants. But so far, no McDonald’s or Starbucks. ‘We’ll survive,’ says Mac.
New religious buildings stand among government ministries and banks – a spectacular mosque donated by Qatar; a big blue synagogue paid for by a Jewish Russian Orthodox cathedral built by public subscription. The miracle is that everything has been built in little over a decade.
In the centre of the city stands Baiterek Tower, a tall, spiky construction that cradles a glass and aluminium ball at its top. It’s the symbol of Astana and independent Kazakhstan, people take its lift up 97 symbolic metres – 1997 being the date of the move to the capital – to the dome for a clear view over city and steppe in every direction. Once at the top, it’s customary to approach the green malachite plinth that sits in its centre, upon which rests a disc made from five kilograms of solid silver bearing an imprint of the president’s hand crafted from two kilograms of solid gold. Visitors then place their own hand in the president’s palm before making a wish.
On my visit I am led to the plinth by a guide and dutifully place my hand in that of the president – and almost jump out of my skin. Before I can wish, and as I make contact with the presidential palm, the tower is filled with a roaring choir backed by a mighty orchestra belting out the national anthem at full patriotic throttle.
There is a panoramic view of the city from the tower and, in the distance, the vast wedding cake of domes and pillars of the Presidential Palace. The palace is a place of work and not a residence, designed to impress with its ostentation and size. Its interior, hung with crystal chandeliers the size of small buildings, has the proportions of a city square. Small armies parade there in winter when ceremonial occasions cannot be held outside.
Beyond the palace, a gigantic pyramid – the Pyramid of Peace – can be seen. Sixty metres high, it was designed by British architect Lord Foster and contains a 1,500-seat opera house. Another unique creation of Foster’s is the giant, futuristic yurt known as Khan Shatyr – the Khan’s Tent – which contains palm trees, beaches and even an artificial sea, allowing people to enjoy tropical conditions inside while blizzards rage outdoors.
I’d not visited Astana for four years and, having returned, I find the change simply astounding. The last time I was in the city I found it impressive but without soul. Now everything has changed. Astana has developed a personality. Not only has the skyline altered beyond recognition, but the place is alive. There is a buzz about it, an energy reflecting its youthful population. Astana has become human.
The average age in the city is 34, and young women from all over Kazakhstan flock here looking for husbands because of the army of single men working in its numerous ministries. Construction continues apace, and there are so many new cultural centres, museums and stadia – football, bicycle and ice-skating – popping up, that even the official guides can sometimes become confused: ‘I’m sorry – this is the National Museum and you wanted to see the President’s Museum. Perhaps you would also like to see the Palace of Independence?’
One of the more immutable disadvantages of Astana is that it is a long way from anywhere. It’s like living on a remote island – there is a reason the steppe is referred to as a sea of grass. In a country the size of Western Europe, distances are enormous. People in the city resign themselves to three-hour drives to reach the closest resort areas.
Some 106 miles to the southeast is a network of salt lakes that are home in spring and summer to vast flocks of pink flamingos. Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, covering 915 square miles, is a bird-watcher’s dream and a candidate as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But the most popular weekend location for Astana residents wishing to escape their city is Burabay National Park, an area of lakes, hills and forest billed as ‘the pearl of Kazakhstan’ or even ‘Kazakhstan’s Switzerland’. Only steppe dwellers would consider its low granite hills to be Alpine; despite its undoubted beauty, it more resembles Finland’s lakes and forests.
Mac and I set off on a Saturday morning for an overnight stay. As we leave the city limits, we drive through a wide girdle of forest, planted as a green belt designed to be both a lung and a windbreak. Stunted by wind, frozen earth and long winters, the forest has grown considerably slower than Astana itself. Beyond the green belt there is only the empty steppe.
‘Up here on the steppe you see natural phenomena you don’t see anywhere else,’ says Mac. ‘I’ve seen a rainbow at a temperature of -35°C, which was absolutely beautiful. And it’s big sky country, too – so you can see black clouds in one part of the sky and brilliant sunshine in another.’
We buy beer and delicious smoked fish in a shop on the way to the park, then drive to a comfortable hotel that retains elements of a Soviet sanatorium – a course of leeches is on offer. It’s the end of the season and almost no-one is around the lakes or forests, except for old ladies searching for mushrooms. Coloured ribbons have been tied in profusion to trees in certain ‘sacred’ groves – shamanistic rather than religious – by wedding parties.
There are a number of lakes in the national park, but Burabay is the most beautiful. Surrounded by birch forest, its waters lap a strip of sandy shore. There are various inlets where visitors can rent a rowing boat or hire an oarsman to take them to the mysterious rock known as Zhumbaktas stone. A legend surrounds it, and it is said to resemble a beautiful woman from one angle and an old hag from another. I can’t see it myself. But then neither can I make out the elephant, warrior and shoe that other outcrops are said to resemble. Zhumbaktas stone is covered in graffiti, dating back to 1905. My favourite is from 1949 and signed: ‘Nadia: Thank God for those husbands who send their wives alone for a vacation.’
As we enter Astana on the drive back from Burabay, Mac remarks on all the young families out for an afternoon stroll. In the winter they go skating on the river and drill holes in the ice for fishing, while elaborate ice sculptures decorate the streets. ‘When I first came here, I barely saw any prams on the streets,’ he says. ‘In a year, I started to see prams. And after two years, the whole embankment along the river was full of prams.’
And two of them belonged to Mac and his wife Akmaral, who now have a couple of young sons. Back in the city, Akmaral cooks dinner for us while the boys wander in and out of the kitchen. It’s a settled, happy domestic scene.
‘This is a young city built for young families, for a younger generation,’ says Akmaral. ‘It’s a city designed for family life, which is very important for Kazakhs. All the colleagues I came here with have now married and had children – they have become adults and personalities in this city. Astana has become their home. And it has become my home.’
The old complaints have been resolved. Akmaral no longer yearns to return to Almaty, and has no desire to move. ‘I have changed completely, one hundred per cent – I am very happy here,’ she says.
Like its young population, Astana has finally come of age.
The article 'New horizons in Kazakhstan' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.