Astana was exactly what we expecting – an amusement park of a city with obscene glassy buildings in abnormal shapes and shocking colors, where the ability to catch the eye trumps character or quality or rather where audaciousness becomes the new regional definition of quality. Nonetheless, it is an interesting city that started as a small village, and is now an artificial capital growing exponentially with new buildings and infrastructure popping up daily but without the population to fill them.
Of course such a hasty and brazen display of wealth can only match it’s main objective, and here it is no different: While the exteriors appear pristine the interiors of these newly constructed wonders may already be crumbling. Indeed the building in which we stayed was only a few years old but the walls were already cracking through to the outside and the facilities were generally looking worn beyond their years. Despite the best attempt at a display of wealth, the buildings failed upon a close inspection.
During our stay in Astana, we also were told that many of these bright shiny new buildings remain unoccupied but that at the same time city rent prices are increasing fairly dramatically each year. This seems odd, especially given the government’s desire to build this former swampland into a world class capital, but at least in this case the desire for high rent luxury apartments has defeated the need for people to fill them. Perhaps in this case what matters most is not that the apartments are filled, but that they have the appearance of being occupied. Here, appearance is everything – it is like Vegas on the outside and a warehouse on the inside, but to the locals it is Vegas.
We arrived in Astana from Almaty on a 24 hour train, sharing our kupe with a kind elderly couple and enjoying a comfortable and uneventful journey. While we sat in the Astana train station upon our arrival we were approached by a young Kazakh woman named Zhaniya. Zhaniya was dropping her parents off at the train station but offered to show us around the city later on.
We arranged to meet Zhaniya, who is a flight attendant for Air Astana, on our second day in Astana. She arrived with a friend, a fellow flight attendant, and they drove us around in Zhaniya’s car to see various parts of the city. They showed us Astana’s new mimic of the Arc de triumph on the city’s south end, standing some kilometers away from any other structure and marking a yet unrealized city extent. We also were shown a futuristic looking new sports complex, enormous government buildings and numerous oversized and over-the-top memorials and statues. We were also shown the city’s two central mosques, both somehow tastefully done in this tasteless place, the new large mosque a beautiful structure who’s dignity is only threatened by the fact that it’s next to a large blue circular bowl of a building that is the university’s art faculty and across the street from a glass copy of an Egyptian pyramid.
Another interesting thing about Kazakhstan in general is that people here are of the impression that their country is a huge player on the world stage, even one of the world’s foremost powers. Zhaniya and her friend asked us what our families thought about Kazakhstan and honesty compelled us to tell them that our families know very little about it and, like most of their compatriots, were probably unable to point out on a map this place that is the ninth largest country in the world. This clearly was not the answer they expected, but we withheld the most damaging information – that the average American /European /Australian probably learnt most of what he knows about Kazakhstan from Borat, a movie which is a taboo subject here.
All of Astana is new, barely anything is even five years old on the new side of the river. After traveling through ancient central Asia for the last two months this was a bit of a shock to our eyes and brains – or maybe actually only for our eyes. There is nothing cerebral about Astana, it is a city built only for the eyes and the hands.
We will now highlight a few of the grossly indulgent buildings in this plasticine city. In some cases there is not much to write and a photo is sufficient, while in other instances we may have something to add.
The Presidential Palace
The best way to describe the Presidential Palace? Maybe this is what would result of the United States elected superman president and gave him free reign to remodel the white house as he wished. Here, look:
This is more of a capital building as the President doesn’t live here (I’m sure his actual home is twice as grand and comic book, he is one of the world’s most wealthy men). It is actually larger than the white house, so I’m not sure how superman could pull off that part, but I’m sure he could… He’s superman.
The president of Kazakhstan designed this monument himself, or so the story goes, and it is the centerpiece of the city. We took the elevator to the top for the 360 degree view of this steroidal city, a sight as interesting for its array of cranes constructing Astana’s newest wonders as it is for the view of the absurd skyline that is already here.
The views are nice and the sway of the building in the day’s strong winds was entertaining enough, but the real treat here is the life sized handprint of President Nazarbaev himself mounted on a golden pedestal which all visitors, be they immortal or otherwise, have the incredible opportunity to place their hand in and compare to the great man. Of course we had to!
The Shatyr Khan is a large tent-like structure based on the traditional home of the Kazakh nomad, the yurt. That is about the only thing traditional about this glass sided mall equipped with an indoor fourth floor artificial beach and every type of shop or store imaginable. It sits at the far end of the Presidential Mall, which is punctuated by the glass pyramid on the opposite end and is centered around the Presidential Palace and the Bayterek.
For us, we were glad that there wasn’t much to do in Astana as we were ready for a break after a long and quick travel from Kashgar in only a few days . Luckily we met Scott and Kirsten through couchsurfing and they proved to be really awesome people to visit with and allowed us to just chill at their place right in the city. We were very thankful that they allowed us to be bums in their flat while slowly taking in the city.