A Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan once told me, "Most people grow out of playing with Lego; Nazarbayev hasn't." This is an accurate portrayal of President Nazarbayev's attitude toward his shiny new capital in the heart of the country. Before the turn of the century, in the late 1990s, Nazarbayev decided to move the capital city of his country from the vibrant, bustling city of Almaty to the once sleepy little town of Akmola. This was quite a bold and ambitious move considering the old capital was situated in the foothills of the magnificent and picturesque Tien Shen Mountains, while the new one - renamed Astana - is located in the middle of the inhospitable Kazakh steppe, where the annual average temperature doesn't even reach double digits. The great migration from one capital to the other hasn't been as quick as Nazarbayev probably would have liked. But after all, who can blame people for not wanting to live out in the middle of nowhere? Even the president himself spends a great majority of his time in Almaty. Still, Astana is steadily growing, especially with the increasing infrastructure, including the shiny new Nazarbayev University, the sports arenas built to host the 2011 Asian winter games and better transport between the two capitals.
Last year I took a short weekend trip to Astana, and honestly found it to be a truly amazing and interesting city. The whole place is basically divided into two parts: the old, sprawled out, Soviet style 'suburb' of Akmola, and the smaller but still developing, uber-modern district where the new capital is growing. Old Akmola is filled with unattractive, nine-story pre-fabricated concrete blocks of flats that create a skyline dominated by a huge gothic, Stalin-era skyscraper. Although there isn't much in terms of sightseeing in this part of town, it at least feels that there is life here compared to the stillness of its developing neighbour. After all, people had been living in old Akmola long before Astana even existed. However, it was the newly developed city center where most of my attention was naturally drawn.
Walking around this area of town can give you the feeling that you're in a bad 1970s science fiction film. The new city, with its surprisingly futuristic yet cheesy look, has been carefully and painstakingly planned as if the job was given to a perfectionist ten-year-old aspiring architect. Each building seems to be designed to catch people's attention in its uniqueness as well as its function, as if the city planners were doing a poor imitation of Dubai. Talking to the locals, I discovered that they had given nicknames to a lot of these unusual buildings: a skyscraper with a 45 degree slanted roof and a huge pencil-point shaped cone at the very top is called 'lighter'; a group of three towering blocks of flats built with S-curves from base to roof is called 'spaghetti buildings'. A bird's-eye-view of the new city center shows that the buildings have been built in a pattern of intricate shapes like steel and glass 'crop circles' sending messages to other worlds.
The center piece of the new capital is the Baiterek Tower, or what the ex-pat community in Kazakhstan has nicknamed 'the World Cup' for its strong resemblance to the famed FIFA trophy. The tower is by far the most famous building in Kazakhstan, represented on all the bills of the Kazakh currency. Photos of the Baiterek Tower always showed this massive tower dominating the skyline, so when I actually saw it for the first time, in actuality dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers, I was quite surprised. I was in for a bigger surprise when I went to the top and got a good view of the city. Off to the west, the city sprawls for quite a distance where old Akmola lies. But looking east, I realize that it ends abruptly after about three blocks into the vast emptiness of the Kazakh steppe. From the ground level, I would have never guessed that the city limits were so close. The main attraction in the Baiterek Tower is a mold of President Nazarbayev's right hand. The myth is that by placing your hand in his mold, you can make a wish come true; mine has yet to do so.
One of the most amazing things about being in Astana is how empty it feels. When it became the capital of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev had ambitious plans to make Astana the biggest city in the country. The population is about seven hundred thousand, though the city is being built to accommodate two million residents. With so few people, the large amount of living space is left lifeless, and the wide streets seem way too big for the few vehicles that trickle down them. Nazarbayev's playground still continues to lack the interest he hopes to instill. Will it really become the city that he dreams of? Only time will tell.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR