Astana: Kazakhstan's New Capital

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September 20th 2010
Published: January 30th 2012
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Astana is everything you don't think of when you think of Kazakhstan. President Nazarbaev is doing his darndest to bring the country hurtling into the 21st century with a thirty year plan to build a diversified, high tech economy, part of which was to create a new capital. Skeptics said it couldn't be done, but he's achieved it- and how. Twenty years ago Astana was a small city with not much to it. Now it looks like something out of a batman film, it's so shiny & new & impressive, I pretty much just walked around with my mouth hanging open- starting with the Byterik monument, a 97 feet (it was built in 1997) white latticed tower with a golden orb at the top you can take a lift up to. From there you can see pretty much the whole of Astana- a sea of amazing futuristic sky scrapers & mind blowing architecture, it's been growing fast building by building but it all fits together so perfectly it looks like it's been intricately planned. Equally amazing, which you can really see from up high, is how rather than fading to small houses & suburbs like more cities, just stops dead & turns to fields all of a sudden, it really has just come out of nowhere.

I returned to the ground amped to explore more at pavement level. I walked down the main strip, all pretty flower beds & fountains, first to the crazy new mall, with tons of fancy shops, a big food level with various cuisines (sushi, Turkish, pizza etc) an arcade complete with rides, & almost at the top, another small level where you could take a car that would take you all the way around the outside of the mall. There was also one of those high rides in the centre of the ground floor that takes you slowly to the top before letting you plummet to the ground just as you start to relax. Then the very top floor was the beach- always hot, complete with sand & lapping waves. Sounds more like something you'd find in New York or Paris, right?
After leaving the mall I made my way to the other end of the plaza towards the new presidential palace, on my way I passed a group of teenagers who asked me to take their picture in front of the Byterik. When they asked me where I was from & I answered London, they were very excited. "London?! Chelsea Chelsea!! Lampard!" Me: "yes! Lampard! The um, the guy with the, uh... blue shirt..." epic football knowledge fail. They were from Western Kazakhstan on a school trip, and were as excited to be in Astana as I was. I was very impressed by all of them, both by their English, which they were obviously quite keen to practice (I don't think it happens much) and by their attitude & confidence in general. They crowded in very close and fired questions at me- do you like our country? Do you like our capital- our youngest city! Yes we are very proud of Astana. Do you know much about our history? Kazakhstan has an amazing culture! Are you a student? What is your work? How old are you? How long do you stay?
So many questions.
I was also curious to see how they saw their country. What stood out, was when I asked- "May I ask, what do you think of your president?' the answer "We love him! He's great! HE IS SO COOL!!". Images come to mind of Tony Blair air guitaring, and the photo of that Chav kid giving David Cameron the finger. I don't think any 17 year old in the history of England has ever referred to a political leader as 'cool' without a heavy dose of sarcasm. It was wonderful to meet a group of young people so proud of their history, culture & country, so warm & positive, & with the confidence to practice their English just like that. I left them with a big smile. Everywhere you look Kazakhstan is moving forward in the right direction at such speed, & if that's the next generation, how can anyone help but have high hopes?

I got completely lost going back on the bus, luckily the conductors are all really kind and helpful, and i got back to my hostel really excited for the next day, & the main reason I decided to give Kazakhstan a try before joining the Dragoman truck in Kyrgyzstan- I had a friend there! I met Aza while volunteering in Ghana, you don't generally meet a lot of Kazakhs around the globe, & I was really excited to see him on his own soil.
If Kazakh hospitality is all like Aza's, it must be the best in the world. He was amazingly generous & hospitable while I was there, it was great to see him again and talk about our time in Ghana, as well as to stay with him & his father (a fairly high up government minister) for a night. He's got the most amazing apartment- it's like having a view of time square, or looking out onto Big Ben from your kitchen, all the coolest views in Astana right at the window. It was also just so interesting to hear more about the politics & intricacies of the country, particularly about tax, setting up business (Aza has his own, he's my age, how crazy is that? Apparently it's easier, and more common in Kazakhstan to be an entrepreneur) as well as hearing about the police & their bribes, and generally the system of bribery over there, something quite difficult to understand if you've grown up in the UK all your life. He was very keen to tell me all about Kazakhstan and its rich history, and seemed quite disappointed that I'd already done so much of my own research! But there was still plenty I didn't know, especially to do with all the sights of Astana and the daily lives of its people, not to mention the fact that I had no idea that Astana was what was officially 'Siberia'. Siberia... At school, learning about the Russian revolution, Siberia was the back of beyond, the furthest, most baron land imaginable, where Dostoevsky and Lenin were banished away, to the ends of the earth: Siberia. And there I was driving through it in Aza's Land Rover...

One thing I found particularly interesting was how the young people were so keen to go back to a more traditional way after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Aza, like many young Kazakhs, is Muslim (Astana has the most beautiful mosque donated by Saudi Arabia), or 'Muslim Lights', as he calls it- like cigarettes, just an easier way than the original. He doesn't pray five times a day, or go to the mosque all that regularly, but he believes in the Qu'ran and its teachings. He doesn't drink or smoke or gamble, and generally thinks it's important to uphold a traditional way of life. He hopes to get married soon, his fiancee and he don't have an awful lot in common, other than they

Sitting by the fountains in the long main square
very much enjoy each others company. He expects her to tend to a house and his children, to cook and clean and generally look after him, and that's exactly what she wants too- a nice home, with a kind husband, who'll support her while she lovingly raises their children. He says he wants someone caring, who he'll love, and who'll love him and his children, not to discuss current affairs with, not to argue with, not to go out with him and his friends. And sure, it's not what I'd want, but what's wrong with his way, if it's going to make them both happy? Aza's parents grew up in a soviet world- men and women were equal, as was everyone. Religion was pretty much nonexistent, and they're confused as to why he's made these choices. I guess it goes back to what young people are always supposed to do- rebel against their parents.

He also insisted on taking me about for a fantastic meal, where I got to try tasty traditional food, like a horse meat stew which was awesome, as well as delicious dumplings, and crazy shisha pipe combinations. It was a real bummer that I didn't get to spend more time there due to having to be in Zhabagly in the South of the country to join a trek with another guy, I really could have done with an extra few days to catch up & hang out, but we had a long walk down the main stretch to chat a bit, before he put me on a plane to Shymkent the next morning. Hopefully I'll get to go back in a few years time to spend more time with him, perhaps with his family on their farm, where they go snow-mobiling in winter- sounds pretty cool, huh?


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