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Published: August 11th 2013
I doubt that there has been a more dramatic transformation of a city in modern times than Astana. In 1997, after a declaration from President Nursultan Nazarbaev three years earlier, Astana replaced Almaty as Kazakhstan’s capital, and since that time a building project of monumental proportions has been undertaken. Based on the grand design of Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, everything is planned – the symmetry of streets, parks, squares and even buildings all align in perfect harmony.
The city’s architecture is extraordinary, something that easily matches other places with modern, futuristic architecture such as Dubai. There were also classical designs, like the opera house, whose facade could have been lifted from the streets of Europe. Astana’s desire to become a cultural centre was obvious, for there were many theatres and concert halls with more under construction.
Strolling around Nurzhol bulvar
, an area lined with buildings, and filled with water features, steps and gardens, it is difficult to conceive that only a few years prior, none of this existed. This area is termed the New City, but new is a relative term. When I asked a Kazakh friend, Nazira, what defined a building within the Old City, she stated it
applied to any structure more than seven years old! Being summer, the days were very warm without the slightest hint of humidity, and as the sun lowered, families and friends congregated in parks and particularly around the iconic and much photographed Bayterek monument. Its height of 97 metres representing the year that Astana ascended to the status of the nation’s capital.
Kazakhstan and Astana are predominately Muslim, however it is difficult to discern on appearance alone, for this is the most liberal Muslim nation I have visited. It was rare to see a head scarf, and the fashion on display would not be amiss in Christian countries. There are some glorious mosques in Astana, particularly the largest mosque in Central Asia – the Hazrat Sultan Mosque. But even the prayer calls from the muezzins were relatively muted when compared to other Muslim countries.
Astana’s incredible growth will continue, for in 2017 Astana will play host to an Expo, and hosting an Expo requires an enormous amount of construction in itself, let alone what is already occurring throughout the city. I strongly suspect that many areas of Astana will be barely recognisable to me if I return four years
However, one aspect that Kazakhstan must be cautious of as it prepares for Expo 2017 is its approach to security. Some of the world’s surliest security guards inhabit shopping malls, something not conducive to providing a welcoming environment. My most ridiculous encounter with security occurred near dusk whilst photographing the aforementioned opera house. A guard gruffly directed me to leave the area, so I pointed to the far end of the opera square and stated in Russian “Da?”
(“Yes”) and he replied the same, so I sauntered over to continue photographing.
Whilst snapping away I became aware of a noise overhead and sitting 20 metres above me was a small drone with a video camera recording my every move; its green and red lights revealing it purpose. What threat an obvious tourist had so far from the opera house is mystifying, and I was extremely tempted to video the buzzing drone, but thought it too provocative a move so refrained from doing so. Not to be intimidated, I continued photographing and when completed, I waved to the eye in the sky and strode off.
There are different approaches to security – and the one on show
in Kazakhstan is deleterious. Even the Chinese learnt how to implement a firm but friendly security system during the Beijing Olympics, so it should be possible for the Kazakhs to enact the same. If they fail to do so, the enduring memory of tourists from Expo 2017 will not be this incredible city and its Exposition, but an overly officious and harsh security. This could potentially foil any attempt to develop Kazakhstan’s tourism industry.
With my Central Asia sojourn now concluding, I reflected on my visit. Lonely Planet’s Central Asia guidebook often mentions the abundant availability of alcohol readied to be poured down the mouth of visitors in a variety of social situations. I am unsure who their writers interacted with, for I was never offered alcohol and that was without me informing people that I never drank it anyway. The supposed prevalence of alcohol was a slight concern in case my refusal caused offence – but none was ever offered – a pleasant revelation.
My other concern was the food, and with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, it was as bland as my imaginings. I am too accustomed to the lively flavours of south-east Asia to have found
the local cuisine appealing. However, it was not from want of trying. Whilst in Astana I sampled both camel and horse milk. Camel’s milk is slightly sour, not one of my preferred taste, but it was far superior to horse milk, which was so bitter that my face contorted into pained expressions. Neither could compare to the exquisitely sweet yak’s milk from Tajikistan, which is my favourite alternative to milk from cows.
Thankfully, there was some culinary respite in Astana, for the only western food chain I frequent when travelling was located here – Baskin Robbins. It seems trite for me to gravitate towards this outlet when travelling to foreign destinations, but their ice-cream is the one indulgence I partake in when trekking the globe.
Before heading to the airport for my return to the Middle East, I detoured for the final stop of my Central Asian itinerary – the infamous Alzhir prisoner camp
in Malinovka, established by the worst tyrant of the 20th
century, Josef Stalin. Alzhir was used to imprison the wives and children of men guilty of being “Traitors of the Motherland”, and “anti-Soviet propagandists” who engaged in “counterrevolutionary activities”. 18,000 women and children were detained in
Alzhir, with sentences ranging between eight to 25 years, whilst their husband and fathers suffered worse fates elsewhere.
The museum held an original train carriage used to carry prisoners, whilst dioramas, displays and a movie explained the difficult conditions endured within the camp. Surrounding the back of the museum stood an immense black wall containing the names of all camp prisoners, and fronting the museum was the “Arch of Sorrow” where people were requested to lower their head as they pass in tribute to the victims of political repression. The museum was initiated by Sharf Ivan Ivanovich – whose honourable vision was to establish a permanent tribute to those interred here.
Alzhir is a stark comparison to what Kazakhstan has become; freed from the burden of Soviet servitude, the Kazakhs have found their own voice. Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where some lament the loss of Soviet investment, the Kazakhs are relieved to be rid of the communist empire as they can utilise the monies made from Kazakh petroleum resources for their own benefit. If Almaty is the old, with its prevalence of drab Soviet-style architecture, then Astana is the new, where Kazakhstan presents a modern, proud and
progressive face to the world.
Central Asia is one of this planet’s least frequented destinations, and my five weeks here demonstrated the delightful diversity of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan – each with its own food, culture, history and attitude. Central Asia is still largely untouched and untainted by tourism, and it is a region that deserves to be higher on any intrepid traveller’s itinerary.
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