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Posted May 2012

Las Vegas on the steppe – Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is quite a sight to behold. Sitting squat right in the middle of a flat nowhereness, which actually happens to be the largest dry steppe on earth that reaches for over 2,000 km from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Altai mountains in the west, Astana is one of those few planned capital cities which owe their existence exclusively to the whims of one man.

I don’t know if Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev wanted to be an architect when he was young. He studied to become an engineer, I have been told.

But isn’t it the desire of every plutocrat to leave his mark on the face of the earth – and I don’t just mean metaphorically?

If Russia’s Peter the Great could have St Petersburg, the least Kazakhstan’s uncontested ruler (since 1990) could have was Astana, whose flashy and glitzy buildings would bear testimony to his superior sense of style and astute planning for generations to come. Of course, all would be bankrolled by Kazakhstan’s oil and gas riches.

Some time after Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, he took the expert decision to move the capital from Almaty in the south to Akmola in the north. At the time, the president reportedly 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.

That’s one version of events. Another has it that he thought a prosperous, independent country like Kazakhstan ought to have its capital “in the centre” of the country, rather than on the border. Almaty, the old capital, was pleasantly situated in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountain range, and was famous for its apple orchards. But Akmola? It was about 1,000 km to the north—that is to say, toward Russia—and bitterly cold.

Well, I don’t buy either explanation, no matter how sensible they may sound, but never mind.

Akmola wasn’t exactly tabula rasa. It used to be a small Russian frontier settlement called Akmolinsk until the 20th century, when Stalin, in his great wisdom and callous disregard for human life, decreed that millions of ethnic Russians and Germans should be dumped onto the surrounding steppe to literally scrape a living from its soil. That’s when Akmola became an important railroad junction, allowing the Russians to better exploit the country’s mineral resources.

So why did President Nazarbayev choose Akmola for his new capital?

Well, he did not have many options, location-wise, I’d say. Kazakhstan was, and still is, sparsely populated. The vast country, the size of western Europe, is home to 15 million people. There are only two dozen cities with over a hundred thousand inhabitants. Akmola came in handy as it happened to be Kazakhstan’s second-largest city already. Which meant his bureaucrats could not put up much of a fight or dig in their heels when they were told to pack their bags and call in the movers.

For another, if you are planning a vertical city to impress the seen-it-all oil men and bankers you’d better chose a spot which is not as seismically active as Almaty. Shaky grounds and shonky construction don’t instil much confidence in home-buyers.

Today Astana, as Akmola was renamed in 1998, has swelled to accommodate about 700,000 people. Others say it is home to about a million. Make no mistake: it is a two-faced city. Given that space - or lack of it - was not an issue, Mr Nazarbayev didn’t have to knock the old Soviet buildings down. No renovation jobs for him. Instead, he just added a new town to the rambling old one.

As a result, one half of the city is still genuine Soviet identikit: blocks of grey flats with their festering facades, rotting windows and leaky pipes, criss-crossed by long-distance heat lines whose insulation padding has burst, all interspersed with single-storey houses where ramshackle outdoor loos grace the yards and the streets in front have never seen any tarmac. If you have toured the former Soviet Union, you know what I mean.

In contrast, the new Astana is, how shall I put this, pure Las Vegas, minus the gambling, and Mr Nazarbayev, the Steve Wynn of the steppe. Steve Wynn is the magnate behind Las Vegas’ casinos Golden Nugget, The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn, and Encore, in case you have never been to Las Vegas.

Astana’s architecture is all mock-this, mock-that and the opposite of understated. The streets are as wide as the Las Vegas Strip, lined by office high-rises and apartment towers, with a nod to Georges Hausmann here (the so-called French Quarter) and a nod to Stalin there (the head office of state-owned oil and gas company KazMunayGas is pure Stalinist Gothic).

I saw a high-rise which had a pagoda slapped on it, and another one resembling an opened book. As in Las Vegas, there is a pyramid. This one was built by Foster+Partners. It is called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, representing the world’s religious faiths and housing a 1,500-seat opera. Although it was only opened in 2006, I noticed that some of the outer panels were already broken. Will this building withstand the steppe’s harsh climate (-30 degrees in winter, +30 degrees in summer) for thousands of years like the Egyptian pyramids? I doubt it.

The similarities don’t end here. Las Vegas has the Stratosphere Tower (ca 350 metres) with its notorious thrill ride, while Astana has the Bayterek (105 metres), a weird, white structure which The New Yorker aptly compared to a giant badminton birdie, with a golden bird’s egg on top.

Aware that the well-heeled cannot survive on a diet of work and high culture alone, Mr Nazarbayev gave the British architect Norman Foster another assignment. He was to build the Khan Shatyr centre, a huge entertainment park for 10,000 people complete with indoor sand beach, shipped in all the way from the Maldives (allegedly), and wave pool. Where are Astana’s nouveau rich to go in their free time? Hiking in the steppe? Hardly. The exterior of the Khan Shatyr centre resembles a gigantic tent – looking a bit like Berlin’s Sony Center actually, which was built by Mr Foster’s rival Helmut Jahn. Here in Astana the tent is probably meant to celebrate the Kazak peoples’ nomadic past.

The view which intrigued me most was the one from the pyramid which underlines Mr Nazarbayev’s unerring political instincts for making a symbolic statement through architecture. Standing with my back to the supposedly multi-denominational temple, aka the pyramid, I faced Astana’s big new mosque across a street wide and straight enough for an impressive military parade. I forgot to ask if they have those still. These days, following the exodus of over two million ethnic Russians and Germans, Kazakhstan is predominantly Muslim. Mind you, few women wear a headscarf, if that’s anything to go by. The shiny white mosque is built for 8,000 people and will be opened later this year, following a fire in January.

Surprise, surprise. Mr Nazarbayev even thought of having parks. However, the fenced-in one I saw had plastic trees planted outside and looked like work on it had been abandoned a long time ago. I briefly wondered: who will ever walk in these parks? Mr Nazarbayev’s new Astana is not a city for flaneurs. Only the masses of minions, who service the buildings and who are bussed in each day on circuitous routes through town because there aren’t yet enough bus lines, can be seen walking in the new Astana. Those who employ them drive around in cars. Big SUVs, for sure. And they cause massive traffic jams.

The local taxi driver who took me around was a bit vague on what many of the new buildings were used for. He thought the pyramid actually was a shopping centre, which proves to show that he had never been inside. But he turned out to be a real-estate agent in disguise, rattling off the prices for flats in buildings as we drove by.

Not that I was in any buying mood.

I fear that Astana will never turn into a tourism hot-spot. Too far away from anywhere for the weekender. But the photos of Astana, which can be found on the web, are a real delight for the armchair traveller. As I said: Astana is quite a sight to behold.

 

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