As Peter the Great built St Petersburg on a swamp and Philip II of Spain turned a dusty village into Madrid, so Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, decreed that a rundown steppe town bang in the middle of nowhere should be transformed into the nation’s capital.
The decision to make Astana the capital was taken in July 1994, and the move began three years later. The city chosen for the world’s greatest architectural makeover had been in the grip of a long decline, inhabited largely by a Russian population of impoverished agricultural workers. Its concrete tower blocks were crumbling, the peasant housing like slums, and the infrastructure chronically rundown. Not to put too fine a point on it, the place was an absolute dump.
Moving the capital city
Suddenly, tens of thousands of government employees had to move north as various ministries transferred sections of their operation to the city over a period of two years. No capital has ever been relocated in such a short time. The president 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.
‘It took me about three years to change my mind about Astana as the city changed around me,’ says Akmaral Aidarbekova, a lawyer in the Ministry of Finance who relocated north from the old capital Almaty. ‘Now it feels like a real city, with cafés and restaurants and parks, with lots of things to do,’ she says. ‘I don’t even mind the winter now - it’s cold but also dry, and there are beautiful sunny days.’
‘I didn’t mind coming here,’ says Akmaral’s husband Maghzhan - known to his Western friends as Mac. ‘I felt very good about being at the beginning of something, involved in building a new capital for my young country. It felt like being part of the future rather than the past.’
Astana’s architectural style can best be described as idiosyncratic. The variety is a dizzying mix of clashing shapes and colours, yet is oddly suited to a nation made up of 100 ethnic groups following at least 30 different religions. The oriental post-modernism takes some getting used to, although the locals have domesticated all the thrusting modernity by giving many of the buildings homely nicknames according to their shape: a canary-yellow skyscraper is known as the Banana Building; seven squat cylindrical constructions are called the Seven Beer Barrels; and a pair of circular towers are the Ice Cream Cones.
In the centre of the city stands Baiterek Tower, a tall, spiky construction that cradles a glass and aluminium ball at its top. It’s the symbol of Astana and independent Kazakhstan, people take its lift up 97 symbolic metres - 1997 being the date of the move to the capital - to the dome for a clear view over city and steppe in every direction. Once at the top, it’s customary to approach the green malachite plinth that sits in its centre, upon which rests a disc made from five kilograms of solid silver bearing an imprint of the president’s hand crafted from two kilograms of solid gold. Visitors then place their own hand in the president’s palm before making a wish.
There is a panoramic view of the city from the tower and, in the distance, the vast wedding cake of domes and pillars of the Presidential Palace. Beyond the palace, a gigantic pyramid - the Pyramid of Peace - can be seen.
The pearl of Kazakhstan
One of the more immutable disadvantages of Astana is that it is a long way from anywhere. It’s like living on a remote island - there is a reason the steppe is referred to as a sea of grass. In a country the size of Western Europe, distances are enormous. People in the city resign themselves to three-hour drives to reach the closest resort areas. Some 106 miles to the southeast is a network of salt lakes that are home in spring and summer to vast flocks of pink flamingos. Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, covering 915 square miles, is a bird-watcher’s dream and a candidate as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
But the most popular weekend location for Astana residents wishing to escape their city is Burabay National Park, an area of lakes, hills and forest billed as ‘the pearl of Kazakhstan’ or even ‘Kazakhstan’s Switzerland’. Only steppe dwellers would consider its low granite hills to be Alpine; despite its undoubted beauty, it more resembles Finland’s lakes and forests.
‘Up here on the steppe you see natural phenomena you don’t see anywhere else,’ says Mac. ‘I’ve seen a rainbow at a temperature of -35°C, which was absolutely beautiful. And it’s big sky country, too - so you can see black clouds in one part of the sky and brilliant sunshine in another.’