In Astana did Nazarbayev a sterile pleasure dome decree.
The early 19th Century Cossack settlement in the northern steppe was originally known as Akmolinsk, then Akmola, where it was home to about a dozen gulags, including the ALZHIR camp, home to wives of traitors of the motherland. That’s pretty specific.
In the early 1960’s it became Tselinograd, “Virgin Lands,” in reference to Khruschev’s plan to exponentially boost agriculture in the region by rerouting rivers and clusterfucking a fragile ecosystem (which gives an interesting idea of what the politburo thought of virgins).
And following independence and a brief stint again as Akmola, President Nazarbayev announced that the name would change again to reflect its evolution as the country’s new capital, and so it was inspirationally renamed “Astana,” the Kazakh word for “capital.”
Ottawa can credit or condemn Astana for taking over the title of world’s second coldest capital city, after Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. Winter temperatures regularly drop to -40 degrees, and temperatures can freeze for as much as half the year. The city’s average temperature is 35 degrees Fahrenheit. And even during my warm visit, there is always always always a strong wind because it’s in the middle of thousands of miles of barren steppe.
So, now President Nazarabayev (head of state since the Soviet days) has an enormous canvas upon which to build a Singapore-style steel & glass fantasopolis in the steppe. But Singapore still has the historic nook & cranny restaurants and communities that carry the culture of a dozen different peoples. Astana’s restaurants have all the cultural identity of a Busch Gardens café on steroids—whimsical fantasies implemented in arbitrary architecture. Take a note: the best Italian restaurants seldom have 30-foot pillars out front.
My friend Talgat and his colleagues generously drove me through laps around the city—the grand velodrome in the shape of a bike helmet, the new soccer stadium with retractable roof, and Alau ice palace, with allegedly the fastest ice on the planet.
Below are a few of my favorites. When you’ve suddenly got money coming out the wazoo and decide to dream up a frozen desert Xanadu, it’s interesting to see what comes out of your wazoo.
1. Under the Big Top: Khan Shatyr
The world’ s biggest tent and home to a shopping mall with an aquapark on the top floor, complete with heated sand from the Maldives. Hang out for a weekend afternoon for $40 (towels and bathrobes extra).
2. Back to the Egg: the Bayterek Monument
Long ago, the magic bird of happiness laid its egg in a poplar tree of life. That’s the sun, which gets swallowed by the dragon Aydahar. And so stands this steel-girdered, 97m tree cradling a 22m-wide golden ball, from which you can view the new capital through gold-colored glasses. But that’s not all; you can also put your hand in bronze imprint of the president’s palm in a table that looks like it’s going to open up a Stargate (photo at bottom).
3. Real Sharks, Fake Dinosaurs: Duman
An animatronic adventure to meet King Kong, dinosaurs, and some sort of giant reptiles lip-synching “I Like to Move It.” In the main dome, you can learn a bit about other cultures from the various representations, such as the Greek Parthenon, Great Wall of China, and a Native American wigwam: “the cupola like dwelling of wooden Indians of North America.” (See photo at top.) Three-million liters of water and a 70m walkway below sharks, fish, and some drowning Arabian princess in a dive mask highlight the Duman’s oceanarium.
4. The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
77m, 5-story pyramid, with an opera house in the basement with retractable roof into a 4-story atrium, crowned with a haloed conference table surrounded by glass-pyramid peak, covered in decals of doves. If someone misbehaves, that person can be tossed into the middle ring to their doom, all the way to the opera house, where–during off hours–there lives a Kazakh rancor.
See the complete Astana photo collection on Flickr.