Astana, the Jewel of the Steppes
The second coldest capital city in the world, yet with one of the warmest welcomes
, Astana has been transformed into a dream city for this emerging Kazakh nation in the blink of an eye. One of the most astounding cityscapes located anywhere between Beijing and Moscow has come into being in just under 15 years, thanks to the growing economy of the country as well as the political will of its leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev, a visionary behind the new capital, and the new Kazakhstan
Located on what were vast unpopulated plains a mere decade ago, this contemporary city is exemplary of Kazakhstan’s proud march into the 21st Century, with ultra-modern designs dominating the horizon for miles around. Pioneers such as Sir Norman Foster and the acclaimed Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa have blended futuristic designs with elements of traditional Kazakh style, resulting in a unique skyline which leaves the incoming visitor in no doubt that they are coming to a very progressive place, yet one also in touch with its past.
Its name, which literally means capital in Kazakh, is synonymous with success, the Astana cycling team having been major achievers in international sport for five years. Their sky blue clothing and corresponding design based on the Kazakh flag have introduced Astana to the world, not just as a city in Kazakhstan, but as one equal to the very best. This is a city fit to host high profile events involving leading sportsmen, politicians, academics and business people. Astana is a prosperous place to live and an exciting place to visit, and this is not simply because it is a model of amazing transition, but because it has so much to offer.
Life in Astana
Astana is an all-inclusive cosmopolitan city with a balance of Kazakhs, Russians and other ethnic groups all of whom live together comfortably with the same degree of tolerance and intercultural harmony associated with its southern counterpart, Almaty
. Although it is for the most part a more modern city, it takes after its predecessor, the former capital Almaty by encompassing a range of periods including Soviet times, these seen in the older areas of the city. These districts are far from just a part of history, instead they are full of life and colour with residents and visitors spending their leisure time in cafes, restaurants and parks, the most visited of which is the beautiful City Park. Here, as in the rest of the city, people attend events
and take full advantage of the improving recreational facilities.
If it is true that Moscow never sleeps, Astana itself is far from sleepy, and its reputation for fun has reached ears many miles away. Despite the distance, people come from other parts of Kazakhstan to join in this fun. It is a place of work and of leisure, a place to make money and a place to spend it, not only in the world class shopping centres but so too in stylish coffee lounges, classy restaurants to suit all tastes, extravagant nightclubs and glamorous bars.
Meanwhile, in the newer localities, mostly on the south bank of the famous River Ishim, intense building work is in progress and the skyline is punctuated with impressive buildings both new, and brand new. They offer all that people need, and it would be fair to say that there is the best of everything. Astana has the best shopping, the best dining, the best hotels and the best entertainment across the whole region.
The concert hall says it all, even before you see a performance there. The ultra-modern design, by the Italian Nicoletti Manfredi, bears an intended resemblance to the petals of a flower which not only have aesthetic appeal but also a practical purpose, protecting the functions from the colder weather of winter. 3,500 people can see any one performance in the main hall, many being sold out night after night.
As the capital’s population steadily increases, the standard of living follows, and the quality of life, already high, is similarly improving day by day.
Astana has the potential to leave you speechless. This, not because ten short years ago many of its attractions had not even been conceived of, but because many of them are quite breath-taking. The emblematic Baiterek quickly become the icon of Kazakhstan after its construction. A globe shaped feature, symbol of the poplar tree, it is a tourist attraction popular with foreign visitors and native Kazakhs alike, the central feature in an area based on the design of the U.S. Mall in Washington DC. In 2010, in front of Baiterek, 2.2 million people visited the Exhibition of United Buddy Bears. Behind it, are the Presidential Palace and other government buildings, central players in the new and flourishing Kazakhstan, a place whose mighty capital is far from finished.
In Astana, change is constant, with not only something new to see every day, but something new being completed every day. Yet despite this fact, the legacy of the city is always on the mind of the planners, and Astana’s new skyline was envisioned and established with permanence in mind. One such recent addition is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (The Pyramid) which is a commitment to the togetherness and amity of the people of Kazakhstan, and in turn, the whole world. It accommodates space devoted to the main religions, as well as hosting representatives of the world’s major faiths in global conferences which promote peace and harmony, the very spirit of Kazakhstan itself.
Other city attractions include the highly prominent Islamic Centre which houses a large mosque and Islamic library, while there are also notable constructions dedicated to other faiths, including an impressive Orthodox cathedral and equally impressive synagogue.
A short distance away from these is the inspiring new presidential palace, Ak Orda, which dominates a massive stretch of the south bank. Despite its grandeur, it too pays tribute to the roots of its nation, with an interior hall based around the design of a yurt, known always to make an impression on visiting dignitaries and heads of state. Astana is very much the seat of the Kazakh government, but its influence is more than local. For most of the year, it hosts inter-governmental and international events, meetings, conferences and summits attended by representatives from all over the world, as well as those from agencies and foreign embassies already domiciled here.
Across Water Green Boulevard, worth a leisurely stroll in itself, is the new and world famous Khan Shatyr Centre, given mostly to retail but also to a large extent to entertainment. Busy every day, and packed on public holidays, this structure qualifies as a tent, with its roof adopting the shape and function of a canopy, and being 150 metres high, it naturally qualifies as the world’s biggest of its kind. Boy scouts may be disappointed, although few others will. This amazing centre has everything bar the traditional camp fire, from quality shops to excellent restaurants, a state-of-the-art gym and even a beach, all visible from the roller coaster which skirts round the circumference. But while this may not move so fast, don’t let it deceive you, Astana is a place in very impressive transition.
Astana is very well designed to function in spite of the extreme weather it can experience. Summers are mild and comfortable, while in winter there is the potential for the mercury to drop as low as minus 50° Celsius. Add to this the stiff breeze which sweeps over the plains and the modern infrastructure proves its worth as life continues as normal, and inhabitants find going about their daily business to be without serious difficulty.
Just 250 km from Astana is a wonderful place, renowned the whole nation across. Borovoye, a beauty spot with many lakes and mountains is reminiscent of Swiss landscapes and offers as much pleasure and relaxation as anyone could wish for. It is a several-day round trip from some Kazakh cities, including Almaty, yet people make this journey to relax in these unrivalled natural surroundings, before heading back to the hive of activity that is Kazakhstan today.
The international airport does not let the side down either, designed like much of the city by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Located close to the city, the journey both to and from Astana Airport begins and ends with some impressive architectural views, not least the terminal building which is not only one of the newest in the world but also one of the most interesting. Scheduled flights include those to places such as Turkey, Britain, Thailand and Russia, with more international routes planned in response to increasing demand. In turn, visas are becoming easier to get, with the necessary documentation in support, making preparation for any stay here more comfortable from the outset.