We didn’t think that we’d be back in Kazakhstan for a while, but we’ve returned to Astana – for two months.
After a spending a few days to settled into our flat, and work out exactly how the public transport works, we set out to reach a part of Astana that we’d failed to visit last year. The right bank of the Ishim River.
The wind blows a gale while we cross the bridge on Syghanaq street – Astana is a very windy city – to the Presidential Park. We march through, past the great pyramid in its centre, and on to the Hazrat Sultan Mosque.
The mosque is the second largest in the whole of Central Asia, and it is incredibly beautiful. It was only built in 2009 but it has been designed in a classical Islamic style, unlike most of Astana’s post-modern architecture.
Four white minarets soar into the sky and a huge dome, topped by a golden crescent and covered in intricate tiles. The mosque can hold five-thousand worshippers for normal prayers, but this grows to ten-thousand on holidays.
Hazrat Sultan is a title given to Khoja Ahmed Yasawi; the Sufi mystic who introduced Islam to Central Asia. Last year we visited his mausoleum in the steppe town of Turkestan. Tamerlane, the ruler at the time, never completed the tiling.
Astana’s mosque is flatter that the huge structure in Turkestan, which has no minarets. And it is white, rather than the red brick of the shrine. However, the tiles set on Yasawi’s resting place are in the complex, blue, Persian style.
There are flashes of Persian tiles across the mosque – particularly on the entrance arch and columns by the doors. It appears as if it has stood for hundreds of years, rather than eight.
We avoid the trickle of speeding traffic as we cross to Independence Square – built to celebrate Kazakhstan’s freedom from the USSR in 1991.
A huge pillar rises out of the centre – the Kazakh Eli monument. A golden Samruk sits on the top. Samruk is the mythical Kazakh eagle who laid the golden egg that forms the pinnacle of the Bayterek in the centre of Astana. From her perch ninety-one metres off the ground, she stares directly at her nest – perhaps five kilometres away.
The pillar is ninety-one metres high to represent the year that Kazakhstan gained its independence – 1991.
Because it is such a new city, Astana was rigorously planned – it was only founded in 1997. The Millennium Axis on Nurzhol Boulevard is directly in line with the Khan Shatyr, the Presidential Palace, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the Kazakh Eli monument. It is a straight line of architecture that runs for miles.
The mosque, the Palace of Independence and the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan surround Independence Square, but we’re crossing the road to the park and the pyramid instead.
British architect Norman Foster designed the pyramid and it holds the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. It’s as ugly as a dead crow but the park surrounding it offers magnificent views over central Astana.
The pyramid holds a music hall and large meeting room, based on the UN assembly in New York. Every three years, the world’s religious leaders hold a meeting here. It’s said to be useless, but it’s a nice idea; Kazakhstan desperately wants a foothold to clamber onto the world stage.
We rush past it and into the park where we find an umbrella sky lining some of the paths. Mind that I’m unsure if it is the official Umbrella Sky art project that tours the world from Águeda in Portugal.
And with that we hop on a bus back into town for a coffee in Traveller’s. This is a Russian chain that helped keep Anička sane when she lived in Yakutsk. Hopefully, we don’t need it to perform the same task over the next few months.
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