Astana has surprised us. We were expecting an industrial city of the sort that we have grown used to in the Middle East. There are no unfinished buildings, other than those that are still surrounded by cranes. It is clean, bright and modern.
Our Kazakh friends have already told us that the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, wants it to be the next Dubai – a playground for the rich and famous. It’s not, but in failing it has gained much more charm.
We start our day at the Khan Shatyr shopping centre. It is a huge tent full of expensive western shops and knock offs of expensive western shops. With our back turned to it we look along a vast boulevard. Perhaps three kilometres away stands the presidential palace. This is the hyper-planned Millennium Axis.
Past an “I ❤ Astana” sign, which appears everywhere throughout the city, and under a huge arch, we can just make out the Bayterek. This is a tower that stands at the centre of the axis. We begin to wander towards it.
We start in a small park. Other than the sign stolen from New York, the public art seems to serve to remind Kazakhs of who they are. Two small statues show Central Asians with their feet turning into roots, planting them into the Kazakh soil. It is a small sign of the national myth-making that will come later.
Under the arch we pass some fountains. More and more Kazakh tourists are beginning to appear, along with some Slavs. I appear to be the only person who doesn’t speak Russian and so Anička is in charge of communicating. While there are more people on the streets everything is very relaxed. There is no hustle and bustle of most capital cities.
Next year, Astana is to host an Energy Expo. To celebrate this they have set up serried ranks of statues to represent each country sending a delegation. Each figure holds a globe with the image of a famous product from their country. We can find Great Britain, but no Czech Republic or Ireland.
Perhaps this is no surprise as the great and good of the British ruling class are intertwined with their corrupt counterparts in Kazakhstan. Much of Astana was built by by British companies who care more for profits than they do ethics.
The boulevard is lined by glass skyscrapers. Some are pretty, most are not. One huge complex runs for about half a kilometre. Its unconnected buildings perfectly aligned so that the roof forms a gentle slope. In little parks underneath traditional Kazakh animals are constructed from futuristic mirrors.
As we reach the square in which the Bayterek sits, dancers clothed in Morphsuits dance to Europop. Children play on climbing frames and within a cage. The crowds have gathered inside the 105metre tower and hordes are trying to clamber into its two lifts.
The Bayterek tower slowly curves from top to bottom. Its white cladding, covering the elevator shafts, turns into spikes meant to be reminiscent of a bird’s nest on top of a poplar tree. These spikes hold a golden orb, which represents an egg laid by the mythical bird Samruk. The tower itself is said to represent life.
We arrive in the orb crushed against the glass window of the lift. We are bathed in an odd sea green light cast by the golden glass. Now we can see much of the city. It is smaller than we expected and towards the outskirts it appears mmore like the place we expected.
On the second floor of Samruk’s egg a queue of people winds round a granite plinth. On top sits a gold carving of the president’s hand. The queue is so that you can place your hand in his and make a wish. Nazarbayev is that powerful.
After another crush in the lift down we continue towards the palace. A band rehearses in a large square. The choir is singing what could be a strange piece of seventies funk or the “Gonna fly now” refrain from the Rocky theme song.
The crowds are beginning to thin again. Perhaps they are unconsciously intimated from straying too close to the palace. The approach is guarded by two ginormous golden sentinels – the offices of the sovereign wealth fund and government ministries. They are nicknamed the beer cans by locals. These are flanked by huge office blocks that could be a modern Whitehall. The curve round the palace in a shield, imposing and unwelcoming.
As we enter the massive, empty square behind there is a sense of being in a different part of the city. There is now even more pomp and grandeur. Apart from the psychological effect of the architecture, there is no one to prevent us from entering.
The presidential palace is named Ак орда, or White Horde. It appears that Washington’s White House has been transplanted to Astana. It is surrounded by manicured gardens, a blue futurist concert hall, and a museum in the style of a Roman temple.
This appears to be a theme. Copies of buildings from all the great empires have been plonked down in the city. At the beginning of our walk stood another museum that appeared to be in a classical Greek style. Now, to our right, we can see a huge pagoda in the distance. Behind Nazarbayev’s palace stands a concrete and glass square pyramid beside what could be Berehynia’s column from Kiev.
It is clear that the Millennium Axis is a modern exercise in the formation of a creation myth. It constantly reminds Kazakhs that they live in a modern, well-to-do country, that their roots are firmly planted in the steppe, and that their beneficent president Nazarbayev will lead them to greatness.
Astana is not, and will never be, Dubai. Quite spectacularly it fails to hit its target. But in doing so it achieves a level of kitsch that gives it much more soul than the jewel of the Emirates. That is surely because Astana is not really designed for the rich and famous of the world, but it is the plaything of a dictator and his cronies.