Astana and Karaganda, Kazakhstan

Travelling 1200 kilometres and 21 hours by bus from Bishkek to Astana (plus another two hours by public transport after I was dropped off my Russia-bound bus unceremoniously just outside the city, too sleepy to attempt to figure out a more direct route), the differences are stark. Gone are the mountains, replaced with endless flat steppe. Flat flat flat. Nothing. It sure makes for a smooth car journey though, at least, and Kazakhstan, being a far more prosperous country, has some excellent roads — necessary, given that it’s the 9th largest country in the world. And being so far north, I found the temperature markedly colder, needing a jacket even in the day time.

That’s hardly the best way to begin to describe what the heck Astana is, the city that jarringly rises from the middle of nowhere to break the flat landscape.

Selected by first (current, and thus far only) president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev to be the capital city in 1997, replacing Almaty in the south to be further away from the earthquake-prone mountainous region and geopolitically closer to Russia, Astana (Kazakh for “capital”) has gone from a humble mid-sized northern city formerly known as Akmola, “white grave”, to a crazy, futuristic “Dubai of the steppe” in less than 20 years. Funded by oil money in this resource-rich country, no expense has been spared in creating whimsically large monuments, buildings, and boulevards to the whims of architects from around the world. The country may still be a developing one that could use the money elsewhere, but it’s hardly in dispute that the people of Kazakhstan are proud of their very, very unique capital city.

The so-called crown jewel of Nazarbayev’s “vision” is the Nurzhol Bulvar, a park-boulevard paved with gardens and fountains and surrounded by architecturally unique skyscrapers — leaning towers, curved facades, buildings with holes in them — and glitzy malls. On the western end is the tent-like Khan Shatyr mall, translucent and able to stay summer-like even in the coldest of winters. The eastern end has the blue-domed Presidential Palace and turquoise…ribbon-like? concert hall, flanked maybe 500 metres ahead by two golden…pillar things attached to the…wings?… of the enormous House of Ministries. And near the centre of it all is the Bayterek Monument, representing a white poplar tree topped by a golden egg of the bird of happiness from a traditional folk tale. The neighbouring National Archive is a building with a comically large egg on it, too.

The Bayterek Monument is just under 100 m tall, and glows in different colours at night. It’s also an observation tower, with the top platform featuring the handprint of Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev himself isn’t an architect, of course. But hilariously, he did sketch out ideas for some of these buildings, the scribbles of which are proudly displayed in the brand-new National Museum… which also dedicates at least two or three rooms to him and his life and photos of him looking at stuff and paintings of him or whatever. Everywhere you look, in the museum or in the city or in the countryside, you’ll also find quotes written on billboards or the sides of buildings anywhere between three words and a sentence long of generic optimistic platitudes (“Strive for the future!”), credited to him like words of wisdom.

The rest of the museum is a marvel too. Though not very informative and lacking narrative, it’s likely one of the most expensive museums I’ve ever been in, and incredibly flashy — touchscreen displays cue videos on the wall in Russian, Kazakh, and English, featuring fancy text-graphics and transitions all extoling the virtues of Nazarbayev. (Other rooms lightly touch on medieval history, contemporary art, the Soviet years, Kazakh jewellery, and the national symbol-status Golden Man — a Scythian warrior prince/ss decked out in gold — found in Kazakhstan’s most famous archaelogicial dig.) There are even book-shaped touchscreens which let you scroll through virtual copies of books, holograms of historical objects, computers where you can seamlessly swipe through 360 degree pictures, and floors of TV screens. Every hour or two, the exhibit on Astana features a room-sized model of the city, emerging building-by-building from the ground in what I can only say is a jawdropping multimedia show. In the museum’s main hall, a large golden eagle — the symbol of the country, featured on its flag underneath a golden sun — flaps its wings as a Kazakhstan-shaped screen displays patriotic images (of Nazarbayev) to patriotic music.

Give the man a bit of credit, he’s taken Kazakhstan to become the richest country in Central Asia, using its abundant natural resources, and has the goal of making it into the top 30 of global economies by 2050. He’s also a very popular leader, as I found out while talking to various different locals, who would bring up his accomplishments without me even asking. That’s not to say there aren’t some very problematic issues though — he’s been their only leader since even before Kazakhstan became an independent country 25 years ago, opposition keeps getting mysteriously disappeared, and he wins elections with crazy 95%+ support. Hmm. But the cult of personality does run deep, and it’s only reinforced.

There is much he does do right. Kazakhstan is a nation of 130 ethnicities, with Kazakhs and Russians only forming 64% and 23% of the population respectively, and by and large pretty harmonious at that. Going even further, most people are bilingual in both languages, and that means even the minority Russians speak the Turkic-language Kazakh. It’s multi-ethnic in the way North America is — which is a great thing for residents, but unfortunate for me as I fall into one of its resident ethnicities, and I was consistently mistaken for a local on the street. (This means, unlike other foreign tourists I talked to, I am completely ignored when walking down the street, as they assume I want to mind my own business. I was asked for directions in Russian or even Kazakh many times a day! As soon as I opened my mouth with my terrible Russian, people would realise their mistake and immediately turn friendly and polite.)

It’s also a resolutely multi-religious nation. Near the National Museum, the latticed Palace of Independence and Kazak Eli monument (complete with a bronze relief of Nazarbayev at the base!), and the incredibly large National Mosque (like the rest of the Stans, the population is primarily Muslim, but not visibly so, either in name only or to a far less conservative degree; in fact, Kazakhstan unabashedly has a hedonistic side to it too), the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation hosts the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions every three years in the room at the very top of the pyramid.

I took a brief tour inside, and it’s really an architectural wonder — and that’s aside from being one of the few buildings in the world with sideways elevators, on rails at a 60 degree angle! There’s a concert hall at the bottom, lit by windows through the floor several floors up, which in turn are lit by the windows facing outside in Kazakhstan’s flag colours, blue and gold. The top of the pyramid features a garden, a private elevator only for Nazarbayev (of course), and the blue and gold windows up top feature 130 doves, visible only from inside, representing Kazakhstan’s diversity.

As amazing as the new city is — and I emphasize, all I’ve been describing is the new city — it’s not quite for me. The boulevards are large and spacious, with few people to fill the spaces, and walking distances are enormous even if you can see the building you’re walking towards; the car reigns supreme. And though the variety and quality of food is excellent (especially since I had one of the best pizzas in my life courtesy of a chef from Napoli), prices are high. This is a city for the rich. Its uniqueness (rather than simply “biggest of everything”) and the fact that it feels more lived-in makes it more likeable to me than Dubai though, and given than Astana is hosting Expo 2017 with the theme of “Future Energy” and putting itself on the world stage in its highest profile yet, I do look forward to seeing how it will progress in the future.

Astana does have an “old” (hardly) city though, which I found a bit more charming, even as it begins to succumb to the largesse and excess of the new city. Suburbia here consists primarily of rich folks again, though the less well-off do have Soviet-style apartment buildings further from the centre. Restaurants, stores, and coffee shops are walkable distances, a tad less pricey than in the new city, and frankly far more down-to-earth: I spent an afternoon getting a Philly cheesesteak from a stand, ice cream from another, plus coffee and cake from a simple cafe. Simple, cheap, and delicious! There’s a beautiful riverside promenade featuring a “Sun Fountain” show every weekend too, bringing out very PDA-happy dating couples (quite unusual for Asia!), groups of friends, families, and all sorts of folks. Younger folks strum their guitars, people of all ages take selfies.

Of course, the old city wouldn’t be Kazakhstan without the president’s first palace-turned-museum, featuring rooms of presents from foreign dignitaries, photos of him with them, photos of him holding keys to cities, national awards, and being bestowed countless other fancy titles and objects of dubious legitimacy.

But this old/new divide continues further down the ethos of the country. As forward-thinking as Astana (and Almaty, but I’ll get to that in another entry) presents itself, some things seem downright baffling and a relic of the past. For example, the visa regime is entirely baffling, and in my case, required me to waste several hours registering myself at a migration office, filling forms available only in Russian or Kazakh with little to no help from anyone, jostle around a giant crowd of other people filling out various other forms, and wait to pick up my passport later in the day — all of this required for a tourist! And like most large cities in Central Asia, official public transport and taxis are lacking: if you don’t want to wait for a bus (or can’t figure out the routes) or one of the rare real taxis, you hold out your hand, and within seconds, a car will pull over and ask where you’re going. This is actually how transport works, and how people get around. It seems like nearly half the cars out there are gypsy taxis! Props for convenience, but the risk factor is always there.

Okay, so this is a stretch of a segue, but the past and its continuing effects goes far deeper than that, all thanks to the Soviet Union. 200 km south of Astana in the city of Karaganda, the Ecological Museum (targeted for children) had displays on the environmental effects of some of the industries the Soviet Union initiated in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately for me, everything was in Russian and no English guides were on hand that day, but just a glimpse at the pictures and a visit to the nearby Karaganda Oblast Museum reveals plenty: mining practices, dependence on coal (an interesting contrast to the Expo 2017 theme), chemical safety, the critically endangered saiga antelope (the cute one with the weird nose)… Parts of eastern Kazakhstan around the city of Semey were used as a nuclear testing facility, with 460 detonated bombs without warning villagers, leaving both environmental damage and severe health effects that continue to last. And central Kazakhstan continues to host the formerly-Soviet, now-Russian space launch facility of Baikonur; the museum had on display space shuttle debris found on the steppe, and I was able to touch all of it!

And 35 km outside of Karaganda lies one of the most damaging legacies of Soviet rule — well, specifically Stalin. The village of Dolinka is home to the Museum of Victims of Political Repression, housed in the building formerly used to administer the Karlag prison labour camps, one of the largest gulags (glavnoye upravleniye lagerey, or “main administration of camps”) in the USSR.

Seizing power in 1918 during the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks began rounding up anyone deemed to be a political enemy: intellectuals, clergy, and opponents of the regime, no matter how far down the chain. Concurrently, there was a disastrous famine, caused by war, drought, and Stalin’s collectivisation of non-agricultural nomads into agricultural settlements, which led to the deaths of over one million and the emigration of another million (nearly half the population) nomads to China, Mongolia, other then-Soviet stans. The remaining people who stayed attempted several revolts, all quelled, and thousands were killed or arrested and thrown into the Karlag system.

In a further attempt at political stability, everyone living on border regions of the USSR was deemed to be a potential saboteur. Germans, Poles, Koreans, Iranians, and countless other groups (with eye-poppingly-large charts showing the numbers of each in one of the museum rooms) were thus deported from the far fringes and made to move into Karlag — a precursor of the multi-ethnic mix that still continues now, and one that left Kazakhs for years as the minority in their own country. (After Karlag was closed in 1953, many of these other minorities stayed and even more arrived due to the Virgin Lands Campaign, where the government brought in more people and set up vast tracts of Kazakhstan’s land to be used for agriculture, as the Soviet Union didn’t have enough food to feed itself. Yields were initially sky high, but sank quickly.)

Prisoners were variously made to work on agriculture, infrastructure, textiles, mines, and even war weapons production depending on each subcamp, and were responsible for building much of what constitutes the city of Karaganda today. (As museum dioramas and the model prison demonstrate, they also had to deal with walking tens of kilometres to and from work each day with a set curfew, few meals, a ban on sitting or lying down outside of designated hours, wooden planks for a bed, and a light that never turns off. There was also a model torture room complete with ominous music, rather creepy to be in even as a recreation.) Among the prisoners were also academics and researchers, some of whom did discover some radical innovations in agricultural yields and physics. Wives of political prisoners were separated into another camp (ALZhIR), and also separated from their children, who would be taken away for “education”, often only reuniting when a child died in poor conditions.

There were glimmers of entertainment for prisoners. They had access to a small, obviously restricted library, and were also allowed to stage musical, dance, and theatrical performances… under a watchful eye, of course.

Outside the museum, the village lives on. I later found out that some of the “houses” I walked among were actually gulag barracks. Hard to imagine in an area that looks like an idyllic countryside.

But yeah, this is how the Kazakhstan of now came about. An ethnic identity, borders, and gulag-built infrastructure “courtesy” of Stalin; a cosmopolitan ethnic mix thanks to deportations; agricultural, mining, and space industries built on the USSR foundations; and vast reserves of oil that the Soviet regime never got to. And with Astana, you can clearly see that independent Kazakhstan has got their own ideas. Despite the terrible circumstances and questionable political climate, it’s not hard to see that they’ve built themselves a promising and rising country in just 25 years.

One thought on “Rising

  1. Interesting read, thanks! I’ve too been to Astana, even though the -25C made my exploration a tad less deep than yours… I think I’ve now got to return to see the rest!

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