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Astana A Great, New Capital Emerges in the Asian Heartland

By Matt Schaeffer


Astana, Kazakhstanstana - Twelve years ago the city that became Astana was an obscure, regional, industrial city in the northern hinterlands of Kazakhstan. Today, one of the great capitals of the world rises from the heart of the Asian steppe.

Astana is a stunning, concrete example of the achievements of Kazakhstan in its first two decades as an independent nation. And it is also a symbol of aspiration and hope for the other emerging nations of Central Asia.

From nowhere, a breathtaking cityscape has been erected as if overnight. The result is a city that is a sightseer’s dream. But it is no empty, sterile collection of arid monuments. In little more than a decade, Kazakhstan’s new capital has developed a vibrant personality of its own. Its people rejoice in their sense of life’s potential. Astana is a city where people live life to the fullest and dream of the possibilities for the future as expansive and as free of limits as the endless steppe that the city’s futuristic architecture celebrates.

Astana is a city to be experienced and enjoyed. It is not meant to be passively observed. And it won’t let its visitors simply stand back. It draws them in.

This is not just a new city. It is a young person’s city. The residential neighborhoods teem with energetic children. Teenagers and young lovers throng the great embankment curving along the sweep of the Ishim (Esil) River that is already one of the great cityscapes of the world.

The night life of the city is already a magnet for young swingers. A constellation of night clubs and bars attracts socialites from across this nation the size of Western Europe. Parents of young children and more sedate tourists can explore the wide variety of restaurants, from the luxurious to the affordable. These include small neighborhood cafes and bars whose chefs still turn out spectacular dishes of goulash, borsch, and both beef and veal stroganoff on demand.

Astana is the creation, the vision and the passion of one man: Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who threw himself into all aspects of the planning of the city, and it shows. He wanted to get away from the drab, Stalinist and Brezhnev-era, neo-brutalist concrete designs that were stamped out on the cities of Soviet Asia, as if by mass production, during Communist times. Nazarbayev was determined to see Astana rise as a city of hope and joy, a city of breathtaking architecture that was also built on a human scale, whose people could enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Mr. Nazarbayev did not merely hire the best architects in the world to shape Astana’s soul. He worked closely with them to create the concepts that have redefined the image of Central Asia for the new century.

Khan Shatyr

Working closely with the late, great Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and with British architect Norman Foster, Nazarbayev fostered the creation of a spacious, spectacular city celebrating old and new – the rich, ageless past of Central Asia and its potential to serve the world through the new millennium. His Astana combines the magnificent Islamic themes of cities, from Kazan in Tatarstan to Abu Dhabi, into a style that is ultimately all its own.

A long, leisurely embankment has been built along the curving sweep of the Ishim (Esil) River. Merely beautiful by day, but when its hotels and high rise apartment buildings are floodlit by night, it attains a magic of its own. On warm nights, hundreds of mostly young people and their sweethearts stroll along the embankment until past midnight, and the available cuisine ranges from Michelin Guide-quality restaurants with classical music, or live jazz, to vendors selling pretzels and exceptionally sweet, soft ice cream.

The government complex in Astana has been built from scratch over the past decade, and it is one of the most spectacular in the world. The two Parliament buildings (the Majilis and the Senate) face each other, and the Ak Orda presidential palace makes up the apex of a triangle.

Nazarbayev gave physical expression to his strategy of placing Kazakhstan as the communications and cultural hub of Central Asia. He promoted the construction of a 62 meter high, glass-sided pyramid officially known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony, or more colloquially as the Pyramid, which houses the Institute of Cultures and Religion.

Like all the new public buildings of Astana, the Pyramid is spectacularly lit up by night – glowing in succession with what seem like all the colors of the rainbow. It contains the national opera house, a national museum of culture and a “university of civilization.”

Baiterek TowerTowering nearly 105 meters (350 feet) above the city is the spectacular Baiterek Tower. It gives the best bird’s eye view of Astana and the comparison is not accidental. The unique golden dome at the top evokes a bird’s nest where the mythical Samruk bird laid its egg.

Astana also celebrates the culture of the wider world. The new Kazakhstan Concert Hall is, at first sight, like a daughter of Sydney Opera House with its turquoise blue, sweeping, enfolding wing-walls. Designed by Italian architect Manfredo Nicoletti, it opened in 2009 and, with 3,500 seats, it is one of the largest concert halls in the world for classical music. Its size is not overlyambitious. Classical music has long been passionately popular among the Kazakh people, and since independence the government has used its oil and gas revenues to build a network of musical schools, conservatories and concert halls around the republic. Traditional Kazakh music, rock and jazz also are regularly performed there.

Kazakhstan will become the chair of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in June 2011, and the architecture of Astana also expresses how the Kazakh people have re-embraced their Muslim heritage since breaking free from atheistic Communism.

Astana’s Islamic Center with its core Nur-Astana Mosque only opened in 2005 but looks much older. It was sponsored by the Emir of Qatar and contains a mosque and madrassah. Also attractively lit by night, it is a testimony to Kazakhstan’s prominent and comfortable identity as a moderate, but mainstream, Muslim nation. The beautiful mosque has four minarets rising to heights of 63 meters each (about 200 feet) and can hold 5,000 worshippers.

The Ak Orda (in the Kazakh language, “white horde” or “white headquarters”) is the official workplace of the President of the Republic. Erected in 2004, it rises 80 meters and has a total area of 36,720 square meters. The Ak Orda is striking for its hall of marble and granite shaped like a yurt. A golden hall, evoking memories of the fabled Golden Horde of the steppes, is reserved for diplomatic conferences and negotiations with visiting dignitaries.

Astana is a dream city in which to walk. It is rapidly growing, full of life and has teeming, and not always carefree, traffic that produces its share of fumes. But for a modern city of almost 800,000 people, the air is remarkably fresh and clear, swept clean every day by the bracing steppe winds.

Take care to visit if you can in spring or fall. The summer and winter are times of the most intense temperature extremes, ranging from -35 C in winter to +30-35 C at the height of summer. Heating and air conditioning systems in apartment buildings, hotels and all public restaurants, night clubs and other gathering places are designed to meet these challenges. The thriving social, entertainment and cultural centers of the city can be enjoyed at any time of the year. But Astana is also a pedestrian city, and its magnificent panoramas are best enjoyed in leisurely exploration on foot. The capital boasts many parks as well as spectacular architecture and these should be savored in the more temperate seasons of autumn and spring.

Despite its astonishingly rapid growth, Astana remains one of the most remarkably secure and safe of major world capitals and modern cities. Teenage girls hitch rides without a second thought and the youngest children play in the playgrounds that accompany all apartment complexes without any parental supervision. The sense of mutual support and alertness on the part of neighbors and ordinary citizens remains strong.

Less than half a year old, the latest stunning addition to the city’s physical wonders is the amazing Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center that opened in July. Designed like a colossal traditional Kazakh tribal nomadic tent, it towers 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) above its elliptical base, thus apparently bowing to the unforgiving steppe winds. Norman Foster designed that too. The Khan Shatyr holds a park, a shopping and an entertainment area with squares and cobbled streets.

Even when the temperature is -35 C and the Eurasian winds are screaming outside in the height of winter, the residents and visitors to the city can stay snug and warm under the Khan Shatyr’s sheltering roof, fabricated from material that allows sunshine to penetrate. It is a domed, enclosed Asian answer to Disneyland. And it carries a message of the ancient fortitude of the Kazakh people. For millennia, they have endured, survived and even prospered through the extremes of one of the harshest continental climates on earth. The enclosed facilities of the Khan Shatyr and its celebration of the yurt (a traditional nomadic felt tent) – that symbol of Kazakh adaptability – testifies that these qualities survive and flourish in the 21st century world.

There is more to come. Visitors discovering Astana’s wonders should also remember, in the words of the famous American entertainer Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

For Astana, like Shanghai, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, among the great, new cities of rising Asia, is still a work in progress. Ambitious new construction plans are already underway that will not be completed for 20 years.

First time visitors to Astana quickly realize they have entered the most Undiscovered Country of all – the Future.

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