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Astana: An Ultra Modern Capital City Right in the Middle of Vast Empty Grasslands

BY Gavin Alexander January 26, 2019
Astana, Kazakhstan.

Baiterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan. (Torekhan Sarmanov / Flickr)

Kazakhstan is literally translated as the ‘Land of the Wanderers’. This perfectly illustrates the nomadic history of a central Asian territory which has been inhabited by humans for over a million years, with modern Homo Sapiens starting to evolve around 40,000 years ago from today. In this time a great number of nomadic tribes such as the Scythians, Mongols and Persians have vied for power on the seemingly endless, golden steppes. Now, with the centralization of power, industrialization and the convenience of city life, these wandering ways of the past are being replaced by city-dwelling.

Many capitals of the world are based on links to bygone eras whereas the Kazakh capital is unique in the sense that it is not the most historical setting but rather the most strategic for modern expansionism. If successful perhaps this will become the new standard for choosing a principal city. Little is known around the world of the city called Astana – the capital for little over twenty years. But this is changing very quickly.

Opera house, Astana.

Opera house, Astana. (inga / Flickr)

Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana was announced to the world as the new Kazakh capital in 1998 and is now one of the most economically modern cities in not just Central Asia but on the planet. It is a planned city, very distinctive, in the case that it changed shape even after becoming capital, a feat spearheaded by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. This began in 1998 when the Kazakh government organised a design competition, calling for urban planners from all corners of the globe to send their ideas of a new image for Kazakhstan. Kurokawa won with a truly inspirational and economical view of modernism as well as metabolism, along with integrating the old city.

Astana downtown.

Astana downtown. (Ben Dalton / Flickr)

History of Kazakhstan

Nomadism started to dwindle in 1830 and what is now called Astana started to take form when a Siberian branch of Cossacks – the legendary soldiers – built a defensive formation. This was when Kazakhstan, like many other central Asian nations, moved under the sphere of influence of Imperial Russia. Before this, it was initially a settlement of Akmoly (suspected to mean White Grave in Kazakh) a small agricultural town which later became Akmolinsk. During the Soviet era, Astana would have a further rise of standing, helped (or hindered depending on one’s viewpoint) due to its location, relatively close to the Russian border.

During the World Wars, many factories had to be abandoned in the west of Soviet Russia and were relocated to Kazakhstan for protection. Eventually, it would become Tselinograd to further illustrate the governance of Russia and progress of the Virgin Lands Campaign – a method of imperialising new lands for agriculture. This came from the Russian ruler of the time Nikita Khrushchev with Tselinograd implemented as the administrative seat of said operation. This is where many Soviet-style buildings were developed and imprinted themselves on the land – the famous Mnogo-Etazhkis (many-floors) high-rise residential blocks which still remain today. After the dissolution of the USSR, cities like Astana began to regain their Kazakh status. The president made an announced that the former Tselinograd would become the new capital – taking over from Almaty in the south – as early as 1994 in a move that would shock many.

A journalist, visiting in 2008 for UK publication Telegraph Travel, James Mackintosh, experienced that the former-Soviet satellite city retains several Russian qualities, or rather, ghosts of the past from another viewpoint. This includes a German diaspora whose ancestors were exiled to Central Asia during Stalin’s rule.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Astana.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana. (Ninaras / Wikipedia Commons)

A modern capital

Kazakhstan became independent from the USSR in 1991 and has retained the same president ever since. This is Nursultan Nazarbayev – the leader of the Kazakh Communist Party even before the split – a man who once received 97.7% of the vote. The nation has become richer and richer in recent years fueled by vast discoveries of oil and gas. Although a huge realm – the largest landlocked country in the world – its population is only around 16 million. So with money to burn, the government demanded that many extravagant features were to be created, to propel Kazakhstan into the world of tomorrow.It was deemed a strange move to make Astana the chief city because it lies in the middle of nowhere.Many favour the style and tradition of the old capital Almaty but a threat of earthquakes meant that Astana would be the site for new developments. Another factor is the large Russian community living there as well as being relatively closer to the Chinese superpower to the east. A more psychological reason is explained or perhaps alibied by a local architect. According to Serik Rustambekov, the intention of these projects matches the Kazakhpsyche.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Astana.

Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Astana. It is also the largest mosque in Central Asia. (Alex J. Butler / Flickr)

Entrance of Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Astana.

The entrance of Hazrat Sultan Mosque. (Ninara / Flickr)

Interior of Hazrat Sultan Mosque, Astana.

Interior of Hazrat Sultan Mosque. (U.S. Department of State / Flickr)

“You need to understand the Kazakh background to get a better picture of our worldview. We’re a nomadic civilization that developed over thousands of years in the vast expanse of Eurasia. Free space is more impressive to the Kazakh mindset than the type of congestion found in many European centers.”

A major symbol of the prosperity and pomp comes in the form of a shopping center. But it is no normal mall. Khan Shatyr claims to be the largest in the world at 127,000 square meters. An artificial beach with a constant temperature of 35 degrees is located within, on the top floor of a 150m high marquee. It requires a heat-absorbent material and must require a ridiculous amount of energy consumption, with exotic sand imported from the Maldives. This is just one example of many. Its main attractions all have the quality of state of the art design and architecture like the National Museum which houses the ‘Hall of Gold’ with artifacts from ancient history. Baiterek tower – an observation tower 97 meters high– mimics a Kazakh folktale about a mythical bird and tree. Again, they exemplify the mix of new and old cultures.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, Astana.

Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center. (Albert Bergonzo / Wikimedia Commons)

Indoor beach in Astana

The indoor beach in Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center. (upyernoz / Flickr)

James Mackintosh talks again, regarding how he found the remarkable city on the cusp of change and gives an artistic view of everyday life.

An economic powerhouse

It is obvious to see the sheer amount of development thrust into Kazakhstan. The government knew that relying on oil was not an option for the future (over 60% of the economy in 2016 came from oil).

Sites like Bloomberg and Forbes show the multitude of investments and the effect it is having,

“Today, 9,000 foreign companies are reported to be operating in Kazakhstan… has invested $30 billion over the last 10 years in its transport and logistics infrastructure, according to government figures, and plans to spend an additional $8.4 billion to revive the ancient Silk Road route. The 2,700 km Kazakh portion of the new 7,000 km Western Europe— Western China Highway has been built, and expanding northern and southern rail routes have already dramatically increased shipping volume and capacity.”

Moreover, this is apparent in the socioeconomic aspect if such figures can be trusted.

“In terms of on the ground impacts, Kazakhstan’s poverty rate has fallen from 47% in 2001 to just 3% in 2013.”

Concert hall in Astana.

Concert hall in Astana. (Ninaras / Wikimedia Commons)

The future

With these figures it is clear the Astana is moving in the right direction, although how long can it last. The transition from natural resources as the main economic driving force was certainly something that needed to be done but a venture into tourism seems an extremely ambitious proposal. Needless to say, the realm of Kazakhstan has an endless supply of natural beauty so if Astana can grow into a necessary hub for tourists then it could be a very viable system. Time will tell.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Replica Constructions of World-Famous Cities and Towns in China: Tianducheng, Thames Town, and Hallstatt“.

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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