It’s a freezing cold evening on my last night in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana. I’m waiting for my taxi to take me back to the hotel from the centre. Before departing London, I wasn’t aware that this is officially the second coldest city in the world, and so the thin black jacket and the tired Converse trainers are failing to keep me in the least bit warm.

The modern city around me is brightly lit - but there’s no one else to be seen, giving the place a rather ominous feeling. Finally, the taxi pulls up and I get in. Oleg, the driver says to me: “You’re not used to this are you? Astana can be a strange place for newcomers.”

To be quite honest, nothing, let alone decent clothing, could have prepared me for what this city would actually be like.

In 1994, the current President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided that he would move the capital of the country from Almaty, the historic and cultural centre, to the city of Akmola. Almaty, surrounded by mountains on all sides, and with a burgeoning population was overflowing. Other more industrial cities were reportedly considered, but Akmola was seen as geographically more central, strategically further away from unstable regions to the south and closer to Moscow. Moreover, it’s a city that is surrounded by steppe and has the potential to grow exponentially. By December 1997, this vision had become a reality and the city was renamed ‘Astana’, which simply means ‘capital’ in the Kazakh language.

To me, Astana seemed to have the feel of a Presidential project aimed at Kazakhstan on the map, the symbol of his grand plan to make the country a modern, pioneering nation. Unimaginable amounts of money have gone into developing the new capital and continue to be pumped in. Recent high-profile political meetings held here seem to highlight this ambition: in recent years Astana has hosted P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, an OSCE summit and in 2017 it will host the International EXPO.

Nazarbayev’s plan to elevate his country’s position on the world stage ultimately relies on a sustainable and booming economy. Kazakhstan is the largest economy in Central Asia and it possesses vast oil reserves which help to contribute to the country’s wealth.

However, although oil makes up nearly 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s total exports, the country also has large metal and mineral reserves, as well as huge agricultural potential. This is where Astana comes in. When you see the city from the air, you can see that it’s surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of miles of fertile step lands, where grain can be produced on a mass-scale.

Kazakhstan is the sixth largest wheat producer in the world and there is a growing trend for the country to export its grain internationally. While out for a meal one night, I was told by a proud Kazakh of the rich tradition the country has for wheat and flour production. Much of the sumptuous food that is on offer in Astana’s restaurants are bread or pastry-based dishes and they are delicious, whether it’s the national dish “Quwurdaq” made of chunky lumps of boiled horse meat on a pasta sheet; or the doughy and somewhat cheesy treat “Baursak” which can be incredibly addictive.

Most of the development has taken place on the left bank of the river Ishim, which before 1997 was empty and appears to be a launch-pad for many ambitious projects. Driving around this area of the city it’s impossible not to be awestruck by this futuristic architectural landscape.

The shopping mall and entertainment centre “Khan Shatyr”, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is shaped like a giant yurt made out of plastic, and is visible across much of the left bank. This 150 metre-high structure covering 140 000 square metres looks like a plastic tent being pulled up towards the sky by a single long needle at the top. From the inside, looking up at the building’s sweeping curves leading up to the centre makeS you feel dizzy with its almost kaleidoscopic effect.

Photo: Ben Dalton, Flickr

The entire complex, which reportedly cost more than $400 000 000, can fit more than ten football stadiums inside it. It is arguably the centrepiece of Nazarbayev’s Astana project. Containing a rollercoaster, a children’s playground and even an artificial beach, as well as high-class shopping outlets including Armani, Nike and Swarovski; this complex is intended to be an indoor pleasure city, designed to attract tourists from across the globe. A five minute walk from here along the Central Boulevard is Baiterek, a hundred-metre tall tower with a glass sphere perched on top of it, intended to represent a golden egg laid by the Kazakh bird Samruk. This structure, which looks like a giant World Cup trophy, would not be out of place in a Star Trek episode.

As this construction work relentlessly continues, unique and alien designs seemingly spring up each month. Astana is evolving into a futuristic metropolis almost out of this world. But this alien vista actually makes the capital come across as an empty, soul-less and almost hostile place to be in. Many of the streets on the left bank have been given numbers rather than names, making the area feel cold and characterless.

And for a city which boasts a population of over 800 000 (it has more than trebled since it has become capital), during the daytime there is almost nobody walking around in public. Strolling around the sights, taking snaps and battling the cold weather, I would often be the only person to be seen in the vicinity.

I was one of a few dozen people who meandered around the “Khan Shatyr” shops and appeared to be the only tourist in the mall’s enormous souvenir store. This combination of striking, outstanding buildings; and an apparent lack of public makes the capital quite a lonely and isolating place. Undoubtedly, a beautiful city which looks great on postcards, but what’s the point of creating a Kazakh masterpiece if there are no Kazakhs to enjoy it?

Photo: Astana Opera State Theatre of Opera and Ballet

Oleg, my taxi driver, says that he feels much of the city is vast, empty and expansive; and yet he’s proud of what is happening here. He explains that there is a buzz around the city that previously never existed. There is optimism that Kazakhstan’s position on the world stage could be elevated through the money being pumped into its capital. It’s the fastest developing city in central Asia and every local that I’ve spoken to here is excited about this evolving project.

Admittedly, there are areas to the right of the river, which have existed for decades and may at times be bustling hubs of human activity. Alexei Kononets, a press officer for the Kazakhstan government, explains that for himself and other Kazakhs, they are “proud of this grand plan.” He says that “for all Kazakh citizens, not just ethnic Kazakhs, this is what we want the country to look like. We want it to be something like Singapore but bigger – something that will fit the size of the country.”

However, one of the problems with effectively building a new, futuristic capital city is that the nation’s culture, tradition and identity inevitably suffer. Although I managed to taste some great food and meet some fascinating people, Astana feels a bit like a half-finished painting; a semi-blank canvas.

However, the optimism and pride displayed by people like Oleg and Alexei is striking. It is people like them who will help define the city’s identity in the future, especially if they are proud and confident of their country. Perhaps, through the construction of this project, the population will be enthused and the country will prosper.

But ultimately, it will be up to the people of Kazakhstan, rather than Nazarbayev’s grand plan that will shape the nation’s character and determine whether the country as a whole will develop into the modern nation it strives to become.

(VoR)