KAZAKHSTAN: Nursultan, previously known as Astana, must surely rank as one of the world’s most astonishing cities. It rises like a phoenix out of a vast barren wilderness of the steppes of Central Asia’s Kazakhstan. After a three and half hour flight from New Delhi, little did I know that I would be accosted by startlingly alien surroundings in then Astana, 2013. The city looked incredibly clean and very sparsely populated (1 million).
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, larger than Western Europe and 9th largest in the world. For a country of its size, a population of 18 million is ridiculously low. The capital city of Kazakhstan was a small town meant as a prison camp for families of enemies of the erstwhile Soviet Union. In 1997, the former President Nursultan Nazarbayev shifted the capital away from the lively and cultural city of Almaty located on the eastern border with China. He then proceeded to build a greenfield capital to rival the best. Astana was renamed Nursultan after its former President in 2018.
Kazakhstan is so richly endowed with oil and mineral resources that one would expect everyone in the country to be a millionaire. But this middle-income country has poured billions of dollars into creating a capital city that is nothing short of a glittering marvel. Nursultan’s buildings are architecturally so futuristic that ‘The Guardian’ has called it the “space station in the steppes”, while others have used adjectives like “science fiction” or “weirdest capital, “bizarre” or “other-worldly”.
A tour of Kazakhstan
The Yessir river divides the city into the Right Bank and Left Bank. The Right Bank represents the old city where there are lingering traces of the charming old Soviet architecture and culture. The Left Side is where the modern glitter is. One of the most eye-popping buildings on the Left Bank is the Khan Shatyr, a giant tent-shaped super mall. Designed by British architect Norman Foster, it was built to resemble the traditional Kazakh nomadic house ‘yurt’.
The Khan Shatyr was constructed using the latest technology so that the building can maintain 20 to 25 degrees temperature inside, even though it is -20 or -40 outside, which is usually the case. With a monorail and a manmade beach on its top floor, it is quite a peculiar structure.
The Bayterek (meaning tall poplar tree) in the heart of the city is a monument as well as an observation tower. It embodies a folktale about a mythical tree of life and a magic bird of happiness. The bird, (Samruk) had laid its egg in the crevice between branches of a poplar tree.
The observation deck is 97m above ground level, corresponding to 1997, the year in which Astana became the capital. From its 2nd deck, the Bayterek offers a panoramic 360-degree view of Nursultan and beyond. A plaque invites visitors to place a hand in the imprint of a hand and make a wish.
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, also known as the Pyramid, was built to host spiritual and other events. This was also designed by British architect Norman Foster. Nursultan has been hosting the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions with representatives from Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism & other faiths. Sri Sri Ravishankar had attended one such conference.
The boulevard leading up to the House of Ministries with two shiny golden towers on either side is another example of supreme architectural excellence. Though Nursultan is replete with flashy, unorthodox and grandiose buildings, it also reflects aspects of Kazakh culture. Examples of these are the Astana Music Hall and the Kazakh Concert Hall. The city’s gorgeous buildings provided ideal backdrops for holding several outdoor events, including the International Day of Yoga during summer.
The State Opera and Ballet Theatre “Astana Opera”, is the largest theatre in Central Asia. But what catapulted Nursultan on the world stage was its huge distinctive globe shaped “Nur Alem”, the Future Energy Musuem at the front of its Exposition Site. Nur Alem is the only building in the world in a form of a sphere, 100 meters tall and 80 meters in diameter. It houses eight floors, each dedicated to a different energy theme.
The Nur Alem was designed by German architect Albert Speer Jr, who said that the building epitomizes the last drop of oil and the era when the humankind will switch to the future energy. Unlike in most other countries, there are no satellite or subsidiary towns surrounding Nursultan, that can provide support services. Instead the city limits lead to empty steppe grasslands, putting pressure on the city.
Nursultan is the world’s second coldest city after Ulan Bator. For six months, the temperature hovers between -20/~40. In order to maintain sufficient and consistent heating and lighting to all its residents and establishments, enormous resources are invested, making it one of the most high-maintenance cities of the world. Despite its harshest of winters and its emptiness, the unique architecture and warmth of the residents of Nursultan (known as Astana during my 4 years in the city) has given me some of my warmest and enduring life memories.