Almaty soundtrack:Enrique Iglesias (PS: HOW is he popular now in the States?! I really thoughtthat was a purely Kazakhstan phenomenon) meets soothing European lounge grooves
That pretty much summarizes my comparative impressions ofthe noveau-chic capital with its bizarrely beautiful alien architecture, ostentatiousPresidential wealth, windy stretches of meticulously landscaped nothingness,and an unsettling unpopulated feeling that harkens the endless steppe on whichit sits.
[Grand Astana skyline…and absolutely zero people]
Astana (literally “Capital” in Kazakh, which some say was chosen purposefully so it could be renamed after President Nazarbayev post mortem) was officially declared the new capital of Kazakhstanin 1997, replacing southern Almaty. There are various explanations to why President Nazarbayev decided totake on such a major and rather unpopular move: Almaty’s high earthquake riskgiven its mountainous setting and overpopulation problems, as well as of courseAstana’s more central location (further away from the Chinese border, at that)and a more equal demographic split between Russians and Kazakhs as you move upnorth.
Unfortunately, Astana’s central location in the steppe alsomeans frigid Siberian temperatures and no shelter from the biting wind (it’s apparently the second-coldest capital, the first being Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). As diplomats and businessmen moved intothe new modern superstructure, it also became clear that Astana was very much acity of transplants with no natives of its own and thus no real local identity(in many ways similar, by the way, to Washington D.C. Let’s be real, no one ACTUALLY cheers for the Capitals orthe Wizards [sorry, J:)]). Nearly everyone I have met has grumbled about the superiority of Almaty,still considered in many ways the country’s “real” capital and beloved majormetropolis. And yet as if Astanaknows it has a lot to make up for, I have never seen so many pro-citypropaganda advertisements before! Here’s a brief collection:
Like a glittering Emerald City with an enthusiasticgold-handprinted wizard, Astana is definitely unlike any place I’ve ever beenbefore. Half of the city is thenew business district with glitzy official buildings: the PresidentialPalace, Pyramid of Peace, Independence Hall, Baiterek Tower. This is also the half that ispractically empty and not lived in – daytime walks and looping 4-mile runs bothin the morning and in the evening (Anna was training for a half-marathon backhome in a week’s time!) yielded more or less the same barren streets. The old parts of the city that werelived in back when the city was known as Akmola are more normallypopulated. The new and old partsare separated by a lovely river with modern white bridges and space-age-lookingstaircases stretching from bank to bank. My friend and fellow Dostar volunteer Kamila and I entered one littlemini mall that, like the rest of the city, seemed only half-real: beautifullyconstructed, perfectly functional infrastructure (even toilet paper in therestrooms!), but half of the stalls and boutiques were white, locked andempty.
[Anna photographing Baiterek at dusk]
[Me with the two gold “teapot towers,” the Presidential Palace and fountains]
[2-in-1 UFO and Circus!]
[Bridge connecting the left and right banks (also referred to as the “new” and “old” parts of the city)]
[A scenic beach view of some tower apartments?]
[Kami and I at the Pyramid of Peace…with no one else in sight, of course]
[From L to R: the “dog bowl,” “chicken on a stick” and “bread basket,” a.k.a Astana’s stadium, monument and independence hall. The central white monument has a 15-foot bronze reproduction of Nazarbayev on one side]
[Not sure why these buildings have holes in them….]
[Crazy, mismatched, Gaga-like Astana architecture]
The newest addition to the skyline is the much talked about Khan Shatyry, a giant temperature controlled modern yurt-remake that houses bothupscale mall shops, crazy amusement park rides (like a central “Tower ofTerror”, and a water park coaster) as well as a year-round beach complete withumbrellas and palm trees on the top floor.
[Looking up the inside of the Khan Shatyry]
[Girls riding up the “Tower of Terror” at the center of the tent]
[Little cars can take you on an amusement park ride around the circumference of the tent]
[A water ride on the top floor…?!]
[An indoor beach/pool with palms and umbrellas visible through the glass]
[The special transparent material covering the roof of the Khan Shatyry regulates the temperature year-round]
Other epic site-seeing expeditions were made. The first was to the Baiterek, Astana’ssignature tower that is supposed to represent a white birch tree with a goldenegg on top (pretty spot on, right?). That expedition included a tank of scary-looking catfish, a gift shopwith $50 mini-Baiterek souvenirs, a miniature model of the Astana city center,a globe memorial donated by various religious societies, and of course thegolden imprint of President Nazarbayev’s hand that is supposed to sing thenational anthem to you when you place your hand in it (though sadly thatfeature seemed to have been temporarily discontinued on our visit). We also visited a park with a miniaturemap of Kazakhstan (“It’s not a park, it’s a map!” one woman emphatically toldme when I asked her for directions), complete with mini-monuments and landmarksfrom all of the major cities except for of course Shymkent, which slightlyoffended me (but then again what major landmark do we have here? Our Megacentermall?:P). Our last stop before Ileft was to Duman Oceanarium, supposedly the world’s farthest aquarium from the ocean, complete with moving walkways (though sadlyalso not in operation on our visit), dollhouse-decorated fish tanks, and asurround-sight tank with sharks that swim above and around you as youwalk/Jetsons-glide through. Equally amusing was the bizarre internationally-minded mall that theoceanarium was located in, which had small tributes to America, China andKazakhstan (look at that – my favorite places!). It’s funny how seeing mini-life-sized versions of a teepee,the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall, the Turkestan mausoleum and Baikonur rocketsall in one room doesn’t even faze me at this point.
[Baiterek and me trying on Nazarbayev’s handprint for size]
[Anna and I pointing to our respective homes in Kazakhstan at the entrance to the map-park]
[Anna, Ryan and I with the mini model of Astana]
[Baikonur, the Soviet rocket launching site, and the dried up Aral Sea are both represented]
[Ryan checks out a depiction of the Almaty wooden church and WWII monument in Panfilov Park]
[Teepee and totem pole in the Duman Oceanarium building. I don’t ask anymore]
[Clearly, all pink fish need Barbie house accommodations]
[The moving walkway floor is supposed to take you through the shark-filled tanks, Jetsons-style]
[The tank surrounds us, and a diver has come in to play with the sharks]
[A Nemo! Rumor has it they spend a fortune flying special ocean water in to Duman, an indoor ocean oasis in the deserted steppe]
[A trio of thoroughly satisfied tourists]
Definitely one of the best parts about Astana of course wasgetting to hang out more with Anna. She was everything one could ask of a hostess, housing me in her poshembassy apartment, getting me on the VIP list to the U.S. Ambassador’s iftar (adinner breaking Ramadan fast, where ambassadors to many Muslim countries werein attendance), and feeding me delicious German breakfasts, curried dinners andhomemade peanut butter cookies. Wealso got to spend time with her great embassy coworkers over multiple dinnerand drink dates, as we were all acquainted with each other through my help withSR Pandith’s visit earlier in the month. Though embassy life is as nice as I remember it (I was a Public Affairsintern at the embassy in Tallinn, Estonia), it also reminded me how grateful Iam to get a chance to do the grassroots-level work in the thick of things nowwith Peace Corps – a unique and valuable vantage point that I’m not sure I willhave in quite the same way later in my career.
Speaking of work, I should mention what I was doing inAstana in the first place: meeting with various potential international donorsincluding multiple embassies and UN bodies, on behalf of my organization(s) inShymkent. The meetings went verywell and I think everyone supporting civil society projects around the countrywas excited to hear about the work going on in the South, which is admittedly“a land of its own” (so much so that I had a bit of reverse culture shock gettinginto the temperature-controlled Astana train station and temperature-controlledAstana busses that announce the next stop in a pre-recorded voice!). I think it was very important PR andlong-term donor relationship development for our org, and the trip resulted inseveral successful leads on funding opportunities to pursue this coming year tohelp make our projects and programs more sustainable.
Astana was followed by an enjoyable trip to Almaty, which Iof course am much more familiar with. There I saw and stayed with old dear friends, met new ones (the newPiAers and Fulbrighters are all coming in now) and had three more donormeetings before finally heading back to site! September is absolutely packed with things to do – my nextpost will probably be after our grant project training trip to Bulgaria, sostay tuned!