Day 128: Nazarbaev's playground

Astana Travel Blog

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Astana Circus

Despite the weather forecast the weather the next day was terrible. Astana may be less earthquake prone than Almaty, but Almaty has much more moderate weather. Winters in Astana are severe and for most of the year a strong wind blazes across the steppe, often covering the city in a dense layer of dust, like was the case today. Though it isn't exactly Sahara style sandstorms we are talking about, the visibility was reduced to only a few hundred metres. Far from ideal for taking pictures of wacky buildings.

From the apartment I walked across the river towards the main business district where you can find all the interesting architecture.

The new Islamic Centre
On the way I passed the circus (every former Soviet capital has a circus building, often shaped like some sort of UFO) and the Monument to the Dead of the Totalitarian Regime, which commemorates the victims of Soviet repression.
An interesting name for a monument, because, well, Kazakhstan isn't exactly a democracy these days either.

I continued my way to the governmental and business district and paid a visit to the Islamic Centre, which has a very beautiful mosque with a shiny golden dome and four minarets. It looked a bit like the Turkmenbashi Ruhi mosque in Turmenistan, only significantly smaller.

From the mosque I had a view down the Nurzol bulvar, the two kilometre long boulevard along which all the Governmental buildings are located. The view was so bad that I saw no point walking towards it and instead I visited the Khan Shatyr building instead.
The Khan Shatyr
This is the second of two buildings that the famed architect Norman Foster designed for Astana.
The first building was a glass-and-steel pyramid, which is located all the way at the other end of the Bulvar, which houses the Palace of Peace & Harmony.
The Khan Shatyr is basically a large shopping mall, shaped like a circus tent and made of translucent heat-absorbing plastic which minimises the need for heating inside.

Now as far as malls go, this is definitely the weirdest I have ever visited. The shops in the mall are mainly upmarket clothes stores. Oh, plus a supermarket in the basement. Then on the third floor there are a dozen (again upmarket) bars and restaurants, a food court for people with a slightly lower budget and a games zone. Then on the top floor you can find various thrill rides as well as a subtropical wave pool complete with sandy beach.
Inside the Khan Shatyr complex


One of the rides was a little monorail which went all along the top floor, offering impressive views down the atrium, so obviously I had to ride this one!
In the middle of the atrium there was another interesting ride: a sort of catapult/free-fall tower. I decided to give this one a miss though.

The Khan Shatyr was a nice place to hang out for a while, but the main attraction of Astana is the weird architecture of the new governmental and business district, so I went out again in order to check out the rest of the area. By this time it had started raining though, so I decided to head for the two museums I wanted to visit instead.

I took a bus back to the other side of the Ishim river, or at least, I tried to. The bus which I thought would bring me there (the same number as I had used to get here) turned to head into a completely different direction.
preparing for the ride

The buses in Astana are terrific, apart from one tiny quirk. At the bus stops there is no map with bus routes, so the only way to know where a certain bus is going is to get on it and then look at the map posted inside. Strangely these maps don't show all the routes either, but only the route of the bus you are in and some related buses, so in case you get on a bus and find out it is the wrong one, you may still not be able to work out how to get to your destination.
Anyway, the system is far better than most other countries I travelled to this trip

Eventually I reached the President's museum. This is the former presidential residence, where Nazarbaev resided from the date of the official move of the capital in 1997, until his new palace on the south end of Nurzol Bulvar was finished in 2006.
rain is no fun...
So let me analyse this here: In 1994, after Nazarbaev announced - out of the blue - the move of the national capital from Almaty to Astana, he had this palace in the old centre of Astana built as a temporary residence, only to commission the construction of another, larger, palace at the other side of town, the moment he moved in to this one. Talking about waste of money!

And that fact gives more insight in the quirks of president Nazarbaev than the whole President's Museum! On average 8% of the country's GDP is spent every year on 'beautifying' Astana. While the move of the capital from Almaty to Astana can be justified to a certain extend, the president's decision to spend billions of dollars on fantastical buildings housing house ministries, apartments and malls, designed by renowned international architects like Norman Foster or Kisho Kurokawa, is somewhat harder to swallow for most Kazakhs.
Presidential Museum
While the country is by far the richest of the Central Asian republics, 16% of the population still lives below the poverty line, all of whom could do with a few percent of Astana's annual beautifying budget.

Apart from his love for fantastical architecture, there is much more to Nazarbaev's character. While he has definitely eased on the freedom restricting policies of the former Soviet Union, the country still is a long way away from being called a democracy, which is openly admitted by Nazarbaev. Nazarbaev has said he intends to transform Kazakhstan into a democracy, but that the country isn't ready for that until at least 2016 (his current 7-year presidential term lasts until 2012, by which time he will have been in power for 23 years).

Meanwhile he is regarded the richest man in the country and his extended family is involved in every major enterprise in the country.
The Stalinist apartment block in South Astana (looks even more sinister in black&white)
His daughter, a powerful media owner and politician herself, merged her own political party with her father's in 2006, ensuring a majority in the parliament for years to come.

Another controversial topic is his plan to ban the use of Russian and adopt Kazakh as the only official language, even though more than 50% of the population doesn't speak Kazakh, including Nazarbaev himself!

That said, Nazarbaev has brought prosperity to the country and most people in the country have a reasonable living standard. There's a thriving middle class and a fast-growing upper class. An upper class who is happy to spend $ 30,000 a year on a gym club membership or drive around in a $ 1.5 million car.
Nazarbaev's family happily sets an example for this upper class.
some buildings along the Bulvar
A few years ago Nazarbaev gave his daughter a unique present for her birthday: a private concert by Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. (Apparently this turned into quite a farce, because Almaty only has one hotel fit for such stardom and the organisers judged that Spears was the bigger star and therefore should be staying in the city's best hotel, much to the chagrin of Lopez, who subsequently refused to perform. Just why the two couldn't both stay at the same hotel is beyond me, but never mind).

None of this I learned at the President's Museum, obviously. The museum is little more than a peak into the former presidential residence, filled with lavish galleries displaying gifts to Nazarbaev by foreign governments and grateful citizens.
Tours in the museum are in Russian, but I was allowed to wander around the museum on my own.
Much of southern Astana is still work in progress
No photography was allowed though.

For me, the whole pomp and circumstance came across as way over the top. I simply don't buy into the whole propaganda thing, even if Nazarbaev seems to be doing a marginally better job than his counterparts in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
That said, opening up this former presidential residence as a museum (free of charge!) and putting all these precious gifts on display for the public, is still better than keeping everything locked away.

The next stop was the President's Culture Centre, or in other words, the Kazakhstan National Museum. This is another brand-new building, styled as some sort of weird combination of a traditional yurt and a mosque. The museum however, was inexplicably closed. The attendant was not able to explain to me why the museum was closed, but she did make sure to tell me it wouldn't open tomorrow either.
The Bayterek monument


By this time the weather had cleared. The rain had washed away the dust and the visibility had improved significantly, so I made my way across the river once again. Finally I would be able to visit the pinnacle of Nazarbaev's legacy, the Nurzol Bulvar.
This 2 km boulevard, with the new Presidential palace on one end and the Khan Shatyr on the other, is Nazarbaev's baby. It's the governmental centre of the country, filled with daring architecture. There are buildings in futuristic style, Islamic style, far Eastern style and even a throw-back to Stalinist Gothic architecture.

Once again my Central Asia Lonely Planet proved to be utterly useless. While I can accept the fact that it is outdated (after all, it is three years old and the new one's due in October 2010), I just can't understand the author's decision to not include the Bulvar on the map of Astana.
Me in front of the Bayterek monument
Just like the maps of Tashkent and Ashgabat, the main tourist attractions of the city are not on the city map!
While I was able to find the major sites, it would have been nice to have a better idea of the layout of the area, or, for example, if there was any decent place to eat around here. I did notice that the coffee shops, so absent in northern Astana, are very abundant here. I made a mental note to have my breakfast here tomorrow.

One building impossible to miss is the Bayterek Tower, a monument full of symbolism. This tower stands 97 metres tall, representing the year Astana became the capitol of Kazakhstan. The top of the tower consists of a golden orb, which represents an egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness, laid by a mythical bird in a tall poplar tree, out of reach for puny humans.
The top of the Bayterek monument. The orb represents the golden egg laid by the mythical bird Samruk, containing the secrets of human desire and happiness
Well, it is in reach now, as a smooth elevator glides you up to the surprisingly empty orb, from where you have great (though distorted) views over the city. Inside the orb is a small coffee shop, a model of the Bulvar and, on a raised platform, a hand-print of Nazarbaev in a copper slab.

The setting sun cast the buildings of the Bulvar in a wonderful golden light (enhanced by the gold-tinted windows of the Bayterek orb) and the views were great. At night many of the buildings are lit up and I was keen to stay on for some more photos, so I had a simple dinner at a food court of one of the many malls. Not the most sophisticated food, but I didn't want to blow my budget in any of the upmarket restaurants here. It is clear that Astana doesn't really have a middle class.
Bayterek tower at night
It is all upper class and expat money that is being spent here.

By the way, speaking of malls, I was amazed by the amount of malls in Astana, a city with little over half a million inhabitants. There must be at least 15 large malls in this city, all of which have a multiplex cinema as well (all films are dubbed in Russian though...). And all these malls, with the exception of the Khan Shatyr, are pretty empty too!

The Nurzol bulvar at night is a photographer's paradise, all the buildings are beautifully lit up in different colours - the Bayterek tower actually changes colour every few seconds (making it bloody hard to photograph, but never mind that).

I was dying for a beer. However, in a city that almost solely exists of upper class, in an area which is definitely as upper class as you can get, having a simple beer is not an option.
The Bulvar at night
None of the places around the Bulvar sell any local beer. Or any Russian beer for that matter. No, they all sell Stella Artois or Heineken or Hoegaarden, and if they have a local beer on the menu (usually the cheapest option too) it just happens to be sold out when you want to order.
One place actually had Harp, an Irish beer, on draught, charging $ 12  for a pint, which was more than the price for double shot of Single Malt whisky or absinthe! I contemplated the absinthe, but walked on instead.
I finally found a place selling local beers in the Khan Shatyr. And not just a local beer, no THE local beer. Tian Shan, brewed in Astana and definitely the best Kazakh beer I have tasted.

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Astana Circus
Astana Circus
The new Islamic Centre
The new Islamic Centre
The Khan Shatyr
The Khan Shatyr
Inside the Khan Shatyr complex
Inside the Khan Shatyr complex
preparing for the ride
preparing for the ride
rain is no fun...
rain is no fun...
Presidential Museum
Presidential Museum
The Stalinist apartment block in S…
The Stalinist apartment block in …
some buildings along the Bulvar
some buildings along the Bulvar
Much of southern Astana is still w…
Much of southern Astana is still …
The Bayterek monument
The Bayterek monument
Me in front of the Bayterek monume…
Me in front of the Bayterek monum…
The top of the Bayterek monument. …
The top of the Bayterek monument.…
Bayterek tower at night
Bayterek tower at night
The Bulvar at night
The Bulvar at night
The Khan Shatyr building
The Khan Shatyr building
Monument to the Dead of the Totali…
Monument to the Dead of the Total…
National museum
National museum
statue in front of circus
statue in front of circus
inside the mosque
inside the mosque
inside the mosque
inside the mosque
shoes off in the mosque!
shoes off in the mosque!
strange monorail running along the…
strange monorail running along th…
Fancy any fresh fish? Bear in mind…
Fancy any fresh fish? Bear in min…
katapult ride in the middle of the…
katapult ride in the middle of th…
water ride at the top floor of the…
water ride at the top floor of th…
The strange plastic heat absorbing…
The strange plastic heat absorbin…
looking down the atrium from the m…
looking down the atrium from the …
The Khan Shatyr at sunset (note ho…
The Khan Shatyr at sunset (note h…
Looking down the Nurzul Bulvar
Looking down the Nurzul Bulvar
The Bayterek Monument, which also …
The Bayterek Monument, which also…
The buildings along the Bulvar dra…
The buildings along the Bulvar dr…
Bulvar seen from the Bayterek tower
Bulvar seen from the Bayterek tower
model of the Bulvar in the Baytere…
model of the Bulvar in the Bayter…
Presidential palace seen from the …
Presidential palace seen from the…
you too can place your hand in the…
you too can place your hand in th…
Bulvar at night
Bulvar at night
Bayterek tower
Bayterek tower
Presidential palace
Presidential palace
the Islamic centre at night
the Islamic centre at night
Looking down the Bulvar at night -…
Looking down the Bulvar at night …
some more buildings and fountains …
some more buildings and fountains…
Astana at night
Astana at night
Inside the Khan Shatyr building
Inside the Khan Shatyr building
Astana
photo by: Biedjee