As my plane descends into the pre-dawn darkness of this vast country, the flight map shows us landing in a void. Where the new capital city of Kazakhstan should be, the map displays just brown space. It seems Astana has yet to register with the on-board computer. Twenty years ago it didn’t exist. There was a small town here on the edge of the Great Steppe called Akmola (which translates unappealingly as “white grave”). Now it has bloomed into Astana (Kazakh for “the capital city”), a futuristic vision in the middle of precisely nowhere – a mirage conjured from dust and oil money.
This is the town President Nursultan Nazarbayev built. In power since 1989, he won the last “election” two years ago with an eyebrow-raising 97.7% approval vote. With the lifelong title of “Leader of the Nation”, he is also the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed Services and chairman of pretty much everything else. When Nazarbayev wants to build something the correct response is simply: “How eye-popping would Sir like it?”
Astana’s buildings have the volume dialled up to 11. They scream for your attention. They sway and dance; they shimmer and radiate. They are shaped like flying saucers, rugby balls, beer cans, dog bowls, tents, eggs – here a medieval castle bristling with turrets on top of a wedding cake, there a Chinese pagoda on top of a skyscraper. At night the LEDs are switched on and the skyline pulses with towering video displays or fabulous light shows. It’s all set to 11. And then some.
This is not a city you would want to explore on foot. For one thing it would involve tramping through the knee-high snow that blankets Astana for about six months of the year. And, in common with other former Soviet capitals, the taste for grandiosity means roads aren’t just roads but eight-lane superhighways and parade ground boulevards. The suprahuman public spaces seem eerily devoid of people, though this may be due to the timing of my visit, which coincides with Nauryz (the new year festival), when I am told many residents leave town to visit family.
I discover, to my relief, that Uber works perfectly in Astana. Most city centre journeys cost less than 500 tenge – around £1.20. The cars tend to be d’un certain âge, but they always turn up. The drivers don’t usually speak a word of English, so having the destination and route mapped out on the app proves to be a lifeline. One driver, an ethnic Russian, surprises me by speaking near accentless English. He’s a retired army translator and spent time in Ethiopia. He’s eager to rekindle his language skills and to share his insights. If anyone wants to know where the country’s oil billions have gone, he observes, just look around.
My hotel, the Rixos President, a five-star grand hotel built in 2005, would satisfy the tastes of most oil barons – palm tree oasis in the palatial inner court, five-storey-high cascades of fairy lights and parakeets squawking in cages. The blingy look references Dubai, but the aspirations of younger Astana may be heading in a different direction.
The Shoreditch burger and wok bar is the latest addition to the alt-dining scene of the city, somewhere you won’t find traditional Kazakh delicacies like shuzhuk (horse meat sausage) and kumis (fermented mare’s milk). The music is not reliable, but the cocktails and bistro- style food are excellent. There is as yet no sign of a hipster influx, but the writing is on the wall – opposite the cloakroom. “Brick Lane” says the faux London street sign, complete with Bengali iteration underneath.
Traditional cultural symbols manage to coexist here, too. The image of the Samruk, a mythical bird of happiness that looks much like a golden eagle, is ubiquitous. Its symbolic “egg” (a 300-tonne ball of glass) is perched on top of the wacky Bayterek tower, a vanity project worthy of any Great Khan. The ball contains the gold hand imprint of the president. Visitors can touch palms with His Greatness and make a wish.
The cult of Nazarbayev’s personality also hangs over the National Museum like the huge flapping plastic Samruk suspended from the ceiling of the nine storey atrium. The identification of nation with the president is hammered home in the various exhibition halls – dotted with statues and likenesses rendered on canvas and carpet. Yes, carpet.
The national fascination with all that glitters is rooted in history. Thousands of intricately worked Scythian gold trinkets found in ancient burial mounds on the steppes are displayed in the Hall of Gold; some of the motifs are easily recognised as flying elks, contorted horses and stylised mountain ranges.
Another exhibition on a much grander scale is preoccupying Astana: Expo 2017 (themed “Future Energy”) is due to start in June. The National Pavilion of Kazakhstan – a sci-fi installation titled the Sphere – is already visible among the canyons of cranes frantically getting the site ready. The organisers say they are expecting 5 million visits; a figure that is widely met with scepticism in a country of just 17 million. But in this city, a sense of reality is on permanent hold. Thinking big is a prerequisite.
There is an exuberance to Astana that defies sense and taste. After the initial shock I’m swept along by the sheer brazen swagger of it all. These are the stately pleasure domes of a futuristic Xanadu. For a first-time visitor, it’s a trip.
Fly from London Heathrow return to Astana on Air Astana, from £494. During Expo 2017, Air Astana is offering passengers to Astana a free entry ticket to the event, redeemable via the Air Astana website. Rooms at the Rixos President Hotel start at £155 a night
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