Astana, or the world’s weirdest capital

Posted by in Destinations

The whole point of travelling is to see the differences between cultures, people and places around the world. But sometimes, different becomes weird. This is how I felt when I arrived in Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan.

But weird in a good way, just very surprising and unusual.
(below are pictures of a random street dance show, the costumes are unreal!)

Kazakhstan 2 Kazakhstan

A brief introduction

Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, replacing Almaty. At this time the population was just under 300,000 people but it has been multiplied by 3 since then. Therefore the city has seen a very fast development and this shows in the modern architecture of the new town centre. Astana is what we call a ‘’planned-city’’, just like Washington DC or Brasilia. It means that the city was developed according to a large scale plan, and not little by little like most city do.

While Almaty remains the largest city of the country and also its cultural capital, the politics and businesses have moved up north to Astana.

Astana’s architecture

What’s surprising when you visit the city for the first time, is the freedom that the architects seem to enjoy. Astana is home to many ‘’eccentric’’ projects and unusual structures. Here is a quick selection of some of the most iconic buildings of Astana.

Khan Shatyr (2010, also known as the world’s largest tent). A very special building made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene. One of Astana’s craziest structure, containing a giant shopping mall, with an artificial beach on the top floor, with sand imported from the Maldives!

Khan Shatyr Khan Shatyr 2

The Bayterek tower (2002), symbol of the city. A 105m high tower, located at the center of the main boulevard of the new city development. The observation deck is located at 97m above the ground (which is the year Astana became capital) and offers great views on the city.

Bayterek tower View from Bayterek

The Presidential Palace, completed in 2004 and hosting the official office of the president.

Presidential Palace

The KazMunayGas headquarters,  the state-owned oil and gas company of Kazakhstan. They are the number one natural resource of the country and a major part of the economy is based on their exploitation.

Headquarters

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation (2006), a 62-meter-tall glass pyramid. A multi-religion summit is hosted in there every three years and delegates from each religion or faith gather to discuss various topics.

Pyramid

The Central Concert Hall (2009). Located right next to the Presidential Palace, it is the center for performing arts and symbolizes the petals of a flower.

Concert Hall

A city dreaming to become a big player?

Astana is betting on the organization of major international events to build its worldwide reputation. It will be home to the Expo 2017 (check out the promotional video of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!) and is or has been a candidate to several large scale projects. When those contracts get confirmed, it is a way to quicken the developments and erect new buildings. In fact, Astana does not seem to slow down any time soon and I bet you will hear about this city more and more in the coming years.

Worth the trip or not?

I personally enjoyed visiting Astana because of the eccentric architecture and overall uniqueness. However I met many travelers who decided to take it away from their Kazakh itinerary because of its dull and cold reputation (and it’s far from most tourist sites, mainly located in the south).

On the other hand, it seemed to hide something. Spending millions and millions on numerous real estate projects is questionable. The country as a whole still has major development issues and establishing a capital so exuberant will not trick anyone. Maybe a few years in the past, when there was no social media or internet it would have done the trick. But today, we all see that Astana is not the real Kazakhstan, and you don’t have to go far to see it. Even a short bus ride from the new city center will take you to neighbourhoods that are far less exuberant and feel like you landed in another era.

To conclude, I definitely recommend a visit to Astana because it is extremely impressive and you will see that nowhere else. Just don’t expect to fall in love with the city, but rather to leave with mixed feelings.