One man's grand ambition gives veneer of bling to an ancient land
Kishlak restaurant sits not far from the spot where, almost a millennium ago, a fortified caravanserai stood, providing rest and shelter for convoys travelling from China to Europe on the arduous Silk Road.
Today, local Kazakhs, the descendants of nomadic tribes who once roamed the central Asian steppes, still sit beneath grapevines sipping tea and devouring horse meat, with mud-brick walls and azure minarets in the background.
But the caravanserai – an inn with a central courtyard – is long gone. The restaurant is located in a gaudy new building with gold PVC windows, the vines are plastic, the minarets are painted on the wall and the Kazakhs taking a lunch break are besuited employees of KazMunaiGaz, the oil and gas monopoly whose headquarters is next door.
This is Astana, the shockingly new capital of Kazakhstan and showcase for the Dubai-style ambitions of its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. This sprawling resource-rich country is at the centre of a modern great game with competing superpowers bidding for the riches that lie beneath it.
The surreal, architectural collision of money and power that Astana has become is itself a measure of the political fortunes of Mr Nazarbayev, who has torn up the constitutional limits on his time in office and set about building a power base as aggressive as his capital.
The most remarkable part of the current city is its central axis – a series of plastic palaces, beginning with the sprawling headquarters of KazMunaiGaz and ending several kilometres away with another setpiece from the ubiquitous Norman Foster, the Palace of Peace and Accord – a grey pyramid that, at night, is lit up alternately purple, green and red.
In between is a 97-metre monument called The Tree of Life that looks more like the Jules Rimet Trophy mounted on a lollipop stick; some elite housing; what look like two giant golden cooling towers; the labyrinthine offices of various ministries; and Mr Nazarbayev's presidential palace. The buildings on the central strip are surrounded by broad walkways and pedestrianised green areas almost bereft of people.
Ten years ago, Astana was a dusty, provincial town of about 250,000 inhabitants called Akmola, filled with Khrushchev-era apartment buildings that made it indistinguishable from hundreds of other mid-sized towns across the former Soviet Union.
But, in 1997, the "Kazakhstan 2030" plan was launched, aimed at improving the country economically and politically by the year 2030. In a part of the world known for its unreal five-year plans that bore little resemblance to reality, Mr Nazarbayev, himself a former Communist Party boss, went one better and devised a 33-year plan.
A key part of his strategy envisaged moving the capital from Almaty to Akmola, which would be renamed Astana, Kazakh for "capital city" – or "place where decisions are made."
The recently deceased Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa won a contract to design a masterplan for the new city, demarcating zones for industry, living and recreation. But, within a couple of years, the plan was torn up, as officials realised the growth of their new capital had been seriously underestimated. The population has already hit 600,000 and is now predicted to top 1.2 million by 2030.
A decade into the building of his new capital, Mr Nazarbayev is still in charge of the country, having changed the law to allow him to stay on indefinitely, and showing no sign of wanting to step down. "Astana is the pride of our country, and amazes all our guests," he said at a conference in the city last week.
But to many Western eyes, the amazement comes more from the hollowness of the whole enterprise; and up close many of the buildings look cheap and flimsy. "The inside of the presidential palace is full of these columns that look like they're made of marble, but they're actually hollow metal cylinders with a marble effect painted on," said one journalist. "At press conferences we always knock on them, and the presidential aides get really annoyed and tell us it's not allowed."
When it was decided that Kurokawa's plan was not ambitious enough, the planning of the cityscape was handed over to AstanaGenPlan, the city planning agency where 150 people work to determine the future contours of Astana.
Amanzhol Chikanaev, the chief specialist, showed off a model of the city, where the white buildings were those already built, and the pale blue buildings were those planned for the next two decades. About two-thirds of the plan was blue.
"We'll need to get rid of a lot of the Brezhnev-era housing," said Mr Chikanaev. "But we'll compensate the residents and build skyscrapers in their place. It will be a new Manhattan." He spoke as if he were designing a model city in a computer game. "At first, we thought it would just be an official city for government officials, like Washington DC," he said. "But then it was decided that it should also produce something, and be an educational centre. So we're building an institute that will have 25,000 students."
Moving deftly around the model indicating various parts of the city with a pointer, he rattled off what would be built: "Zoo, velodrome, 3,500-seat concert hall, aquapark, stadium, elite residential complex." His pointer came to rest on the 142-metre "Astana Triumph", a gaudy copy of the seven Stalin-era skyscrapers in Moscow. "This was because the President wanted the city to have a European feel," he said.
Despite the efforts of AstanaGenPlan, there's no doubting Astana is, to a large extent, the fulfilment of President Nazarbayev's personal dream. "It is really a private enterprise by the President," said the representative of one Western architect working there.
"He personally oversees all urban decisions, and approves or disapproves projects personally. He attends presentations and hosts cocktail parties where foreign architects, sometimes accompanied by their head of state, are present and decisions are taken."
Not everyone is happy with the city's growth. Ekaterina, a woman in her 60s who has a degree in architecture, was selling tomatoes on the street to supplement her pension of £7 per week. "I had a dacha outside town and one day we turned up and it was being knocked down," she said. "My husband had such a shock he was in hospital for a month."
According to Ekaterina, her country house a short drive out of the city was flattened to make way for a new elite residence for a top Kazakh official, yet she received no compensation. "I've tried to take the matter to the courts; I've tried everything I can," she said. "But I just get ignored. And anyone who complains too much here gets problems."
One British expatriate bemoaned the lack of anything to do in the evenings in Astana but tried to look on the bright side. "One thing they do very well here is fireworks," he said. "That's lovely for all the young people living here. It seems that, in Astana, there's always something to celebrate."
Benefits of glorious nation
* Kazakhstan is the world's ninth largest country but has a population of only 15 million. Most of the country is flat steppe, the Tien Shan mountains run along its southern edge.
* Most Kazakh citizens speak Russian, especially in cities, although the Kazakh language, a Turkic tongue, is promoted in schools and on TV and radio.
* The central Asian country plans to triple oil production by 2015 putting it in the top 10 producers, because of new oilfields.
* President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled the country since 1989, first as Communist boss, then as President. He is now de facto president for life after changing the rules to suit his tenure.
* Kazakhstan came to the attention of TV and cinema audiences thanks to Borat, the loutish Kazakh reporter invented by Sacha Baron Cohen.
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