Almaty and Astana are just out of this world

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Kazakhstan is launching itself as the new Singapore – a stopover destination for people heading further east. Adrian Mourby gets a sneak preview of Central Asia's curious transit delight

Kazakhstan is a tale of two cities.

The first, Almaty, is the one you fly into. It's a city of the Soviet 1930s, tree-lined and built on a sensible, rational grid. If Kazakhstan manages to sell its big new marketing idea this autumn, Almaty will be where we will all be spending a day or so, visiting the sights, before changing planes and heading on to the Far East.

The state-run airline, Air Astana, is behind this initiative, a marketing ploy to turn Kazakhstan into the Singapore of Central Asia: encourage Europeans to fly east via your main airport and sell them the idea of a brief stopover between flights when they can get to know the country better.

But when I walk down to the old Parliament building this afternoon I see no tourists, just wedding parties everywhere, running excitedly in and out of the greenery. The sun is shining down on rows of white stretch Humvees as young brides in flouncy white gowns pose with their grooms in dappled light beneath the foliage. You could drown in tulle in this part of town.

Parliament Park with its pools, terraces and winding paths makes a perfect backdrop for wedding photos. Ironically, it also contains a huge granite statue of two Kazakh women in austere Red Army uniforms striding resolutely towards the old Parliament. Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulova were the first two female soldiers from Kazakhstan killed in the "Great Patriotic War" that raged hundreds of miles to the west almost 70 years ago.

Had these two stony-faced warriors lived, they would have been the grandmothers or great-grandmothers of the brides I'm looking at today. Kazakhstan played its part in that terrible conflict by sending battalions to fight in the West, but the Second World War was also a golden time for the capital. In 1934, the Soviets had built Almaty an opera house. When Hitler invaded Russia, the Mariinsky ballet and opera companies were evacuated here from St Petersburg and suddenly the city had world-class entertainment. The opera house, which still sits above this park, was even expanded to do justice to productions of Boris Godunov, Prince Igor and Ivan Susanin.

After the war, many Russians stayed on and taught the next generation of singers, dancers and musicians. The Abai Kazakh National Opera and Ballet House, as it is known, remains one of the finest buildings in Almaty. It's a sturdy neoclassical structure, painted yellow and white, and wouldn't look out of place in St Petersburg. As I come closer, however, I note that the Corinthian columns are not topped with traditional acanthus leaves but geometric Kazakh motifs. It's the same inside – classical design with embellishments from Central Asia. The first-floor salon, where audience members still meet and photograph each other, is a stunning approximation of the Opéra de Paris or the Wiener Staatsoper, but the detail has its origins in Islamic art.

Much has changed in Almaty since its heyday in the 1930s and 40s. Today the city is no longer Soviet and it is no longer the capital. "When travel restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, there was a talent drain," says Lailim Imangazina, director of production at the opera house, when we lunch together. "Many went to Russia and the Jews went to Israel. Mostly, it was the teachers who left. The link between the generations was cut. Still today many leave us at 25. This makes me sad."

Something else happened at the end of the 1990s. President-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital of his increasingly wealthy, oil-rich country from Almaty to a small town in the Kazakh steppes and built anew. As I take an early morning taxi to the airport, I hear my driver's view on this relocation every time he swerves to miss a pothole. "When government go to Astana, 80 per cent of Almaty money go to Astana, too. Roads no good!"

Nothing in Almaty prepares you for Astana, the other city worth visiting when stopping over in Kazakhstan. You fly for an hour over a flat dry emptiness and then, suddenly, without any hint of outlying farms or suburbs, there it is: the Presidential Palace, a blue-domed version of America's White House, and behind it the Pyramid of Peace (likened by some New Age bloggers to a device for communicating with aliens), and the Bayterek, a bird's nest viewing platform 318ft high. Beyond that stands Khan Shatyr, a vast tent-like structure that Norman Foster is designing as the carapace for a vast shopping mall. All these statement buildings and many more – the Parliament, the Senate, the Symphony Hall – rise up out of nowhere.

Many years ago I watched as Captain Scarlet and Captain Black discovered the city of the Mysterons on Mars, a remote settlement wholly unlike anything earthmen had seen before. That is Astana. A 21st-century city built with little reference to any pre-existing buildings or to the demands of landscape, built without any reference to budget either, by the looks of it. President Nazarbayev handed the urban planning over to Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and individual buildings to big names including Lord Foster and Manfredi Nicoletti.

I'm met at the new airport by Alibek, who will be my interpreter. Like many of Astana's citizens he is young and has moved here only recently. Alibek knows that here is where you work hard and grow rich. He's also enormously proud of his new city, though he prefers it in summer – when you bake – than in winter when Astana lives up to its reputation as the second coldest capital in the world. (Ulan Bator in Mongolia is number one.)

Alibek takes me to my hotel, the Radisson, which is where French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be staying in November when Kazakhstan hosts an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) summit. I have a basic "executive" room but am shown the 18th floor, which is given over to the Presidential Suite. Of course, it's impressive. A rococo and Louis Quinze anomaly after 17 executive levels. But what strikes me is the view.

Looking to the horizon, in every direction, the land simply ends the way the horizon disappears when you look out to sea. But there is no coastline in landlocked Kazakhstan. What I'm looking at is the steppe, extending in all directions and simply disappearing with the curvature of the earth. I've been in the desert and seen something like this – but there were sand dunes. Here, I am looking out beyond Astana straight to the edge of the world.

Alibek has suggested lunch so we walk together down to the river Ishim. We pass an artificial beach that has been created – like everything else around here – on a blank canvas. Kazakhs are out in force making the most of their day at the seaside. Alibek tells me he is planning a trip to Antalya with friends. From the number of posters, I get the impression that the Turkish Riviera is every Kazakh's dream holiday. We pass trees with artificial pink blossoms made from glass beads then pause beneath a statue at a bend in the river.

"Who is Kenesary Khan?" I ask squinting at the inscription.

"A patriot, I guess," says Alibek.

Actually, I found out later that when this warrior proclaimed himself Khan of all the Kazakhs in 1841, Tsar Nicholas took a dim view. Since 1822, Kazakhstan had been prohibited from selecting its own leader. Six bloody years later, Kenesary was captured and summarily executed by a Kyrgyz warlord and his head sent to Russia. This new statue was a bold move by President Nazarbayev, who makes a point of very good relations with his powerful neighbour to the north.

We end up on 1st Street, which has superb views of the Presidential Palace and the Bayterek, but like much of Astana seems underpopulated. You get the feeling that the builders haven't unpacked all the people yet. One can get all kinds of food in Astana but we end up in a place called Rafé, which Alibek explains means restaurant/café. Rafé serves Italian food but the menu has photos for those who are not sure what a pizza looks like. It's difficult to get a handle on this country. In some ways it's very Western but there are big gaps. My calzone is very convincing but never before have I been in an Italian restaurant that doesn't serve wine.

"Chinese tea?" offers Alibek.

In the afternoon we dodge from shade to shade towards the Presidential Palace and have a look at the Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation, which sits on the only hill within hundreds of miles. It is artificial, built to hide the auditorium that lies beneath it. Behind the Pyramid, I encounter my first crowds since arriving in Astana. Groups of men swathed in scarves against the blistering sun are working, evidently round the clock, to get a monument to President Nazarbayev built for his birthday. The relief crew members shelter in the shadow of a new 4,000-seat concert hall, huddled around the food they have brought with them.

"Are you going to have enough people to fill all these concert halls?" I ask.

"We are building for the future," says Alibek. "Astana won't be finished until 2030."

Of course, in 20 years the city can always grow its own population. The trees that are being planted now will be mighty trunks with white ankle socks by then.

We end our tour at the top of the Bayterek. "I will wait below," says Alibek. "Heights I do not like."

Up on the viewing platform I see a large gold lectern into the top of which a man's handprint has been pressed. It's like the hand key that releases all the oxygen on to planet Mars in Total Recall. The impression is that of the president's hand. To place your hand in his you have to face the palace, with his office gazing down on you from below its blue dome. I had been told that each time someone does this the national anthem "My Kazakhstan" plays on the PA system. However, today, the place is full of schoolkids noisily photographing each other while Richard Clayderman plays on a loop. The moment is anything but solemn.

Astana is unlike any city I have ever visited. I have a feeling that during the next 20 years it will only get stranger.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to Almaty via Riga with Air Baltic (0911 598 0599; airbaltic.com), which offers return flights from £185. He flew between Almaty and Astana with Air Astana (0844 338 8895; airastana.com), which offers return fares from £101. Air Astana also offers direct flights between the UK and Almaty starting at £481 return. He stayed at Radisson Blu (00 800 3333 3333, radissonblu.com), which offers double rooms in Astana from $537 (£369) per night including breakfast.

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