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Baiterek Tower

As you drive from the airport towards the city, the first thing that stands out from a distance is a very tall structure on the right, crowned by a golden, glittering globe. This is the Baiterek observation tower, the "Tree of Life".

A monument, at the heart of a large square centred on the Nurzhol Boulevard, has become a symbol of Astana and indeed of post-independence Kazakhstan. It was President Nazarbayev's idea, and he also has a clear view of it from his living room, for his new residence is located in full sight of the 97-metre-high structure. It takes the form of a tall tower topped with a large golden globe, the latter positioned at a height of 97m in commemoration of Astana's elevation to the status of state capital in 1997. A white metal structure branches out beneath the golden ball, appearing to cradle it. The form of the monument is heavy with symbolism. Plaques in Russian and Kazakh at the entrance explain the background. According to an ancient Kazakh legend, on the banks of the World River grew the tree of life, Baiterek. The roots of the tree lay in the subterranean world, its trunk in the earthly one and its crown in the heavens. Each year the sacred bird Samruk laid a golden egg in the crown of this tree, only for it to be consumed by the dragon Aidakhar, which lived at the base of it. This annual routine of egg laying and destruction symbolised the switch between summer and winter, day and night, good and evil.

The entrance to the monument is on its south side. You descend some steps to the subterranean world, which is given a somewhat aquatic theme. There is an aquarium, and a cafe decorated with an undersea mural. A lift, offering an accompaniment of soft Kazakh music, takes you up into the egg. There is an excellent, albeit gold-tinted, view in all directions: north to the apartment blocks of the right bank, east to the Ak Orda and Palace of Peace and Harmony, and south and west beyond the construction sites of the expanding city to the great expanses of open steppe beyond. Steps take you up to a higher viewing floor, which also offers a model of the left bank buildings.

Ascend a spiral staircase to the highest platform within the golden dome. Here stands a green malachite plinth, on top of which is a disc made of 5kg of solid silver. Resting on this in turn is a triangular-shaped 2kg lump of gold, into which is pressed the handprint of President Nazarbaev. Guides urge visitors to place their hands in that of the president and make a wish. When official delegations visit this place, loud patriotic music starts up when each senior visitor places their hand inside the imprint of that of the president. Next to this plinth is a slanted wooden table topped with half a globe, around which are arranged the signatures of the representatives of 17 religions attending the first Congress of World and Traditional Religions held in Astana, an interfaith dialogue initiative of President Nazarbaev. An inscription in Kazakh and English expresses the hope that Kazakhstan, the land of peace and accord, be blessed.

Another somewhat egg-shaped building, the grey structure on the west side of the square, is part of the national archive. The beige-walled, columned building occupying the north side of the square is home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its partner on the south side of the square, with a small pyramid structure at the centre of its roof, houses the Ministry of Defence. Another interesting architectural composition stands just to the east of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building: a cylindrical structure topped by a communications tower which gives the whole building the appearance of a giant syringe. It houses the Astanalik Business Centre.

On the east side of the square, as Nurzhol Boulevard continues its eastward march, is the fountain composition known as the Singing Fountains for the synchronised music and water performances provided during summer evenings, from around 21.00. Around here are scattered some more interesting pieces of sculpture: giant plastic versions of Kazakh jewellery, including chunky rings and bracelets, and canvas-covered elephants, giraffes and camels, which look like giant stuffed toys.