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Astana (population 620,000) is an urban expression of Kazakhstan's post-independence achievements, a statement of an increasingly wealthy and confident country. The country’s spectacular new capital has risen fast from the northern steppe and is already a showpiece for 21st-century Kazakhstan. It is scheduled to go on rising and spreading into a city of over 1 million people by 2030. Its skyline grows more fantastical by the year as landmark buildings in a variety of Asian, Western, Soviet and wacky futuristic styles, many of them by leading international architects, sprout on vast acreage south of the Ishim River.

Astana is a city of Civil Servants. Most are young, well motivated and Kazakh. They are the high-achievers and the cream of the country's universities. They have come from all over Kazakhstan for one purpose: to get on... Naturally they work long hours. Often twelve hours or more a day. In sleek new Government offices. Often at weekends. They came to work, and work they do. So Saturday night is often the only time they can relax. In winter they hold parties where they exchange experiences with their new neighbours or colleagues, eat the traditional Kazakh sheep dish, Bishparmak, and sing the mournful songs of the Kazakh Steppe. In spring and summer it has become habitual for thousands to promenade along the newly-constructed corniche on the Ishym River. There the city authorities put on free 'Sound and Light' shows with the latest dazzling Western effects and music. By this token, the young Kazakh movers and shakers who will certainly shape the future of the country realise that by moving to Astana they have finally arrived.

The Washington Times has called Astana the first 'post-Soviet city' and thought it looked more like San Antonio. Much of its architecture has a distinctly Eastern feel about it which can put the first-time visitor in mind of Bahrain or Kuwait. The manic tempo of construction, however, is more reminiscent of contemporary Shanghai than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

The new Presidential Palace, the Baiterek observation tower-a landmark for the city and the country-Kazakhstan's largest mosque, the modernistic KazMunaiGaz building, many more government and business complexes with glass and steel facades, gigantic residential complexes in imperial styles, massive hotels, an exhibition centre, a monumental leisure centre, an oceanarium, a national library and archives, a special zone for diplomats… there is no end in sight to the building boom on the Yesil's southern bank. In 2006, Sir Norman Foster's architect firm completed an inspirational glass pyramid named the Palace of Peace and Harmony that has garnered praise around the world; it was created to be  a meeting place for the leading representatives of world religions. Such was its success that Foster's company has been commissioned again, this time to build an even bigger construction, a colossal 150-metre-high, tent-shaped cone named Khan Shatyr, which opened in 2010 to provide 10,000 of the capital's residents and visitors with a massive recreation centre protected from the elements by a transparent plastic compound that absorbs the sun and regulates the temperature inside, allowing people to sip coffee and even sunbathe by an artificial lake while it is well below freezing outside (during the cold steppe winter).

Meanwhile, flowers, shrubs and trees planted on spacious green axes throughout the city attempt to reduce the effects of the extreme weather caused by Astana's continental climate. With Astana, Kazakhstan is presenting a completely new, ultra-modern face to the world, one that shows its ambitions both within the region and on the global stage, and also its economic and financial power.

The decision to relocate Kazakhstan's administrative capital from Almaty (Alma-Ata) was taken in 1994 and was met with scepticism. It meant moving the capital from the temperate south-east of the country, 1,250 kms north-eastwards to an insignificant agricultural processing town on the Steppe, characterised by an extreme continental climate, not unlike central Canada. The reasons, however, for moving were sound. Almaty was essentially a Soviet or Russian city with which the new Kazakh majority found it difficult to identify. Tucked into a corner of the country, Almaty is simply thousands of kilometres away from most of the country's population — Astana is much more readily accessible to the north and west of the country. And Almaty was prone to earthquakes.

A Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa was thus commissioned to prepare a city master plan, threading a new so-called 'eco-city' around the River Ishym. Already Astana is filled with imposing modernistic Government offices, a national library, a national sports stadium, a national museum; and a spanking new international airport started construction in 2003. Astana is designed to create an enduring symbol of the new Kazakhstan and the new Kazakh majority. Nonetheless the city designers have left a space for the venerable wooden Orthodox church from 1854 which still serves the sizeable Russian population.

Before 1994 Astana (then known as Tselinograd, and founded as Akmola) was a provincial trading centre of 100,000 souls, serving the collective wheat farms of the Virgin Lands. By 2010 it will have been totally transformed. It is expected to house over one million people, with its own bustling diplomatic quarter, its cosmopolitan restaurants and elegant residences. Around US$12 billion (some 30% of it from the government) had already been spent on building the new Astana by 2010. Some have dubbed it the ‘Dubai of the steppe’. 

The politicians and officials working in the city are housed in apartment complexes of increasing architectural audacity: shimmering to represent the northern lights, or aping one of the Stalinist-era 'Seven Sisters' skyscrapers in Moscow. To get a clear sense of Kazakhstan's aspirations, you should come here.

Astana was founded in 1830 as a Russian fortress called Akmola (Kazakh for ‘white tomb’). In the 1950s Akmola became the headquarters of the Virgin Lands scheme and was renamed Tselinograd (Virgin Lands City) in 1961. After the USSR collapsed, Akmola got back its old name. But Nazarbaev’s plan to shift the capital attracted cynical comments that Akmola would be the president’s own political ‘white tomb’. Thus the place became simply Astana – Kazakh for ‘capital’. Reasons cited by Nazarbaev for the change were Astana’s location, more central and less earthquake-prone than Almaty’s, and better transport links with Russia. Others have speculated that he may also have wanted to head off secessionist sentiments among the north’s ethnic Russian population. Astana is now a nexus of people from all over Kazakhstan. Some find it an impersonal place, but the country’s ambitious and talented are increasingly drawn here. It’s easy to question the spending of billions on prestige architecture, but many citizens are clearly proud of their new capital. As an exercise in nation building its merits are obvious. 

Orientation - The Ishim River (Yesil in Kazakh) flows roughly southeast–northwest across the city. The old city is north of the river, known as the right bank (pravy bereg in Russian). The city centre, and most hotels, restaurants and other services, are still here. The showpiece governmental hub of Kazakhstan is growing up fast to the south (mostly on the left bank, levy bereg), on land that was once just a scattering of dachas (holiday bungalows) for the folk of Tselinograd. The train and bus stations are side by side, 3km north of centre. The airport is 14km south.

The Palace of Peace & Accord, currently near the southeast edge of the city, is conceived as Astana’s symbolic centre, and by 2030 it will be near the geographical centre too. The southern part of the city is planned to spread far beyond its current extents. Landmark projects in the pipeline include Batygai, a self-contained ‘indoor town’ for 10,000 people west of the Khan Shatyr; ‘Mini-Venice’, a residential complex with canals, west of Batygai; and Abu Dhabi Plaza, a cluster of towers south of the Bayterek Monument, which will be Astana’s tallest building (372m) and is yet another Norman Foster project. The design of the new National Library (architects: Bjarke Ingels Group, Denmark), south of the State Auditorium, is based on a Mobius strip. It may look like a giant metallic doughnut. On the airport road 3km south of Nurzhol bulvar, the 30,000-seat National Stadium, with a retractable roof, opened in 2009.