When I entered the modern train heading for Astana at Karaganda Station I didn´t really know what to expect as regards to Astana. I had talked to some expats and they had said it is an oddly interesting place, but one day will be enough. After two days in this extra ordinary city, I have to say, it is definitely a place to note down clearly on the bucket list of places to see before you die. And one day is not enough at all!
The train from Karaganda was fresh, new and fast. We traveled through the endless steppe and both Pam and me could rest most of it, because the girls preferred being together with our playful new friend, Nazym Kassymzhanova, who would be our guide to this futuristic city made the capital of this the ninth biggest country in the world, 1997. It has had a few name changes in the past. It was originally named Akmolinsk back in 1830, renamed Tselinograd 1961, Akmola 1992 and in 1998 it was renamed to Astana, which means capital in Kazakh. Since this day it has grown fast from 281 000 inhabitants 1997 to almost 825 000 today. And it has become the futuristic capital of the world due to one man´s will power, the president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Just imagine this….the endless steppe, the biggest in the world, runs monotonous in all directions, there´s nothing but a snow covered grass steppe. Suddenly, in the horizon, like mirage, a city dominated by sky scrapers shoots up from the endless steppe, Astana!
We got off at the train station after three hours of travelling and stepped out into wet snow, cold, dark and grey skies. We were all hungry so we went to one of these restaurants, like Kaganat, frequently used by students and had a big meal of wholesome Russian food. This was located in the old part of Astana and pawn brokers, Lombardi, and Betting Offices was as usual all over the place. I knew for example that a normal salary for a teacher in Kazakhstan is around 60 000 tenge (approx 250 pounds, less then we use a month on food and living, like bus tickets, detergent and so on) and that many is forced to find other ways to get money for survival. We waited quite a long time for the right bus to take us over the Ishim river, which separates the old and new part of the city. As usual when we got on the bus with children, people offered their seats immediately. For a Swede this is unheard of! In Sweden they wouldn´t even offer your seat if you where legless and blind at the same time. On the packed bus it was easy to see the new demography of the city. Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, tartars, Ukrainians, Germans and loads of people from neighboring countries who have moved to the city, legally or illegally, to work in this booming place.
We got off the bus just in front of the symbol of city, Bayterek Tower, a 105 meter high structure designed amazingly enough by the president himself. It looks like a giant steel stand holding an golden egg at the top and its design is based on a popular folktale. So the egg at the top is laid by a mythical bird called Samruk. Even though weather was lousy, once we stepped inside the monument, it was crowded with people from all walks of Kazakh life who had made their way there in awe of the magnificence of the place. Many where wedding couples who had come here to get their picture taken at this national symbol and like most others they made the elevator trip up to the top where the president´s palm print is impressed in a triangle of gold and silver pointing towards his palace. It is said if you place your hand in his, it will give you lots of luck and make life prosperous. The queue was long to get that privilege!
It was easy to see that many had made it to the tower for the first time, which we realized when we took the elevator going all the way up the 100 meters. Of course, first of all queuing is non-existent and would cause an Englishmen a nervous breakdown, but when villagers are in town they just throw themselves ahead and fill up the elevator in such a way, that there would be an interest from the Guinness Book Of Records to attend. Three times people had to get out not too overload. When it was our turn, everybody rushed in and the elevator stood still for quite some time, before I dared to say press the button. People next to me laughed embarrassingly and one lady said: “They (meaning us) probably think we come just from the village and have never been outside the yurta!”
The views from the globe was amazing! It is a must to go to the top, not only for the views, but also whilst looking out to be able to get an idea of the outlay of the city planned by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurakawa. his idea is based on the interweaving of city and nature, with swaths of green between the buildings. The Bayterek Monument is kind of in the center of an axes of extra ordinary buildings constructed by architects, who it seems have almost been given free hands to construct the most amazing buildings. But an English speaking guide in Bayterek told me it all had a strong Kazakh theme and that the idea was the work of the president and his chief architect, Shokhan Mataibekov.
My wife´s big wish was to see the pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Concord, a 62 meter high silver pyramid designed by Lord Foster on the presidents idea. So we grabbed another bus and got off just in front of some under construction sky scrapers calling them self High Vill. But it was getting late and we decided to come back the next day, so we passed the great mosque, which was dwarfed by the sky scrapers, crossed the incredibly wide and orderly road and entered the newly opened National Museum of Kazakhstan, only opened in June 2014. At 74 000 square meters it is one of the biggest museums in the world and once you step inside, it is hard not to get impressed by the size!
Now, if it is one of few things I am not impressed with in Kazakhstan, it is some of the people working in the museum and this incredibly dumb idea of not allowing visitors to take photos. It is these photos which attract others to come, which must be the whole idea with a museum. Attracting visitors. It just irritates a visitor. And to monitor visitors every museum seems to have hired the relatives of Feliks Dzerzhinsky and Josef Stalin, because they horde you around like cattle, they don´t give you enough time to view what is on display and if you even stop to long or it seems like you might take out that hidden camera, they´re on to you. And they hush the kids if they just for a second laugh of joy. A museum should be a place of knowledge and joy, not a gulag. this behavior defeats the idea of having a museum. And it is always grannies who are the worst. just like in our building in Karaganda where we live. The best museum so far as regards to this of all we have visited so far in Kazakhstan, 10 of them, is oddly enough…Karlag. the former administration center, now a museum, in Dolinka. Those who worked there were accommodating, smiling and helpful.
Even though we enjoyed a few of the exhibitions, especially the light show at the end, where a model of the city appeared from the floor and rose up into the sky as a fenix, the incredibly unfriendly and uncultured behavior of these museum guards killed our joy.
Our happiness returned quickly when we got out into the snow fall, saw the view in front of us and our great guide and friend Nazym stopped a car the local way, hitch hiking but paying a bit to the driver and we set off to the hotel that our great friend Raushan Mukhamejanova had set us up with. Now, my wife hasn´t stayed in a hotel, which is kind of a vacation to tired parents, since….well except a night in London in July at the end of my England Expedition….Moscow 2012. And the Red Village Hotel turned out the dream she wished. Clean, extremely fresh, high international standard, flat screen TV, English speaking personal who were incredibly friendly and internationally service minded. It turned out one of the best evenings we have had in a long time where everybody felt comfortable and relaxed!
Astana, love at first sight!