THE 40 BILLION DOLLAR CITY
WELCOME TO ASTANA THE WEIRDEST, WEALTHIEST AND MOST FUTURISTIC CAPITAL YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF.
In 1997, Kazakhstan’s long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, decided he didn’t like where the country’s capital was sitting, so he moved it.
Until then, the nation’s base was Almaty, a city of some 1.7 million inhabitants in the country’s south that remains its most populous metropolis. But that was too close to China for Nazarbayev’s liking. His new capital, appropriately named Astana – Kazakh for ‘capital’ – would be nearly 1000km further north, towards the Russian border. Over the next two decades, the former Soviet state would pour billions of dollars into building the most surreal artificial city the world has ever seen. Amsterdam-based photographer Ryan Koopmans first visited Astana in 2011. “I sort of just discovered it online,” he says. “I was looking for cities that have been built from scratch – like a planned city – and Astana was just one of the most extreme versions. I went there to take pictures of the buildings, and realised, over time, how much material there was for a long-term project.” In 1999, Astana’s population was 281,000, a number that had doubled to at least 600,000 by 2007. Latest figures indicate there’s now 700-800,000 residents, making it Kazakhstan’s second-biggest city. “The population has gone up as quickly as it can,” says Koopmans. “But considering the sense of scale, it doesn’t feel like a lot of people. There’s no urban density, so it’s underpopulated, considering the magnitude of infrastructure – large thoroughfares and boulevards without much traffic.” Getting around usually means trains (which transport Kazakhs between the country’s major centres and which can also be old and unreliable), cars and so-called ‘gypsy cabs’ – unlicensed taxis that take passengers for an agreed fare. There are also shared mini buses, marshrutka, which transport locals within the city. “The people are very friendly and hospitable. It’s common to see families taking their kids out on the weekend, and I’ve noticed a lot of children running around or being walked by their parents,” says Koopmans. “There’s definitely a large business presence, but it’s not like the streets are filled with businessmen. They’re presumably holed up in the big modern towers that hover above. The people seem to use this new landscape as sort of an amusement park.” Koopmans has returned to photograph the city several times in the past five years, and says that while it was initially rare to see foreign tourists, locals are now becoming used to visitors. “It’s pretty isolated. It’s located in the [Kazakh] Steppe, and when it was first built there was absolutely nothing around,” he says. “It’s still a very remote little metropolis in the middle of nowhere. It’s very kitsch and over the top, with gold sculptures everywhere. Everything’s sort of bedazzled.” He’s not wrong. The city serves as Kazakhstan’s political and business hub, and is home to the country’s Parliament House, Senate, Supreme Court, Presidential Palace and a number of large, state-owned corporations. “It feels like someone’s charted out a big symmetrical plan for this amusement park and just built it all. It’s very considered in its layout, but it’s hard to place – some buildings are reminiscent of certain styles, but then the structure next to it totally throws you off. A bit like one would presume a futuristic city to look like, minus the flying cars.” Planned cities are nothing new. Like Washington DC or Canberra, Astana is a capital built to order. And while Canberra delivers roundabouts, Astana offers a spectacular cityscape of ultramodern buildings – with a total construction bill estimated at $15-40bn. Sitting in the otherwise flat Kazakh landscape, these gleaming structures stand out like a collection of pricey, futuristic trophies. There’s the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a 77m glass pyramid, completed in 2006 to the tune of $75m. There’s the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall (cost: $175m), a jumble of glass shards that resemble a flower’s petals. And then the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre ($520m), shaped like a traditional Kazakh yurt. “It’s pretty cool,” says Koopmans. “On the top floor, there’s a big indoor beach – very Dubai – with sand and palm trees.” This is in addition to stadiums, mosques, shopping centres, a glass arts centre known as the ‘Dog Bowl’, a circus building that looks more like a flying saucer, a velodrome shaped like a cycling helmet, a pair of conical golden towers affectionately called the ‘Beer Cans’, and man-made rivers and lakes. Also in development is Abu Dhabi Plaza, a cluster of skyscrapers containing office, residential, hotel and commercial spaces. The project’s due for completion in 2018, at a cost of more than $1.4bn. “They’re building a bunch of new stuff right now and they’re doing a lot of
“It’s kitsch and over the top... a futuristic city, minus the flying cars.”
renovations. When I first went in 2011, a lot of the major buildings had just been finished and were so new that maintenance wasn’t an issue. Over the years, I’ve noticed some of the sheen has deteriorated a little.” Koopmans says it’s more fascinating than fun. “I wouldn’t say I go there to enjoy it,” he states. “It’s interesting – for curious adventure-traveller types, there are things you could find to do. But by no means is there a bunch of attractions. They’re trying to change that, but the extent of the entertainment would be the mall and walking around looking at the garden landscape and weird ornaments and whatnot.” Many of the buildings were designed by acclaimed global architects, including Brit Norman Foster and late Japanese luminary Kisho Kurokawa, who was also responsible for the city’s master plan. But its central landmark – a colossal pillar known as Bayterek Tower – was President Nazarbayev’s own handiwork. Stretching 105m towards the heavens, it resembles a giant poplar tree, with an observation deck that overlooks the main square, 97m above ground level – a tribute to the year Astana was adopted as the country’s capital. “It has a big golden egg on top,” adds Koopmans, “and inside is a huge gold imprint of the President’s hand, but it’s way bigger than a regular person’s hand would ever be. It shows his godlike status.” Nazarbayev’s been leader of Kazakhstan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and remains the country’s first and only president. He was returned to office for a fifth term in 2015, after winning almost 98 per cent of the vote. “The leader has this cult-like status where he can do whatever he wants. Astana means ‘capital’ in Kazakh, and the idea is that when he dies it will be renamed Nazarbayev or something like that. But corruption is big – highways are constantly being dug up because a contract goes to a friend of so-and-so.” Kazakhstan rarely makes news headlines in Australia. Not since Borat, anyway. And while many people may consider it to be a relatively minor state, tucked away somewhere between Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the truth is it’s anything but insignificant. Spanning almost 2.8 million square kilometres (an area roughly equivalent in size to Western Europe), it’s the world’s biggest landlocked country and the ninth largest in the world. It also happens to be sitting on enormous reserves of oil and gas – resources that have fuelled Astana’s dramatic rise from the Eurasian Steppe. Kazakhstan exported $35bn worth of oil last year alone – hence the taste for flashy architecture. Nazarbayev has also used that money to reaffirm the traditional Kazakh identity, dotting the capital with symbols of the nation’s past. “It’s almost like they’re reappropriating their own culture,” says Koopmans. “A lot of these symbols are from the nomadic Genghis Khan era and they’re trying to revive them to rebuild an identity that was wiped out during the Soviet rule. “Nazarbayev is seen as the father of the country. People may chuckle at the fact he has such ultimate rulership, but since his reign Kazakhstan has turned around from a dusty place where the Russians used to do nuclear tests. He’s really tapped into the energy and natural resources of the country, which have actually made it quite wealthy.” Still, beyond the confines of the capital, things look rather different. “The majority of the population would be fairly poor or existing in this post-soviet environment, where they’re still living in homogenous concrete communist-era buildings. In Almaty, there’s some modern development and that’s where a lot of wealthy people live, but Astana is the big central business district.” Kazakhstan shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and a large part of the Caspian Sea. In 1936, it became part of the Soviet Union and despite its subsequent independence, Russia remains its closest ally – a large part of the reason why Nazarbayev chose to move the capital closer. “Culturally speaking, there’s a huge identity and relationship with Russia,” says Koopmans. “Half the population is ethnic Russian in the north, and the language they prefer is Russian. Politically, they’re still on good terms because Nazarbayev has been in power since the fall of the Union. It’s definitely their closest partner.” Summer temperatures in Astana can hit up to 35ºc, though winters are cruel and the months between December and March can get as cold as -35ºc. When it was first created, Astana was named the world’s second-coldest capital city – after Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia – knocking Ottowa in Canada down to third spot. “I’ve largely been in the spring and summer,” says Koopmans, “so the main thing I want to do is go back and shoot during the dead of winter – even though I’ve heard it’s absolutely miserable.” Astana also has bold ambitions – nominated as one of the potential host cities in Kazakhstan’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Its stadiums have held everything from international cycling and basketball competitions, to football and speed skating. Next year, the city will host the 2017 World Fair, an international convention on sustainable energy options – apparently ignoring the fact that the whole place was paid for by oil. As for the future of this curious city, Koopmans remains unsure. “It’s so dependent on the global markets for resources. Plus, Nazarbayev hasn’t declared a natural successor and he’s quite old. But if all things are good, I imagine it will just continue to grow.”
Last year Kazakhstan exported $35bn worth of oil – hence the taste for flashy architecture.