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.


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