For many visitors, Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is an astonishing sight. Strange shapes rise out of the steppe—spires, domes, globes, ovals, and pyramids in gold, silver, blue, and turquoise. Whatever you think about futuristic architecture (or what it cost to build it, and whether the money could have been better invested in Kazakhstan’s social needs), Astana is unlike any other capital city in Central Asia.
The most popular destination in Astana for domestic and foreign tourists is Bayterek, the monument and observation tower in the new city on the left bank of the River Ishim. Bayterek represents a poplar tree holding a golden egg, a central symbol in Turkic mythology—the tree of life. Samruk, the magical bird of happiness, is said to have laid its egg in the branches of a poplar tree. Not coincidentally, Samruk is also the name given to Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth corporation which owns the government oil, gas, and mining companies, the railroad system, postal services, the national airline, and financial groups. In Astana, Samruk literally laid a golden egg.
The observation deck is 97 meters (318 feet) above ground level, corresponding to 1997, the year Astana became the capital. One level offers 360-degree views of Astana and beyond, with a three-dimensional model of how the city will look in the future. The second and higher level features a wooden sculpture of a globe and a gilded print of Preseident Nursultan Nazarbayev’s right hand. Bayterek has an almost shrine-like quality. It is easy to see that, after Nazarbayev’s death, it will likely become a place of pilgrimage, where citizens, cursing the latest set of scoundrels ruling the country, will solemnly place a hand in that of the Great Leader and ask him to return from the grave to restore national pride.
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