Snow days in Astana

          Kazakhstan’s capital Astana is renowned for its futuristic and eclectic (or ostentatious and jumbled, depending on one’s aesthetic) architecture.  It also has a more dubious distinction: it’s the second coldest capital city in the world.


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           If you’re looking for steady, seasonal work, try snow removal in Astana.  In January and February, the city clears snow almost every day.  It’s an impressive operation.  In some North American cities, snow piles up alongside roads and sidewalks.  In Astana they literally remove it.  Workers break up the snow and ice with pickaxes, and shovel it into front loaders that dump it into trucks that haul it out of town.  I don’t know where they dump it, but if some farmer’s field is still under snow in May, we’ll have a clue. 

                Astana is, according to climate data, the second coldest capital city in the world, with Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia (another city where I’ve shivered in April) in first place. It attained this dubious status when it became the capital in 1997, knocking Ottawa out of second spot. Understandably, the government and the tourist agencies don’t talk much about temperatures in their promotional brochures.  They’d prefer foreigners to think that other Northern Hemisphere capitals, such as Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavik and Pyongyang, are colder. 

                Of course, defining “coldest” raises methodological issues.  Are we looking at average temperatures across the year, average winter temperatures or just extreme conditions, when the temperature plunges to, say, minus 40 Celsius?  I vote (with my cold feet) for average winter temperatures.  Astana has an extreme continental climate with warm summers and long, cold, dry winters.  Temperatures of minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) to minus 35 Celsius (minus 31 Fahrenheit) are common between mid-December and early March.  The city also holds the record for the lowest air temperature ever recorded in Kazakhstan (minus 51 Celsius). Typically, the River Ishim freezes over between the second week of November and the beginning of April.   It can feel even colder because of the wind chill.

                My Fulbright Fellowship began in mid-January and I was prepared.  My wife Stephanie had bought me a warm down coat, an alpaca wool hat, gloves with liners and two pairs of silk long johns.  Unfortunately, United Airlines stored my checked luggage at Dulles Airport for three days before handing it over to Lufthansa for delivery.  The long johns, of course, were in the luggage.  I ventured out the first morning wearing almost all the outer clothing I had, my legs yearning for those long johns.  As I stood shivering at the bus stop, my U.S. embassy liaison nonchalantly remarked that it was “not too cold today—only minus 30 Celsius.” 

                Some parts of Astana are definitely colder than others.  On the left bank among the high-rise apartments, government ministries, malls, parks and public squares, the wind blows hard off the steppe, funneling along the boulevards and buffeting the few pedestrians brave enough to be outside.  On the right bank in the older city, the buildings are closer together, providing shelter from the wind.  Maybe it is partly psychological, but it feels warmer—or, in Astana terms, not as bone-chillingly cold—there.   


           On the streets, walking can be hazardous to your health.  The snow may be only a few inches deep but it is hard-packed.  However, it’s safer walking on the snow than on the sidewalk, which is often a sheet of pure ice.  I moved slowly, looking for patches of snow that would give me a firmer footing.  The locals seemed to be equipped with all-weather feet, walking briskly, some of the women in fashionable high heels.  My complaints about the winter fall on deaf ears.   Alexander, a taxi driver, told me the winter had so far been mild.  He recalled that when he was growing up in a village in northern Kazakhstan, the snow reached almost to the roof (almost 10 feet high) of the family’s one-story home and they had to dig a passage through to the street.  He said they never got too cold, because they had an ample wood supply and because the deep snow around the house had an igloo effect. 

                Even after my long johns arrived and my legs were reasonably warm, I didn’t walk any further than I had to for risk of falling.  In almost three months, I left my apartment in the evening only three or four times to meet friends for dinner, and always took a taxi.  At weekends, I would walk 15-20 minutes along Valikhanova Street to the covered market, four blocks away.  Sometimes I stopped at a coffee shop that doubled as an English-language library with books and DVDs.  It also offered old newspapers and magazines donated by customers.  You could learn that “Republicans Win 2010 Midterm U.S. Elections” six months after the fact in case you missed the story.  I asked a British couple, Paul and Sarah, what they did for fun in Astana in winter.  There was a brief silence.  “Well, we often come here, have coffee, check out a DVD and go home and watch it,” said Sarah.  This was not encouraging news. 

                The government of Kazakhstan has spent lavishly to make its capital a city where people will want to live and work.  It has worked hard to brand Astana as a business destination, and as a host city for international conferences and sporting events.  The city has a modern airport, five-star hotels, new conference and exhibition halls, upscale shopping malls and the usual range of “international” cuisine—from sushi and tapas bars to the somewhat incongruous Irish pubs.  It’s now the sort of city that merits a glossy spread in an airline magazine, the writer gushing about his “24 Hours in Astana, Jewel of the Steppe,” the architecture, museums and nightlife.  But neither government policy nor business investment can change the climate.