For many visitors, the capital of Kazakhstan is an astonishing sight—unlike any other city they’ve seen. My first impressions—from the air and then from the airport highway—evoked otherworldly metaphors. Strange shapes rose out of the steppe—spires, domes, globes, ovals, and pyramids in gold, silver, blue, and turquoise. The taxi passed the gleaming facade of Nazarbayev University, then sports stadiums and arenas built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, with their massive, curved metal and concrete spans. Then triumphal arches, monumental public buildings, upscale apartment blocks, the huge Nur Astana mosque, shopping malls, and manicured parks, most of which on a chilly Saturday afternoon in September were almost deserted.
Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at www.davidhmould.com (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube
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. Almaty (the former capital) and Tashkent look like other Soviet-era cities with their colonnaded public buildings and monotonous apartment blocks. Bishkek and Dushanbe have similar architecture, but are rougher around the edges. Astana looks more like Dubai. It is growing fast, but even by the latest (2012) population estimate of 775,000, it is still less than half the size of Almaty or Tashkent (each of which has about two million inhabitants). However, the futuristic architecture makes Astana look and feel bigger. Which is exactly what its chief conceptual architect, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, intended.
Like other capital cities throughout human history, Astana is designed to impress visitors. Just as medieval travelers returned home with tales of the fabulous cities of the East, modern travelers to Astana are treated to a visual spectacle. Astana is a twenty-first-century version of Karakorum, the thirteenth-century capital city of the Mongol Empire. Contemporary visitors to Karakorum were suitably awed, perhaps because they thought the Mongols were too busy rampaging and pillaging their way across Asia and Eastern Europe to actually build anything more than siege fortifications and campfires.
In 1253, the Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck, who had accompanied the French king Louis IX on the Seventh Crusade, set out from Constantinople for Karakorum. Louis had given the monk the medieval version of mission impossible—convert the Mongols to Christianity. Whether or not William knew the futility of his assignment, he set out to record his party’s journey in detail, producing one of the great travel narratives of the age, comparable to that of Marco Polo.
After traveling for almost seven thousand miles William and his companions entered a wealthy, bustling city at the heart of a major trading network, with markets, temples, and a cosmopolitan population, including Christians. The Great Khan even staged a debate at court among adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. William’s detailed account of the journey and the six-month stay at Karakorum, and the reports of other missionaries and merchants, helped to counter popular views of the Mongols as a murderous horde.
Like Karakorum, Astana is the concrete symbol of a modern and business-friendly Kazakhstan, an emerging economic and cultural power at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In his writings and public speeches, Nazarbayev positions Kazakhstan within Eurasia, arguing that the nation embodies the best of the West and the East in its economy, education, religion, civil society, and values. The Eurasian motif is visible in the signature architecture of Astana, where elements of Western and Eastern design are combined. Astana hosts Eurasian conferences and events; businesses claim to reach the Eurasian market; Eurasian National University is the largest institution of higher education in the capital.
For Nazarbayev, Astana was never the otherworldly, utopian fantasy that its critics have claimed. Astana is a combination of Karakorum and Dubai, the center of a new Mongol empire built, not on military conquest, but on oil and gas revenues, authoritarian government, investments in technology and education, and soft diplomacy with the West, Russia, and China. In a commentary to mark Astana Day, the city’s fifteenth anniversary, on July 6, 2013, Nazarbayev wrote: “The fate of Astana is the fate of all Kazakhstanis who have boldly crossed the threshold between two centuries. This is the fate of independent Kazakhstan, which has walked the great path from the obscure fringe of a fallen superpower known to few in the world to a dynamic modern state which the international community knows and respects.” Astana Day was also (not coincidentally) Nazarbayev’s seventy-third birthday. For the crowds who attended the birthday celebrations and the millions who watched the spectacle on TV, the association between city, country, and president was more than metaphorical. Astana was Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev had created Astana. Ergo, Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan.