In Central Asia, a giant ’steppe’ towards 21st century city (Letter from Kazakhstan)

October 20th, 2008 - 12:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Astana, Oct 20 (IANS) An icy wind blasting across a large swathe of open steppe land welcomes you warmly in this spectacular capital city of Kazakhstan, sometimes making it hard to catch your breath.Nevertheless, Astana, in the heart of the Central Asian landlocked country of 16 million people, has turned into a modern city aptly called the “Manhattan on Steppe”. Not long ago, this area was almost a forgotten place.

Astana was a rundown provincial city when President Nusultan Nazarbayev conceived his dream of shifting his political centre from Almaty in the south despite lack of enthusiasm among the country’s elite.

Said an official: “This move was mainly to promote the development of the country’s north.”

But observers here say the capital was moved to ensure Kazakhstan’s security and assert its claim in the northern part, housing a large Russian minority.

A diplomat, who wished not to be named, said: “It’s a move to send a message to Moscow - (Kazakhstan’s closest business and military partner) - that the country’s territorial integrity is uncompromisable.”

This city, known at the time as Akmola, officially became the capital in 1997 - almost six years after Kazakhstan declared independence from the erstwhile USSR. It was later renamed Astana, meaning capital city in the Kazakh language.

Today history has been erected tall and high with Astana being considered one of the most beautiful cities of the 21st century. Already over $10 billion has been invested in raising the infrastructure and many billions are still flowing in for its construction, said a government official.

Located on the left bank of the Ishim River, the city, originally drafted by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, is a huge panaroma of multicoloured towers and government offices.

The high-rise buildings, many say, vaguely remind one of the National Mall in Washington. The white-coloured and blue dome-shaped presidential palace in the centre, the senate and lower house of parliament, on one side, and glistening, huge offices built in marble, granite and tinted glass, at the other end, are some of the architectural masterpieces here.

And then the peak of a pyramid rises more than 200 feet high. Much like the entire city, the nine-storey monument was built in a rush - a little less than two years from conception to construction - for a meeting of world religions, held after every three years.

The pyramid - the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation - designed by British architect Norman Foster links the presidential palace to a 340-foot glass-and-metal observation tower called Baiterek, or Tree of Life, whose spherical, golden-hued deck symbolises the Kazakh legend of mythical bird Samruk which lays a golden egg each year in a poplar tree.

Inside the ball-shaped deck, atop Baiterek, visitors place their hand in the president’s palm imprint to have “good luck”.

The buildings have also earned nicknames from irreverent locals in a form of private protest against the city master plan which has displaced many. Baiterek is called “Chupa Chups”, after the lollipop. One government building is known as the “Lighter” - it had caught fire in May 2006 - and is positioned near a semicircular building, earning the entire complex the epithet of “Ashtray”.

Almost a million inhabitants are expected to live in this city - spread over tens of thousands of acres - by 2030 compared with almost 700,000 now, which is already more than double the figure a decade ago.

But the shifting of the capital from Almaty has not received a universal welcome. And that is why flights from Astana to Almaty are overbooked during weekends by people who rush to holiday in the former capital.

In Astana, winter temperatures routinely fall to anything between zero and minus 40 while in Almaty - the balmy south - the average temperature is about 20 degrees higher.

“I feel nostalgic about Almaty. We have a cultural legacy there. Almaty is reflective of Kazakhstan’s age-old civilisation unlike Astana,” said Indira, a waitress at a restaurant who refused to give her second name.

“But”, she added, “I think our future is here only now.”

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at s.kashani@ians.in)

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