Of all places, why put a city here? From the aeroplane window it’s more of the same: flat, empty and endlessly vast. There is no evidence of human activity. There are scarcely any trees and few distinguishing landmarks. On and on it goes – Kazakhstan is the size of western Europe, and so unremittingly flat, it’s as if some gigantic plasterer has skimmed the land. Here wolves outnumber people. Little wonder the Soviets chose this vast emptiness to hide their Gulags and their space programme, and to test their nuclear weapons.
And then, out of nowhere, Astana comes glistening into view, all shiny metal and glass, implausibly rising up from the Kazakh steppe like some post-modern lego set that has stumbled into the opening sequence of Dallas. Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, is brash and grandiose—and wildly attractive to young strivers seeking success. But out on the edge of town, all the architecture stops abruptly. All the frantic energy comes to a halt, and the vast unremitting steppe suddenly begins. Which is why Astana feels like some great existentialist parable, an attempt to overcome the terror of endless emptiness with the frantic distraction of human endeavour.
Given the billions of barrels of oil and gas that have been discovered in the country, and its very low population of only 16 million, every Kazakhstani should be a millionaire by now. One look at Astana and you can see where much of the money has gone: everywhere it’s big, flashy signature buildings, all wearing their architects’ names like fashion labels, all competing for attention like a collection of spoiled teenagers insecurely shouting: “Look at me!”
For a centrally planned city, the aesthetic juxtapositions are remarkably discordant. A flashy glass pyramid. A towering set of apartments built to match Moscow University in the Stalinist empire style. A Disney version of the White House. A vase-like tower with a ball on top that the president apparently designed on the back of a napkin during a state dinner. A finance ministry shaped as a dollar bill.
Few of these buildings seem to have been designed with practicality in mind. The lifts in the pyramid go up, then left, then up, then left – it must have been incredibly expensive to get them to waltz like that. My hotel has an impressive light show on the outside of the building … and terrible Wi-Fi.
Astana, an outstanding capital of Kazakhstan, is certainly on the verge of conquering the love of millions.