SUNDAY, 21 MAY 2017

The Capital of Kazakhstan is a Mirage Conjured from Dust and Oil Money, says Sankha Guha

ASTANA: Excess All Areas

Twenty years ago it didn’t exist. There was a small town here on the edge of the Great Steppe called Akmola (which translates unappealingly as “white grave”). Now it has bloomed into Astana (which literally means ‘Capital’), a phantasmagorical vision of the future in the middle of precisely nowhere - a mirage conjured from dust and oil money. The mapmakers are not the only ones trying to figure it out.

This is the town President Nursultan Nazarbayev built. He’s been in power since 1989 - winning the last ‘election’ two years ago with an eyebrow raising 97.7% approval vote. He has the lifelong title of ‘Leader of the Nation’. In addition he is the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed Services and the Chairman of, well, pretty much everything else. When Nazarbayev wants to build something I suspect the correct response is simply – How eye popping would Sir like it?


Like the guitarist in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Astana's buildings have the volume dialled up to 11. They are loud! They scream for your attention. They sway and dance, they shimmer and radiate. They are shaped like flying saucers, rugby balls, beer cans, dog bowls, tents, eggs – here a medieval castle bristling with turrets on top of a wedding cake, there a Chinese pagoda on top of a sky scraper. At night the LEDs are switched on and the skyline pulses with towering video displays or fabulous light shows. It’s all set to 11. And then some.


This is not a city you would want to explore on foot. For one thing it would involve  tramping through knee high snow and slush that blanket Astana for about six months of the year. And, in common with other former Soviet capitals, the taste for grandiosity means roads aren’t just roads but eight lane super highways and parade ground boulevards. The supra-human public spaces seem eerily devoid of people, though this may be due to the timing of my visit, which coincides with Nauryz (the new year festival) when I am told many residents leave town to visit family.


I discover to my relief that the Uber app works perfectly in Astana. Most city centre journeys cost less than 500 Tenge – around £1.30. The cars tend to be d'un certain âge and of variable quality but they always turn up. As the drivers don’t usually speak a word of English having the destination and route mapped out on the app proves to be a lifeline. One driver, an ethnic Russian, surprises me by speaking near accentless English. He’s a retired army translator and spent time in Ethiopia; he’s eager to rekindle his language skills and equally eager in time-honoured cabby style to share his insights. If anyone wants to know where the country’s oil billions have gone, he observes, just look around.

As my plane descends into the pre-dawn darkness of this vast country the flight map shows us landing in a void. Where the new capital city of Kazakhstan should be, the map displays just brown space. It seems Astana has yet to register with the cartographers who programme the on board computer.


My hotel, the Rixos President, a five star grand hotel built in 2005, would satisfy the tastes of most oil barons – palm tree oasis in the palatial inner court, five storey high cascades of fairy lights and live parakeets squawking in cages. The blingy look references Dubai but the aspirations of younger Astana may be heading in a different direction of travel.


The Shoreditch – routinely pronounced Shore-eh-deetch - is the latest addition to what could be termed the alt dining scene of the city; marketing slogan - ‘we are the wok, we are the burger, we are the shoreditch.’ I dodge the bullet of traditional Kazakh delicacies like shuzhuk (horse meat sausage) and kumys (fermented mare’s milk) by taking cover here. The music is not reliable but the service is attentive and the cocktails and bistro style food are excellent. There is as yet no sign of a hipster influx but the writing is on the wall - opposite the cloakroom to be precise. Brick Lane says the faux London street sign, complete with Bengali iteration underneath.

Unusually, given the hubristic tendency of most of Astana’s landmarks, the Pyramid (aka Palace of Peace and Reconciliation), designed by Foster and partners, does not challenge the Great Pyramid at Giza for size. Its 62 metre elevation is nonetheless bizarre enough to have overexcited the Internet’s truth seekers, who see it as irrefutable evidence that Astana is the capital of the Illuminati. The stark faceted lines of the black foyers and stairways on the lower levels do indeed have a sinister edge – and would serve well as a cosy retreat for Darth Vader and a few of his favourite stormtroopers.


At the top however Foster has created a thing of transcendental beauty. Modelled on the UN Security Council chamber, this is where the world’s religious leaders are invited for a congress every three years. They sit at a circular table under a glazed apex imprinted with translucent images of doves in flight against a blue and gold sky. The stained glass by British artist Brian Clarke is truly uplifting, though it could well bring on a screaming fit in anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds.


Birds are big in Kazakhstan. The image of the Samruk, a mythical bird of happiness that looks much like a Golden Eagle, is ubiquitous. Its symbolic ‘egg’ (a 300 ton ball of glass) is perched on top of the wacky Bayterek tower, a vanity project worthy of any Great Khan. The ball contains the gold hand imprint of the President. Visitors can touch palms with His Greatness and make a wish.


The cult of Nazarbayev's personality also hangs over the National Museum like the huge flapping plastic Samruk suspended from the ceiling of the nine storey atrium. The identification of nation with the president is hammered home in the various exhibition halls – dotted with statues and likenesses rendered on canvas and carpet. Yes, carpet.

The national fascination with all that glitters is rooted in history. Thousands of intricately worked Scythian gold trinkets found in ancient burial mounds on the steppes are displayed in the Hall of Gold; some of the motifs are easily recognised as flying elks, contorted horses and stylised mountain ranges. Others seem to be mislabelled – one group identified as ‘tigers’ has an uncanny likeness to the Bad Piggies in the Angry Birds games franchise.


The centrepiece of the Hall of Gold is a 4th century BC warrior prince, ‘The Golden Man’. He is resplendent in a replica outfit festooned with precious doodads and has been adopted as a symbol of nationhood. The golden hoard is impressive – but typically too much is never enough. The collection is upstaged by the dizzying display of 40,000 perspex swizzle sticks lit up by ever morphing coloured LEDs in the vestibule leading into the exhibition.


This year another exhibition on a much grander scale is preoccupying Astana – Expo 2017 (themed ‘Future Energy’) is due to start in June. The National Pavilion of Kazakhstan – a scifi installation titled “the Sphere” - is already visible among the canyons of cranes frantically getting the site ready. The organisers say they are expecting five million visits; a figure that is widely met with scepticism in a country of just 17 million. But in this city reality is on permanent hold. Thinking BIG is a prerequisite and it seems churlish to quibble.


There is an exuberance to Astana that defies sense and taste. After the initial shock I find myself swept along by the sheer brazen swagger of it all. These are the stately pleasure domes of a futuristic Xanadu. Astana is both a patchwork of outrageous dreams and, to borrow from the American metal band Pantera, a ‘vulgar display of power.’ Either way for a first time visitor – it is a trip.