Picture report: Three days in Astana, the SF city built in only 10 years


By Florentina B?l?ceanu

Picture report: Three days in Astana, the SF city built in only 10 yearsThe capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, one decade ago was only a forgotten village in the steppe. Today, the new high buildings, looking like being from another planet, are hosting almost one million of inhabitants.

The night flight from Vienna to Astana does not show a single feature of the ex-communist nature of the destination. The plane is full, but there only few passengers with almond-shaped, specific for Kazakhstan, eyes. In rest, discussions in English, French and German clearly showing that we are specking of an airplane full of European businessmen, in the just next week willing to benefit of the Kazakh State desire for development.

The first contact with Astana leaves me breathless. First of all, literally, because the outside temperature at 6 o’clock in the morning is almost zero degrees. Kazbeh, the driver with a smile on his face, who is waiting for us at the airport, takes my luggage and invites us in the well heated car. In the first light beams I hardly can believe what I am seeing as we get into the city. Sky-scrapers, huge buildings of glass in futuristic shapes near gold-plated mosques, immaculate white blocks with Oriental roofs – everything is new, just like taken out of the box, including the trees and multicolored arrangements in the parks, reports.

From a village towards a real metropolis

A have a double sensation: I am a character in the Star Trek movie, on a strange planet, and I am having a virtual tour of a future real estate project. I have already seen sky-scrapers, but nor a single city with such kind of buildings was able to give a sensation of relax. For example, in Frankfurt all enormous blocks seem to fall on you and the crowd suffocates you. Here everything is airy, the streets are wide and the spaces between the buildings – very big.

A friend asked me to bring him a small stone form below and it was quite difficult for me to find one during the three days I spent in Astana. That’s because the urban landscape discipline here does not allow such omissions. I have to confess that a didn’t expect such proof of “occidentalism”, nevertheless I suspected that I will have a surprise and that the myth with Tatars, living in tents and racing on camels is already out-of-date.

Astana, a word that in the local language means “capital”, has became the institutional center of Kazakhstan in 1997, six years after the proclamation of independence from the former Soviet Union. “It was a small village here before”, Olga is telling me, a young woman from Astana.

The ambition of a President

It was the ambition of the President Nursultan Nazarbaev to build a totally new capital, after the Dubai pattern, a city that impressed him greatly. Like there, the new presidential city has its broad streets and imposing buildings. “Then, people who were living and working in Alma-Aty, the former capital, in turns came here, firstly with the job and afterwards with the whole family. As my father did”, continues Olga.

For now there are more than 700,000 inhabitants in Astana, attracted by the newly created working places by a pile of foreign investors, who have smelled a flavor of a huge business. Olga smiles when I asked her how much money it was worth the construction of Astana from zero. “Oh my!”, she exclaims. “The real sum is known by nobody”.

Residential sky-scrapers

After few hours of sleeping I am observing much better the local specifics. I was really surprised to know that some of the glass sky-scrapers are not business-centers, as anybody could think, but residential places. I’m still not determined how I can best define the headquarters of state oil company KazMunayGas, which owns in Romania the Rompetrol Group: strange or overwhelming. The building really looks like something that we could imagine is a klingonian style. With crenels looking like scales, the building has a kind of a huge gate in the middle, through which you could enter into another dimension.

With Inna around the world

Actually, you just pass in the other part of the central park, at the end of which a mall is in a shape of a yurt, having five levels, where you can travel with a small train. Here you find a lot of modern brands, from Accesorize to Prada, but the biggest surprise is to hear a Romanian melody Only You by Randi. Besides, during the three days spent in Astana, a have heard on the radio two other Romania melodies and have seen on the TV the latest Inna’s video, about whom I knew that she is as much as famous here as in the West.

Also in the mall we have our lunch, i.e. shashlik, a kind of a sheep meat on skewers with rice and delicious tomato and aromatic herbs sauce. Willing to taste all kinds of local meals and beverages, just like Olga I order a warm bear with lemon and honey and only later I am told that this eccentricity is only Olga’s preference and the tradition is actually an Irish one.

However, prices in malls here are 20-30% higher than in Romania. Even if the average salary does not exceed 500 US dollars. But, on the 1st of January, while European countries were announcing new austerity measures, in Kazakhstan salaries and pensions were raised with 30%. The Kazakh State has a strong system of social protection, and young families with children are supported with considerable money if their income is modest. Over 5,000 young people annually go with state scholarships to study in big university centers in the West.

Other new buildings – the city keeps moving

Another fact that drew my attention is that on Astana streets everywhere new buildings are being constructed. “We arrived here yesterday, and meanwhile, windows on three floors were mounted”, tells me a Romanian form our delegation, pointing up to a future sky-scraper. There are not so many people on the streets, but almost all passers are dressed in suits and the women are very elegant and all of them look young. Alexey, a young man from Astana, tells us that some of the residential buildings are almost empty, because prices are very big: 4,000 – 5,000 Euros for a square meter.

Near KazMunyGas headquarters, which I am unwillingly comparing with the broken windows of the Ministry of Economy on Calea Victoriei, I saw a white mosque, where from the muezzin songs are started being heard. Curious, I came towards the door, where I see tens of pairs of shoes. Nothing unusual till now, but I was amazed the mixture of plastic slippers and one of the most expensive patent-leather shoes. Someone late in a suite comes running, throw his shoes and gets into the mosque. Probably a businessman between two meetings.

“A still want to live here”

In the evening we make a stop at the most luxurious hotel in the city – Rixos – where we are invited to the party of the correspondents, accredited at the KazEnergy Forum, which is the reason of our official trip to Astana and which will take place in the next two days. Aidana, the hotel hostess, smiles smartly to every customer, wishing him a good evening. I start talking with her and ask how simple people here perceive the world economic crisis. In an almost perfect English the young woman tells me that she is originating from the South of the country and came for studies in Astana three years ago.

“I am studying the tourism management. I like my job and I am thinking that, perhaps, one day I will become the manager of this hotel”, she says me without a single word about the world crisis. “There are a lot of students here and we have n extraordinary life, a quiet one. I would like to travel around the world, to get even in Romania, but I still want to stay and live here, in Astana”, the girl continues.

Also Aidana tells me that in the winter outside temperatures goes below minus 45 Celsius degrees and it is very dangerous to get outside without special clothes. That is the reason why in the communist era all regime enemies were deported here, and nowadays more than 100 nations are living in Kazakhstan as well as the same number of religions exists.

At a certain moment, before the Soviet bloc collapsed, the Kazaks nation was even in minority. Officially, at the present moment, Kazakhs represent 65% of the population, but in reality they are less than 55%. A community of more than 25,000 Romanians exists in Kazakhstan in a city not far from Astana, most of them being settled here during Ceausescu times for purposes of industrialization of the state of Kazakhstan.

EU and Kazakhstan

The Kazakhstan Prime-minister Karim Massimov in an impeccable English language talked about the facilities the foreign investors find here. At his turn, the European Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger asked Astana authorities to participate in projects, prepared by the EU in order to get gases from Caspian region through Nabucco pipeline, as well as in other projects of the Southern Corridor.

Surprisingly, the English language spoken by Oettinger, who is German at his origins, looks poorer than the language spoken by the Kazakhstan Prime-minister, who, according his CV, fluently speaks English, Chinese and Arabian.