There’s a bit of every city in Astana

July 11. INDIA TODAY

By Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury

There's a bit of every city in AstanaMyanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw has a ghost look, Dubai is synonymous with malls, Brasilia is often described as a concrete capital in a country that has cities like Rio de Janerio and Sao Paolo and Australians have no love for their capital Canberra. But Astana – which entered its 15th year as the capital of Kazakhstan – is different.

While it lacks the European charm or the Soviet look of Almaty, Astana has its share of high-rises. Yet, there is more to Astana than high-rises. Some of its landmarks are the Hazret Sultan mosque which is Central Asia’s largest, a bridge on the river Ishim that resembles the Sydney bridge and a unique cone-shaped shopping mall ‘Khan Shatyr’. There is also an under-construction theatre designed on the lines of the Greek Parthenon. Many of the cottages look straight out of the English countryside. Astana represents the convergence of diverse styles.

Cities often symbolise the identity of a nation. Astana expanded rapidly after 2004 and the city’s master plan will get fully implemented only in 2030. Astana may not entirely reflect the Kazakh ethos, but it does embody the country’s hope of becoming a regional player – maintaining its links with Russia and yet having an independent identity where traditional Islam meets modernity.

The river Ishim divides the city into old and new parts. The old square is grand and vast, a throwback to the Soviet days. But a touch of Washington is evident in the grid system of streets in the newer parts of the city and there is a little bit of Europe in the form of the boulevards.

The credit for this goes to the famous British architect Norman Foster who was invited to Kazakhstan by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Locals, most of whom are government servants, say that the city is Nazarbayev’s brainchild. For many years, he yearned for a world class city to welcome global investments in his mineral-rich country.

Concerts and exhibitions have been planned throughout the year to mark its 14th anniversary as the capital.

The most famous landmark in Astana which simply cannot be missed is the tall and imposing Bayterek. The legend behind this tower as a symbol is that it represents a popular tree, on which the mythical bird Samruk laid its egg.

In the sphere on the top of Bayterek, there is an imprint of President Nazarbayev’s hand – displaying the man’s towering presence in the lives of the people he has governed since 1991.

Dictator to an outsider, Nazarbayev has been a stabilising factor in his country where oil wealth has changed the per capita GDP from $200 in 1992 to over $11,000 currently.

To some Kazakhs though, the shift of the capital from Almaty to Astana remains controversial. Some Kazakhs resent the huge funds that went into building the new government complexes, as well as the high hotel tariffs in the city. Critics cite the city’s isolated location in the centre of the Kazakh steppe and the harsh climate in winter (when the temperature drops to -40 degrees). Astana is the second coldest capital of the world after Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, making it unbearable for citizens and outsiders alike.

Emerging defence supplier

Russia – India’s biggest military hardware supplier – may soon have some competition from the former Soviet republics.

Kazakhstan is emerging as a supplier of key defence equipment to India while another Central Asian state, Tajikistan, hosts an Indian military base and Kyrgyzstan saw a visit by Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

Not many know that oil & uranium rich Kazakhstan has supplied torpedoes to India.

This new dimension to Indo-Kazakh security ties has been kept under wraps. Interestingly, torpedoes are undergoing under water test trials in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

– While it is well known that the Taj Mahal was built in 22 years, it took 23 years to complete the Almaty metro rail. The authorities are now seriously contemplating naming a station on the 8.5 kmlong-metro line as Taj Mahal. But there is a strong Soviet influence on the metro, with one of the stations in factnamed Moscow.

The Almaty Metro opened only last December. But the construction began towards the end of the Soviet era in 1988. The project got frozen after the fall of USSR only to be resumed in 2005. With its spotlessly clean look, it’s hardly surprising that the metro has become a tourist attraction even among locals.

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