Braving -30c temperatures our Managing Director, John Telfer, made a very offseason visit to the (relatively) new capital of Kazakhstan.
Last year when reading up on the place for our new trip “Across the Kazakh Steppe” I was instantly intrigued – bizarre and surreal came to mind but absolutely nothing could prepare me for what I saw – and also something I had no expectations of which blew me away – the recently opened Expo centre. It sounds dull but I felt I was transported to the next century – and to Mars.
Astana was a provincial town until 20 years ago until the long term president decided to relocate the capital over 1000 kms into the middle of the steppes. Billions has been spent building the city more or less from scratch – including the most futuristic architecture designed by leading architects of the world – Norman Foster to name but one. This is a tale of 2 parts, for the first part is a walk down the centre of the new town.
Starting off at the Khan Shatyr, a 150m high tent, going in and adjusting to the 50C shift in temperature to 20c there is a shopping mall, a small monorail and a beach made of sand from the Maldives. Walking down the monumental avenue my head was tilted to the skyline, I’ve never seen so many incredible and varied buildings. The centre piece is the Bayterek Tower, a lift takes you to 97m (the date Astana became the capital). From here you could look over the city to the steppe surrounding the city. A gold hand print is on a pedestal, apparently when dignitaries come it sets off the National Anthem.
Next stop was the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a non-denominational meeting area promoting understanding (designed once more by Normal Foster). You ascend to the apex of the pyramid through an interior garden – the perspex top is lined with paintings of giant doves. From here you can see massive tower blocks, dwarfing one of Central Asia’s largest mosques, and what can only be described as a giant bottle top – I haven’t even mentioned the concert hall that looks like a piece of discarded metallic green orange peel.
Wow. This city is ever evolving – and only a few years ago these buildings weren’t here – to illustrate this my next day’s visit was to the Expo centre which sounded dull and I expected to be underwhelmed. How wrong I was! It’s a giant black round building, representing the last drop of oil on the planet (Kazakhstan’s wealth is from oil) and has 6 floors devoted to sustainable energy.
I was overwhelmed by the holograms, displays and audio visuals, I was no longer on earth and this otherworldly experience was enhanced by looking out of the geodesic dome as if on a space colony (in fact they are planning an area with a giant dome enclosing part of the city. I walked through the Sun, down corridors with Astronauts accompanying, past tumbling screens of water and an lift shaft straight out of Star Wars. You haven’t heard of this place yet – but I promise you will.