Politics and government are the main economic activities in Astana the capital, which also forms a Special Economic Zone. Astana has seen one of the world’s greatest building projects, as oil money has been spent on government buildings, a massive home for the president, a mosque, and numerous parks and monuments. The project is designed to make the town the centre of not only Kazakhstan, but all of Central Asia.
After Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, the city and the region were renamed “Aqmola”, literally meaning “White Shrine”.
In 1995, the city was designated as the future capital of the newly-independent country, and the capital was officially moved from Almaty on December 10, 1997. The new name, Astana, was bestowed in 1998.
Government officials cited several problems with keeping the capital in Almaty, such as the city’s risk of seismic activity, insufficient room for expansion, and proximity to international borders. Additionally, parts of northern Kazakhstan are populated primarily by ethnic Russians, which raised fears of possible irredentist activity. Moving the capital to this area may have been an attempt to anchor it more closely with the rest of the country.
To some Kazakhs, the move remains controversial. Critics cite the city’s isolated location in the center of the Kazakh steppe and the forbidding climate in winter. Financially, some resent the massive expenditure of public funds to build the new government complexes, as well as the continuing cost of airfare and hotel expenses for the many government workers who still live in Almaty.
Floral flourishes decorate Nurzhol Boulevard, or “Radiant Path.”
The Baiterek, towering over Astana’s central promenade, flares green against a dappled evening sky. Intended as a symbol of the new capital, the 318-foot monument evokes a giant tree with a golden egg in its branches. In the Kazakh myth of Samruk, a sacred bird lays a golden egg in the branches of a poplar each year.
A flock of giant doves flutters on a stained-glass conference room ceiling at the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The 203-foot-high pyramid designed by Norman Foster provides spaces for worshippers of all religions.
Kazakhstan’s new capital is the opposite of understated. After dark, government buildings change hues as the night progresses, creating a theme park atmosphere. The presidential palace suggests a gaudy version of the White House. Prize-winning British architect Norman Foster is one of many foreigners who helped shape the city. His purple Khan Shatyr shopping mall has an indoor sand beach and wave pool on the top floor.
Flanked by traditional Kazakh dancers, a bride awaits her formal unveiling at an opulent wedding palace, where she has just been married in a ceremony capped by the release of two white doves. The revelry begins when the veil is lifted.
McMansions that could have been airlifted from any American suburb are among the more incongruous sights in Astana, whose architectural style is nothing if not eclectic.
Like thousands of educated young professionals in Astana, these cardplayers at a riverside park grew up in other parts of Kazakhstan and moved to the new capital for the opportunities it promised. A baby boom has accompanied the influx.