Astana, Kazakhstan

30 Jul 2013


You couldn't get a stronger contrast between rural Kazakhstan and its very new capital Astana.  Driving into the city for the first time, I couldn't help saying "Wow!" and "Look at that!" each time we got a view of more of the amazing architecture here.  Everything is new, some still being built.  It is a great show.


With a little difficulty we found a hostel hidden in the new part of the city, up in an apartment, with no signs.  Internet, showers, real toilets and beds, even TV (in Russian & Kazakh) -- we were were in luxury!  


We moved on to an apartment that an Irish architect acquantance David had arranged for us, in the top of one of the towering new buildings; this one's design had been inspired by birch trees so instead of straight vertical lines, the edges of the building are wavy.  Amazing views from there and even more luxury!


David met us and took us on an evening walk/tour along a main axis of the new city, ending up at the president's house.  He was put in charge of setting up and running the Astana office of his firm, sounded like he was thrown into the deep end but has figured out how the system works.  He says there's a lot of meetings with beaurocrats and trying to convince them to move from Soviet-era designs and infrastructure to more western ones.  An example he gave was fire standards for the building we were staying in.  The Soviet approach was to build a kind of "shoulder" at the base for parking and a large ramp big enough to accommodate fire trucks, to be able to get to the base and put their ladders up the side.


He said that with such a tall building, that approach to rescuing people from a fire made no sense, so he was trying to get them to adopt American fire standards which used full sprinklers and exit stairways etc, but didn't expect people to open windows 50 or 60 floors up.  He also mentioned that the standard of building wasn't great, and we saw this inside the beautiful apartment building, where the recent rains had caused quite a few leaks, and there were unfinished bits of the building in evidence.  He's currently designing a new building which will be tall enough to have a view of the Steppe over the rest of the city.  


The following day we took buses to the older part of the city, to find a market and a swimming pool.  They have a unique way of running their bus system -- every morning, freelance drivers show up to the bus depot and rent a bus from the bus company.  They and their partner then drive a specified route, keeping whatever ticket fees they collect.  There are enough drivers out there that all the routes remain covered, and presumably they can take a day off and someone else will pick up the slack.  Anyway the bus system works well, assuming you know the city or have a map (we had neither but worked it out).  


We arrived at the market where Suzie, Eli & Rosa had a wander through, while Finn Sammy & I tried to find the pool.  Not know the word for "pool" in Russian I described it to several people and got conflicting directions but eventually found a huge complex.  We had help buying our tickets, then we went into a changing room where 2 dezhournayas (babyshkas) were sitting at a desk in the mens changing room, giving out keys.  There was a tiny little curtained off area at the back, reminded me of the Wizard's area in the Wizard of Oz, where you could change outside their view!  The pool itself was huge - 60 meters, all set up in lanes, with diving platforms at one end.  It was above head depth its entire length, so was actually tiring for all of us to swim back and forth.  There were groups of kids being drilled outside the pool, running across the bleachers, and doing little exercises at the side of the children's pool.


Although the new city was amazing to look at, to me it didn't have a human feeling at ground level.  The older city was a normal city, with markets, activity, and the irregularities that are part of human life at human scale.  I think the new city may eventually have this, maybe it's just too early.