Kazakhstan: Eyes on Astana

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments
The Kazmunaigas building is home to Kazakhstan’s oil and gas ministry. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

The Kazmunaigas building is home to Kazakhstan’s oil and gas ministry. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Each year on July 6, Kazakhstan proudly celebrates Capital City Day, honouring its capital, Astana, with a week of cultural festivities. The activities highlight Kazakh culture, history and the city’s central position in the nation’s life. Astana has grown from a small provincial city to an influential player on the world stage and a symbol of a sovereign Kazakhstan.
Last year, Kazakhs celebrated the 550th anniversary of statehood. Since its founding 18 years ago, however, the Kazakh capital has turned into a major tourist attraction. Nearly 650,000 tourists visited the city in 2014. Each year, more and more people from around the world come to experience this hidden pearl of the Eurasian steppe and discover the futuristic capital of the ninth biggest country in the world.

Two hundred delegates from around the world meet every three years the Palace of Peace and Harmony’s circular top chamber, where a flock of painted doves flutters below a stained-glass ceiling. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Two hundred delegates from around the world meet every three years the Palace of Peace and Harmony’s circular top chamber, where a flock of painted doves flutters below a stained-glass ceiling. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Astana was selected to be the capital city of Kazakhstan in 1997, when it was officially moved from Almaty in the south to this more strategic location in the central north of the country. The move was not easy. Many in Kazakhstan had to be convinced the decision was the correct one. And yet today’s Astana is a delight. It represents a vision of a new Kazakhstan, architectural modernity and progress. It was built on the historic northern route of the famous Silk Road, which connected East and West, bringing silk, tea, spices and all manner of treasure from Asia to Russia and Europe. The ancient Silk Road was established in 200 BC and many old Silk Road trade routes are still in use today. Astana is truly a bridge between worlds.
Just imagine a startling, gleaming new city rising in the middle of grasslands. For 1,200 kilometres, very little surrounds the city, showing that thinking big and having the courage to follow your dreams is important for the future of a
nation. The city’s modern look represents the dynamically developing country.

A metabolic city
Astana is the first capital built in the 21st Century and was planned as a national centre. There are many planned cities in the world, including Washington, D.C., Putrajaya in Malaysia, Brasilia in Brazil and Canberra in Australia. Fifty architects and urban planners took part in the international competition for the master plan and design of the city. On Oct. 6, 1998, Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa was awarded first prize. Kurokawa’s work is the embodiment of “metabolism and symbiosis.” His plan for Astana called for the symbiosis of the built and natural environments. He proposed that the new city’s plan be innovative, but rooted in Kazakh heritage and culture. He termed the result “Metabolic City,” by which he meant that Astana is a city of growth and change. Since then, the new capital has undergone very rapid growth. (Abstract symbolism is also one of the characteristics of Astana’s development.)

A Kazakh native holds his eagle at Zheruik, an ethno-village. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

A Kazakh native holds his eagle at Zheruik, an ethno-village. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and current president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, has acted as the city’s unofficial chief architect, taking an active part in this ambitious project since the very beginning, and involving himself in all aspects of its planning. Prize-winning British architect Norman Foster is one of many foreigners who helped shape the grandiose city, where various building styles have been harmoniously combined.
The iconic Astana pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Harmony, was designed by British architects Foster and Partners. This extraordinary building can withstand expansion and contraction due to temperature variations of more than 80 degrees — from -40 to +40 Celsius. The building can expand up to 30 centimetres. The construction is steel frame for the pyramid and concrete for the lower levels. The glass pyramid was built to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism and other faiths) first held in September 2003.

Horse meat and mutton are the basis for most of Kazakhstan’s national dishes. They are served here with baursaki bread (puffy fried dough) and shorpa (a white meat broth). (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Horse meat and mutton are the basis for most of Kazakhstan’s national dishes. They are served here with baursaki bread (puffy fried dough) and shorpa (a white meat broth). (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Two hundred delegates from around the world meet every three years in a circular top chamber, where a flock of doves flutters below a stained-glass ceiling. The stained glass apex was created by British artist Brian Clark. Clark’s artwork in white, vivid blue and gold colours is 900 square metres in area. The Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions took place this year in June. This 77-metre-high venue was built in 2004 and also includes a 1,500-seat opera house, a national museum of culture and a research centre for the country’s 140 ethnic groups.

The world’s largest tent
The Khan Shatyr, the world’s largest tent, is another extraordinary building  designed by Foster and Partners. It was completed in 2010. Its Entertainment Centre was originally built to provide the city with a range of cultural, leisure and shopping facilities, including restaurants, cinemas, an indoor beach and large water park, all sheltered within a comfortable microclimate year-round, despite the city’s extremes of temperature. The building’s tented structure reflects Kazakh history and represents post-modern interpretation of a yurt, a traditional Kazakh nomadic dwelling. The view of the finished building only hints at the range of the challenges faced during the construction of such a unique project.
The new Astana Opera House is the world’s third-largest and the pride of the country. The first stone was laid in 2010 and the building was completed in short order by 2013. It was built by the Swiss Mabetex Group, headed by Behgjet Pacolli, who worked with a team of the best architects from around the world. The design of the building is a mix of Greco-Roman classicism and Baroque, with Kazakh national motifs included in the architecture in a fascinating balance of styles.

Kazakhstan’s National Museum is full of treasures, including the jewels of ancient Kazakhs. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

Kazakhstan’s National Museum is full of treasures, including the jewels of ancient Kazakhs. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

The majestic front design of the opera house brings to mind the famous Pantheon and the Bolshoi Theatre. A team of acoustics experts from Italy and Germany worked on the sound qualities of the building. The main lobby, foyer, auditoriums and main stage of the theatre reflect the style of high classicism. The
auditorium is designed for 1,250 people in a 19th-Century-style setting.
The theatre also has a chamber music hall that can accommodate 250 people and rehearsal rooms. Birzhan-Sara, an opera based on a classic Kazakh love story and written by Kazakh composer Mukan Tolebayev, was performed at the grand opening of the theatre in June 2013.
Around Astana, a man-made forestry ring grows, and the city boasts many parks. Kazakh culture and customs are presented at Zheruik, the open public ethno-village, in a welcoming atmosphere with cultural performances featuring traditional costumes. The yurts are decorated with original national handicrafts and local artists create unique colourful pieces of art before visitors’ eyes. Everything you touch here brings you closer to this ancient culture’s roots.

The building that houses the transportation and communications ministry has been nicknamed “the lighter.” (Photo: Ülle Baum)

The building that houses the transportation and communications ministry has been nicknamed “the lighter.” (Photo: Ülle Baum)

There is much to discover in Astana. Between the Ak Orda Presidential Palace, the Bayterek Tower, the brand new 74,000-square-metre National Museum with all its jewels from ancestors of the Kazakh people, and the National Art Gallery of Astana, there is a rich cultural mosaic in the city. The elegant Bayterek Tower stands at the centre of Astana’s main boulevard and is framed by twin green-gold cones. The tower holds an observation deck 97 metres high. From that deck, there’s a panoramic view of the city.
Per-capita GDP multiplies by 20

Kazakhstan achieved impressive economic growth after it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country’s per-capita GDP has grown by a factor close to 20 since 1991 and has reached $14,000 per capita. Total foreign investment attracted during the past nine years has been almost $1 billion. Today, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest uranium producer and among the fastest-growing economies in the world. In the summer of 2015, Kazakhstan was bidding to host the 2020 Winter Olympics in Almaty. “By bidding for the Winter Games, we showed the world the amazing progress that Kazakhstan has made since its independence,” said Andrey Kryukov, vice-chairman of Almaty’s bid team. “This alone is a major victory for our country.”
Astana is hosting EXPO-2017 and will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the same time. The theme will be “Energy for the Future” and will showcase alternative energy options. Many countries have already confirmed participation, including Germany, Lithuania, France, Switzerland, Israel, India, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom  and Georgia. Eleven international organizations, including the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), have also confirmed their participation. By the end of 2016, organizers hope to have confirmations from 100 countries.

A woman at the Zheruik, an ethno-village in Astana, plays a traditional stringed instrument known as a dombra. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

A woman at the Zheruik, an ethno-village in Astana, plays a traditional stringed instrument known as a dombra. (Photo: Ülle Baum)

All eyes are on Astana as the city gets ready for this important international event and reinforces Kazakhstan’s role as a nation taking its place in the global community. This big, rapidly modernizing and resource-rich economy has been listed as one of the rising new economic powerhouses in the world.
Today, Astana is the centre of the most significant political, economic, social and cultural events in Kazakhstan. Its gleaming face is Kazakhstan’s gateway to the world.

Ülle Baum is a photographer and writer living in Ottawa. Reach her at ullebaum@gmail.com

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Ülle Baum is a photographer and writer living in Ottawa. Reach her at ullebaum@gmail.com

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