(This is a continuation of my previous post on my trip to Astana, capital city of Kazakhstan.)
We took a cab from the sparkling new city across the river to the Right Bank, where most of the city lies. Before the beginning of the current remont Tselinograd was a fairly standard Kazakh/Soviet city. From all the pictures/materials that I’ve seen (mainly the odd ‘Akmola Encyclopedia’ published in the mid-1990’s) it had the same square, theater, roads etc that you’d find elsewhere. So heading to the older neighborhoods I was very eager to find that familiarity lost in the plastic grandness of the Left Bank.
The cab was, like much else in Astana, overpriced: 500 tenge (about $4.15) for a 10 minute ride that would cost 300 in Almaty. Strangely, taxis in the Almaty, the richest city in Kazakhstan, are the same price or cheaper than many other places. The minimum fare is 200 tenge, which is identical to that in a regional center like Kizilorda. I’d put it down to simple economics: in a system where literally any driver can decide to be a ‘taxi’, Almaty has the greatest supply of drivers, so competition keeps the fares down.
Our first stop was the real downtown around Republic Avenue, the western part of the city. This part of the city has also undergone a facelift, with many new buildings or fresh coats of paint, especially around the waterfront. The Ishim river runs through Astana, and has been augmented/reformed to give it a nic breadth through the center. Conversely, no major body of water is to be found in our fair Almaty.
Indeed after living there for a year and driving by man-made Lake Kapchagai (some 130km north) I nearly wet myself. So Astana’s waterfront is aesthetically very nice, especially on a warm, clear summer evening. During the other nine months of the year it’s probably not as pleasant. The area also had a ‘movie set’ feel to it, but on a different scale. I saw 2-3 story buildings, quaint side streets, small freshly planted trees (for another comparison, Almaty has absolutely monstrous trees) under streetlights. Almost Americana.
One other impression I got around this neighborhood was of a cold place. Not so much cold as in impersonal, but as in ‘holy #$%@ this place is cold in winter (although it’s very likely the two are related). Maybe it was the hard angles of the white, rectangular slabs of apartment blocks resembling chunks of ice. Or the flatness of the terrain harkening the emptiness of the steppe. The breeze was constant, and, I can imagine it sweeping through in January or February like an atomic blast, only freezing rather than melting everything in its path.
Republic Avenue is the main thoroughfare here, wide and open with set back brightly painted apartments containing shops on the street level. The space is large and comfortable; the air fresh. Life is organized and settled, even a bit sterile. Things become more interesting, however, as we made our way east to the older part of town (remember, ‘old’ in Astana is a relative term, think Soviet). And while on the Left Bank the only remotely familiar sight was a branch of the supermarket chain Gros, filled with comforting Maxi Chais and Pirozhkis; over here signs of the Kazakhstan I know began popping up.
We had to switch buses on while on the way to Eurasia University, and I spotted a grilled chicken stand (1000 tenge for a whole bird). The buildings were smaller and a faded beige/clay color or brick. They reminded me of Taraz in the south, but really it could’ve been anywhere. What I love about these buildings is that, thought uniform in design and construction, each has evolved by continuous remont, visibly by the widely different styles of balconies. As a matter of fact, a balcony was being redone as we were standing waiting for the bus.
We continued East, near the the University, and approached the balka, or canal, that comes up from the River Ilysh. A statue of a playful Pushkin looks over the water besides Ablai Khan Avenue. People were enjoying the day off by fishing, but it was otherwise quiet. As it was June, school was out and the campus clear of students. Crossing back east over the balka we spotted an unusual sight in Kazakhstan: a synagogue, bright blue, shiny and new, situated next to a just as modern highway overpass.
The neighborhood here was distinctly Kazakh. The dust of life thats apparent everywhere in this dry country. I even saw kvas being sold on the street. A traditional Russian carbonated beverage, usually made from bread, kvas is usually sold from big yellow barrels like this one on the street.
Time came to head back, so we got into another overpriced taxi and started back to the western side of town. Driving along Abai I could see the creep of the modern construction seeping into the older parts of town. Dust, dirt, metal fences enclosing the sites, wooden planks over the roadside irrigation canals acting as improvised sidewalks.
Just visiting there’s no way to tell how much of the construction was ongoing, and how much frozen. The financial crisis and extreme mismanagement have meant a lot of building firms have gone under in the country, and in the two largest markets especially, that means a lot of unfinished projects are left waiting.
These neighborhoods revealed another Astana. One not worried about, plans, progress or politics. One more concerned with getting by in 2008 than in 2030 (referring to the well-publicized strategic development plan of the President). A place worn, lived-in. But just as the new overtakes the old, the same signs of life that existed here will spread into the new neighborhoods. What the city needs is time, and people. The former will come of course, and the city will evolve naturally. But the latter? It’s hard to say.
One thing that is sure is as more and more native-born Astanites grow up they will make the city their own. Many will be sons and daughters of the internal migrants coming from nearby regions. Just as Almaty’s population is booming with people from Shymkent, Taraz and the south, Astana’s growth has been fueled by incomers from the surrounding area. Many people I met were from Karaganda, Semipalatinsk or Kostanai, for example. Residents who moved earlier, 6-12 years ago, are already local.
This is one reason Astana is not completely damned to be an administrative hole like Canberra or Brasilia. The fact is that it is already the ‘Second City’ of Kazakhstan, having surpassed Karaganda in population, though not yet vibrancy. (If Almaty is New York and Shymkent Dallas, then Karaganda would be Chicago) It will continue to pull in these migrants as long as the situation remains stable. While the same government ‘elite’ who were forced to move from Almaty will continue to have roots there, the new core will remain. Much like Washington DC has dual populations: one is always shifting, in and out, either students (like I was), or those working in the government, policy or international sectors (like I may be someday). The other is native born and stable.
Both populations will be critical to building and shaping the city’s character as a whole (which so far is still lacking). For better or worse Astana is also linked to the future of the country. Nazarbaev often calls it his ‘dream’, in speeches and writing. But it is also useful as a barometer of Kazakhstan over the next 20 years.
The biggest concern is the overextension of development because of poor regulation. Some people criticize the city as being generic and planned, but the real threat is overdevelopment, and useless building projects harming the city life. Astana will likely never be as big as Almaty, or at least not for a long time, but the rate of construction has been just as high. Just who will fill up these new living and business spaces?
Four days in Astana, and only 1 1/2 to snoop around, are not enough, and I look forward to my next visit, later this month, to explore some more of the neighborhoods, and see even more bizarreness (like the Pyramid). I also want to check out more of the Northern identity. Kazakhstan, like the US, is has two distinct regions: a more traditional south, and the heavily Russian-influenced north. Just this past week I was meeting some friends from Taraz (southern), and some people from Semipalatinsk (northern). I can’t quite describe the difference yet, but it was clearly felt. Astana itself is a bit of a bubble in the north, so it was hard to delve deep into the matter. The only quirk I noticed was Kazakhs using the Kazakh greeting of ‘kolaisin’ more often than the standard russian ‘privet’ heard in Almaty. In both cases, however, the speaker will most likely continue in Russian.
While my stay was short, this piece has also been written from the past year of experiencing the Astana mythos publicized by the government. Astana is not just a city, but a brand, being advertised and sold on billboards, songs, magazines. In July, the month of the city’s 10th birthday, there were an even higher number of fluff reports articles thrown out. Even in the first day of school all across the country, a lecture was devoted to tell the student’s about this ‘ideal’ city. This is why people have very strong opinions about the city, because these artificial expectations are so high. I’ve tried to ignore not only the propaganda, but also the simple criticisms and comparisons people make about Astana.
When I was studying and work I was working in Washington, DC, I often heard people (of the in-and-out type I described above) comparing DC to New York City. But for me (sometimes nonjudgemental to a fault) it doesn’t seem fair to compare a city of 10 million to one of 600,000. The same thing happens in Kazakhstan, and Astana will never be Almaty, and shouldn’t try. This being said, many of the complaints hold true: there’s not as much to do, expensive, the winter weather is atrocious (although the air quality in Astana seems to be much healthier).
In the end, regardless of whether you prefer Astana or Almaty, there’s one thing we can agree on: they are both much nicer places to live than the original capital, Kizilorda!