Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, the 9th largest in terms of area (1,000,000 square miles) and 65th in population (18 million)
In 2014 after spending 6 weeks in Mongolia – which peeks into the map, below, at the northeastern tip of Kazakhstan – I developed a thing for Central Asia. See: Three Days in Mongolia
This year I returned for a third pass through the region, imagining to quench my thirst for this part of the world. I’m now in Kazakhstan … and my interest in Central Asia is only increasing.
First stop: Astana:
Astana (Астана), the capital. Astana means ‘capital’ in Kazakh. In the foreground is Beiterek Tower
Astana is a stark, young city, having been named the capital only in 1997. Before that it was known as Tselinograd and was rather podunk-y, so I’ve heard.
It is a planned city, like Washington DC, in that three monuments, are placed in line with one another and spaced out through the center of the city.
1) The first is Ak Orda (Ақ Орда) ‘White Headquarters’
2) The second monument is:
Beiteret Tower (Бәйтерек) ‘tall popular tree.’ The gold ball symbolizes an egg.
The monument represents a folktale about a mythical tree of life and a magic bird of happiness that lays an egg in the branches of a tree. The eagle, Samruk, is also in the story somewhere. I guess it figures as an origin story.
As a point of information, you can go to the egg at the top of the tower, put your hand in the handprint of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and hear the national anthem. I had no desire to video myself in the act, so here are people who did and put it on youtube:
Samruk is on the Kazakhstan flag …
… and flies high in the atrium of the National Museum.
Also in the atrium is a portrait of Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev …
… and at the top of an escalator, surrounded by fellow Kazakhs in traditional dress:
A statue to Kazakh warriors stands outside the museum:
The Kazakh population is 70% Muslim. I get the sense that the country, on the whole, is more secular than, say, Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, it is the custom in hotel rooms in Muslim countries to have a green arrow somewhere in the room to indicate the direction (qibla) of Mecca so you can pray properly. Often I find the arrow on the ceiling. Here I found mine in the drawer of the desk:
Speaking of my hotel room, here’s the view I have:
3) The third monument to complete the line of sight with the White Headquarters and Beiterek Tower is Khan Shatir (Хан Шатыр) ‘King’s Tent’ (facing the Atlantis-like building, in fact):
The atrium looks like this:
Okay, it’s kinda cool and all, but at first, I wondered why a commercial shopping center would hold pride of place in the layout of the city. But then I realized it’s a powerful symbol of traditional Kazakh culture, and like Beiterek Tower you see the top of the tent from many places in the city.
In other words, the whole city is designed to assert Kazakhstan’s traditional heritage.
During its Soviet socialist times, Kazakhstan’s capital was Almaty, which has lovely tree-lined streets with a Russian, aka Western-ish, feel. (More on Almaty in a future blog.) So, I understand the decision after independence in 1991 to up sticks and create a new capital on the steppes, the traditional homeland of the nomadic Kazakhs.
An Economist article from 1999 tells the story.
One thing to say is that Astana is a windy place, sitting as it does on the wide-open steppe. Another thing to say is that Astana appears, perhaps, to best advantage at night.
Here’s a view of the other side of the Atlantis-like building:
See also: All my Asia blogs
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen