Expo 2017 Astana: Nothing but a disappointment

Expo 2017 Astana was supposed to shine a light onto Kazakhstan. But the reality couldn’t be more different

There’s no queue at the airport-style security; no wait as my bag makes its way through the x-ray machine. I’ve just strolled to the gate with ease through a huge corral that surely would hold hundreds of people. It is the same every day. Expo 2017 Astana is a ghost town.

The flag of Kazakhstan waves on giant screens in the Kazakh pavilion at the base of the Nur Alem – Ben Finch
The flag of Kazakhstan waves on giant screens on the base of the Nur Alem – Ben Finch

A huge orb sits in the centre of the Expo. Raised on a 20-metre pedestal, the Nur Alem, or Bright World, has a diameter of 80 metres. It towers over everything and can be seen from miles around. Apparently, it is the largest spherical building in the world. Around 100 people wait to enter.

Expo 2017 Astana was to be the shining light that introduced Kazakhstan onto the world stage. The gigantic Central Asian country was mostly known for Borat and, for those who knew a bit more, being one of the largest oil and gas producers in the world. It also happens to hold some of most cinematic landscapes I have ever seen, and one of the oddest cities in Astana.

The Kazakh government invested $3 to $5 billion the Expo, even though it was only to be a minor fair held in between the significantly larger World Fairs.

They built the fair itself, constructed a mall on the edge, and added a brand new terminal to Astana’s ageing airport for all of the five million people they expected to flood through. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have spent anything on advertising, marketing or PR.

Russia transported a block of sea ice from the Arctic which was contradictory to the main topic of Expo - Green energy – Ben Finch Expo 2017
Russia transported a block of sea ice from the Arctic which contradicts the main topic of Expo 2017; future energy – Ben Finch

As an experience it is underwhelming. Perhaps many of the countries invited saw what was to come and decided not to invest too heavily in their programme. However, some delegates were fearful that all their hard work was for nothing – each country was granted a national day to show off the best of their culture.

This usually involved traditional music, attempts to show that the country in question was down with the kids through an odd assortment of popular music, and a buffet of food for local businessmen and a trade delegation. Then the Kazakh national anthem would play, followed by the country’s own.

Delegates need not have worried that it was all for nothing; plenty of smartly dressed officials surrounded the stage in the shadow of the Nur Alem during the show and stood politely, with their hands on their hearts, during the anthems.

Rumours quickly spread that the pavilion of the United States, which had been one of the hot tips among the Kazakhs at Expo 2017, was a disappointment. The Chinese had brought a 3D cinema with them to screen a short film that committed the cardinal sins of making no sense, being terribly boring, and communicating no information. They’d also brought some VR goggles that people dropped quickly after a brief glance.

Chinese dragons are one of the few things to draw a crowd – Ben Finch Expo 2017
Chinese dragons are one of the few things to draw a crowd – Ben Finch

The United Kingdom had put together a full multimedia, multi-sensory laser show to teach the world about the best inventions in their history. It was good, but the Austrians beat it back with Germanic efficiency and simplicity. They had flown in a tonne of exercise bikes and see-saws, painted them day-glo, and turned a few bright lights on them. Children went nuts for it, and looked perplexed at the fine British effort.

Inside the great sphere of the Nur Alem the best work is found. The ground floor housed the Kazakh pavilion, with a small Bayterek. This is a tree cradling the golden egg of the mythical bird Samruk – a symbol of Kazakhstan. Nomadic art, music and history are shown off and a film rolls of the wild steppe and mountains.

After a ride up eight levels in a futuristic lift, perhaps the most exciting part of the whole show, the orb presents a view over the whole of Astana and a glass walkway to scare everyone witless. Then each level is dedicated to explaining the basics of a particular form of green energy through interactive exhibits. Chemical reactions show how bioenergy can work, nuclear fusion is turned into a tabletop computer game to capture neutrons with your proton, and kinetic energy is revealed by acrobats, drum and bass, and a massive hamster wheel.

The Bayterek, a tree holding an egg laid by the mythical bird, Samruk, is a symbol of Kazakhstan – Ben Finch Expo 2017
The Bayterek, a tree holding an egg laid by the mythical bird, Samruk, is a symbol of Kazakhstan – Ben Finch

At the start of August, Akhmetzhan Yessimov, the chair of Expo 2017’s board, breathlessly announced to the serried ranks of the press that the target of two million visitors had been achieved a month ahead of schedule. They said that almost 40,000 people had walked through the gates every day.

However, official figures from the start of the event placed the numbers at 10,000 per day, and even this felt generous. Maybe they also counted the people wearing official lanyards – they appeared to make up half the numbers.

Of course, it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver. Which may explain why the visitor targets had been revised, and re-thought, and newly calculated in the months running up to the grand opening. Five million fell to four, and then three. It appears the government of Kazakhstan may be left with a bill of approximately $1,666 per visitor if we allow them to officially hit three million by the end of August.

Where all that money was spent is a question for a better journalist than me. Shiny new buildings on the periphery were left unfinished, guides failed to answer basic questions about the pavilions they were staffing, and someone managed to sign off on €260,000 for Limp Bizkit to perform.

Like all minor Expos, Astana has a specialised theme – Future Energy. Other than forcing each country to come up with a bland, meaningless, aspirational tagline containing the word energy (“Creative energy”, “United energy flow”, “Future energy green silk road”), this meant that they were all to examine ways in which they could contribute to furthering renewable energy.

The Nur Alem is the largest spherical building in the world – Ben Finch Expo 2017
The Nur Alem is the largest spherical building in the world and presents a remarkable view over the whole of Astana. Sadly, it will soon serve only as a business park – Ben Finch

There may have been some confusion when this message was communicated to those in charge of making the plentiful dioramas of oil refineries and gas pipelines. Russia shipped a massive block of sea ice from the Arctic and wasted a huge amount of energy keeping it frozen because it looked nice, rather than allowing it to melt to show the effect of global warming. And an invite was also extended to Shell, one of the big six oil and gas suppliers, to set up their own pavilion.

Maybe the point of Expo 2017 Astana is to create a reality that cannot exist; to see just how far the boundaries of truth can be pushed. Perhaps the organisers love Pynchon and Vonnegut’s postmodernism, and wished to use their grand stage to create a meta-narrative that attempted to both critique and celebrate the culture of contradiction, confusion and untruths that we have found ourselves immersed in.

I do hope the ten million visitors enjoyed the pastiche – soon it will be a business park.