If you visit Astana for Expo 2017 make sure you explore the rest of Kazakhstan
Astana is a weird place, let’s get that straight first. It is a city whose founders, planners and administrators , perhaps over-ambitiously, dreamed of it being the next Dubai.
Why anyone would want to build something so soulless is beyond me. But in failing to found a city devoted to giddy, hedonistic capitalism, Kazakhstan managed to do the impossible and built a new capital city with character.
This summer, the city is hosting Expo 2017 – making Kazakhstan the first post-Soviet country to host the international exhibition – and the organisers expect five million people to descend on Astana.
The Expo, or world fair, has a long and varied history. The first, and perhaps the most famous, was held at the Crystal Palace in London. Called the Great Exhibition and the idea of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the fair was built to show off England’s might in industry and trade. It was held at the very height of the country’s Empire.
Perhaps no Expo can ever match the utter stupidity of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. While showing off all the most fantastic inventions of the day, they held a raffle. And the prize? A one-month-old orphaned boy.
One of the exhibitions, for which visitors had to pay an extra 50 cents, were “Alaskan Siberians — Eskimos”, an entire village of Filipinos who were said to eat dogs, and a Chinese town of opium dens.
At the same time, the organisers showed incubators for premature babies. Each Expo has a theme – a problem to solve – and in Astana that is Future Energy. The organisers hope they will be able to show, and move discussions forward on, the advantages of green energy, how to spread renewables into the third world, and how to restructure oil and gas economies.
Astana is dominated by the Millennium Axis – a three-kilometre-long boulevard. At one end is the Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall and the largest tent in the world, and at the other is the presidential palace, the Ak Orda. The Bayterek rises out of the centre.
The Bayterek is a statement structure said to represent the nest of a mythical bird – Samruk. Standing at 105 metres, the branches of the white tower hold a golden orb, Samruk’s egg, in which there’s a viewing platform to see the city, and a golden cast of a hand.
It is likely there will be a queue of Kazakhs for the hand. It is a cast of one of the Nursultan Nazarbayev’s, the president, and you make a wish for your wildest dreams when you place your hand in his.
The Millennium Axis is surrounded by the buildings of ancient empires. There is a Greek temple and Roman pantheon, a Chinese pagoda and Egyptian pyramid. All have been built in the past thirty years. Until the mid-nineties, Astana was little more than a small town. In 1997 Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from Almaty to the centre of Kazakhstan and the building work started.
Wandering around Astana’s weird architecture is a delight. But Kazakhstan is a country the size of Europe and holds some of the great wildernesses of the world.
The wild country of Kazakhstan
An easy trip from Astana to the mountains is Burabay. The national park is a few hours drive north of the city and holds a huge mirror of a lake, healing water flowing through spa resorts, and local adventure companies that organise hikes and climbs through the hills. Another national park near to Astana is home to flocks of flamingoes, and there is also a famous women’s gulag that can be visited.
A day’s train ride south will take you to Almaty, a city surrounded by snow-capped mountains and clear blue lakes. It is still the silvery skyscrapered, beating heart of the Kazakh economy and, as the former capital, is full of Soviet buildings and statues – particularly the memorial to Paniflov’s 28.
During the Second World War, when the Nazis were just 100 kilometres away from Moscow, Paniflov and his Kazakh men were said to have destroyed 18 panzers, halted two divisions and stopped the offensive. Every man died in the process. The story was partly fictionalised by the Soviet authorities but it has become one of the founding myths of modern Russia.
Travelling further can be difficult, but it incredibly rewarding. To the west is Turkestan, an ancient Silk Road city in the middle of the endless steppe that is home to the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Yasawi was the Sufi poet who introduced Islam to central Asia. The mausoleum was constructed by Tamerlane and is an excellent example of Persian architecture. A huge arch dominates the building and it is intricately tiled.
To the east, you can find Charyn Canyon and Lake Kaindy. Charyn Canyon is second only to the Grand Canyon in the United States and is empty of tourists. An excellent hike takes you to a campsite at the bottom full of luxury yurts, cabins and a spot to pitch your own tent if you wish. Because it is so secluded the stars shine brightly and the only sound is that of a river rushing past.
Lake Kaindy is a natural wonder. High in the mountains near the border with Kyrgyzstan, it was created by an earthquake in the early twentieth century. The quake blocked a river and flooded a forest. Today, the forest still stands. The spikes of the fir trees poke out of the lake. It is the wildest place I have ever been.
A visit to Expo 2017 would be wasted if the rest of Kazakhstan was ignored. The scale of the natural beauty is astounding. Once out of the cities it is impossible to escape. The plains of the steppe stretch for thousands of kilometres, the mountains climb high and the meadows bloom wild.