As my aircraft descends into the pre-dawn darkness of this huge nation, the flight map exhibits us touchdown in a void. The place the brand new capital metropolis of Kazakhstan ought to be, the map shows simply brown area. It appears Astana has but to register with the on-board pc. Twenty years in the past it didn’t exist. There was a small city right here on the sting of the Nice Steppe referred to as Akmola (which interprets unappealingly as “white grave”). Now it has bloomed into Astana (Kazakh for “the capital metropolis”), a futuristic imaginative and prescient in the midst of exactly nowhere – a mirage conjured from mud and oil cash.
That is the city President Nursultan Nazarbayev constructed. In energy since 1989, he gained the final “election” two years in the past with an eyebrow-raising 97.7% approval vote. With the lifelong title of “Chief of the Nation”, he’s additionally the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Armed Companies and chairman of just about every little thing else. When Nazarbayev desires to construct one thing the proper response is just: “How eye-popping would Sir prefer it?”
Astana’s buildings have the quantity dialled as much as 11. They scream in your consideration. They sway and dance; they shimmer and radiate. They’re formed like alien craft, rugby balls, beer cans, canine bowls, tents, eggs – right here a medieval fort bristling with turrets on prime of a marriage cake, there a Chinese language pagoda on prime of a skyscraper. At night time the LEDs are switched on and the skyline pulses with towering video shows or fabulous mild exhibits. It’s all set to 11. After which some.
This isn’t a metropolis you’ll wish to discover on foot. For one factor it could contain tramping by means of the knee-high snow that blankets Astana for about six months of the yr. And, in frequent with different former Soviet capitals, the style for grandiosity means roads aren’t simply roads however eight-lane superhighways and parade floor boulevards. The suprahuman public areas appear eerily devoid of individuals, although this can be as a result of timing of my go to, which coincides with Nauryz (the brand new yr pageant), when I’m advised many residents go away city to go to household.
I uncover, to my reduction, that Uber works completely in Astana. Most metropolis centre journeys price lower than 500 tenge – round £1.20. The vehicles are typically d’un sure âge, however they at all times flip up. The drivers don’t normally communicate a phrase of English, so having the vacation spot and route mapped out on the app proves to be a lifeline. One driver, an ethnic Russian, surprises me by talking close to accentless English. He’s a retired military translator and frolicked in Ethiopia. He’s desirous to rekindle his language expertise and to share his insights. If anybody desires to know the place the nation’s oil billions have gone, he observes, simply go searching.
My resort, the Rixos President, a five-star grand resort inbuilt 2005, would fulfill the tastes of most oil barons – palm tree oasis within the palatial inside court docket, five-storey-high cascades of fairy lights and parakeets squawking in cages. The blingy look references Dubai, however the aspirations of youthful Astana could also be heading in a distinct course.
The Shoreditch burger and wok bar is the newest addition to the alt-dining scene of town, someplace you gained’t discover conventional Kazakh delicacies like shuzhuk (horse meat sausage) and kumis (fermented mare’s milk). The music isn’t dependable, however the cocktails and bistro- model meals are wonderful. There may be as but no signal of a hipster inflow, however the writing is on the wall – reverse the cloakroom. “Brick Lane” says the fake London road signal, full with Bengali iteration beneath.
Conventional cultural symbols handle to coexist right here, too. The picture of the Samruk, a legendary chicken of happiness that appears very similar to a golden eagle, is ubiquitous. Its symbolic “egg” (a 300-tonne ball of glass) is perched on prime of the wacky Bayterek tower, an arrogance venture worthy of any Nice Khan. The ball comprises the gold hand imprint of the president. Guests can contact palms with His Greatness and make a want.
The cult of Nazarbayev’s persona additionally hangs over the Nationwide Museum like the massive flapping plastic Samruk suspended from the ceiling of the 9 storey atrium. The identification of nation with the president is hammered house within the varied exhibition halls – dotted with statues and likenesses rendered on canvas and carpet. Sure, carpet.
The nationwide fascination with all that glitters is rooted in historical past. Hundreds of intricately labored Scythian gold trinkets present in historical burial mounds on the steppes are displayed within the Hall of Gold; a few of the motifs are simply recognised as flying elks, contorted horses and stylised mountain ranges.
One other exhibition on a a lot grander scale is preoccupying Astana: Expo 2017 (themed “Future Vitality”) is because of begin in June. The Nationwide Pavilion of Kazakhstan – a sci-fi set up titled the Sphere – is already seen among the many canyons of cranes frantically getting the positioning prepared. The organisers say they’re anticipating 5 million visits; a determine that’s extensively met with scepticism in a rustic of simply 17 million. However on this metropolis, a way of actuality is on everlasting maintain. Considering massive is a prerequisite.
There may be an exuberance to Astana that defies sense and style. After the preliminary shock I’m swept alongside by the sheer brazen swagger of all of it. These are the stately pleasure domes of a futuristic Xanadu. For a first-time customer, it’s a visit.
Fly from London Heathrow return to Astana on Air Astana, from £494. Throughout Expo 2017, Air Astana is providing passengers to Astana a free entry ticket to the occasion, redeemable through the Air Astana web site. Rooms on the Rixos President Hotel begin at £155 an evening