This story appears in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The new capital of Kazakhstan does not lack for exotic buildings, some of them best described by irreverent local nicknames: the banana (a bright yellow office tower), seven barrels (a cluster of apartment towers), the cigarette lighter (the Ministry of Transport and Communications). But one such structure, a national monument called the Baiterek, does not lend itself to nicknames, for the simple reason that it looks like nothing else. Not on this planet, anyway.
Baiterek, which means "tall poplar tree" in Kazakh, is a 318-foot tower buttressed by an exoskeleton of white-painted steel. At the top is a gold-tinted glass sphere. According to the epigraph at its base, the monument represents the Kazakh myth of Samruk, a sacred bird that every year lays a golden egg—the sun—in the crown of an enormous tree of life. Its designer? None other than Nursultan Nazarbayev, the steelworker turned strongman who has run the country since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He is said to have roughed out the original concept on a paper napkin.
Just as 18th-century tsar Peter the Great claimed a swampy patch of Baltic seacoast and stamped his brand on St. Petersburg—the national seat of power in imperial Russia—so, too, did Nazarbayev pick out a remote spot on which to plant the flag of a new Kazakhstan. Never mind that the previous capital, Almaty, is a temperate, pleasant city that few save the president wanted to leave. In late 1997 the government officially relocated to frigid, windswept Aqmola, 600 miles to the north, on the treeless steppe of Central Asia. The town was subsequently rechristened Astana—the Kazakh word for "capital"—a change that is commemorated every July 6 on Astana Day, which coincides with Nazarbayev's birthday.
Rich in oil and other mineral resources, Kazakhstan has lavished billions on the new capital, inviting some of the world's leading architects to showcase their work on the Left Bank of the Esil River, which separates the administrative "new city" from the older, mostly Soviet built district on the Right Bank. The results are eclectic, visually arresting, and not to everyone's taste. But love it or hate it, Astana is here to stay, its population having swelled from 300,000 to more than 700,000 in a decade. Along the way, it has become a billboard for Kazakh nationalism and aspirations—a statement as much as a city.
Other capitals have had similar origins, including, of course, St. Petersburg, which Fyodor Dostoyevsky once described as "the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe." The description was not meant to flatter. But eventually the Russian city took on a life of its own, endured, and prospered. Will Astana do the same?
Yernar Zharkeshov, for one, has no doubt. The polished 24-year-old, dressed in crisp khakis and a polo shirt, meets me for lunch in an upscale Central Asian restaurant on Nurzhol—Radiant Path—Boulevard, which is Astana's equivalent of the National Mall in Washington. He is accompanied by a lovely young woman named Michelle, who is visiting from her native Singapore, where Zharkeshov has recently completed a master's degree in public policy. He orders horsemeat sausage and koumiss—the fermented and mildly alcoholic mare's milk that is the Kazakh national drink—watching in amusement as Michelle gamely tries a few sips before passing it over to him.
Zharkeshov came by his tastes honestly. The son of a former Communist Party official, he is a member of the ethnic Kazakh group that makes up more than 60 percent of the country's 16 million people. Famed for their horsemanship, the Kazakhs lived as nomads in the centuries before their vast, empty homeland, roughly the size of Western Europe, was absorbed into the Soviet empire. But the Zharkeshov family worked hard to preserve their Central Asian traditions. They had kept livestock in their village southeast of Astana, where Yernar herded sheep on horseback and made koumiss in a birchwood churn smoked with herbs that grew wild on the steppe.
Six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zharkeshov moved with his parents and four siblings to the new capital, where his father worked for an insurance company and later became a bathhouse owner. Zharkeshov had grown up speaking Kazakh, but by the age of 15 he had mastered both Russian—now as then the dominant language in urban areas of Kazakhstan—and English. He eventually won a government scholarship to study in Britain, where he earned his undergraduate degree before heading to Singapore. He had come home to Astana to hunt for a job.
Zharkeshov was thrilled with the new capital and what it seemed to promise, both for him and for a country that in his view is too often lumped with its unstable neighbors—"there's a problem in being a ‘stan,' " he says (or worse, there's ridicule, as in the 2006 hit movie Borat). But Astana, says Zharkeshov, is the new face of Kazakhstan. "It's remarkable, seriously, just being part of this process."
Just days after we met, he landed a coveted job as a government economist, joining thousands of other young people—the average age in the city is just 32—for whom Astana has become a beacon of opportunity. Like Zharkeshov, most of the newcomers are ethnic Kazakhs—as opposed to the ethnic Russians, Germans, Ukrainians, and others who make up the balance of Kazakhstan's population. Their dominance reflects the government's preference for hiring people who can speak Kazakh, which irks non-Kazakhs, who see it as further evidence of their diminished status in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.
The emphasis on the Kazakh language is part of a larger trend that some call Khazakhification, with Astana its most conspicuous example and Nazarbayev its most ardent promoter. An ethnic Kazakh, the president was born 71 years ago to shepherds in a village in the southeastern part of the country near Kyrgyzstan. He had labored in an ironworks before casting his lot with the Communist Party, in which he held a senior leadership post at the time of the Soviet collapse. Soon after assuming the presidency, he began laying the groundwork to move the capital from Almaty to Aqmola, in north-central Kazakhstan.
Many were baffled by the choice. Founded in 1830 as a tsarist fort, Aqmola developed as a railroad junction and was known during the Soviet era as Tselinograd. In the 1950s and '60s, it was the focal point of Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands initiative, which aimed to turn the region into the granary of the Soviet empire. By the 1990s, however, the town had fallen on hard times and was mostly known for qualities that would not be found in a chamber of commerce brochure: Temperatures that plunge to minus 60°F in winter, clouds of mosquitoes in summer, fierce winds that kick up dust storms from overharvested fields.
A Moscow-trained violinist named Aiman Mussakhajayeva was among the skeptics. She grew up in Almaty and met Nazarbayev after one of her concerts there in the mid-1990s. The president, impressed by her performance, asked if she would like to start a national music academy. She was delighted by the offer and assumed the academy would be located in Almaty.
When Nazarbayev revealed his plan, Mussakhajayeva thought, What is Aqmola? But she swallowed her doubts and followed the president to the new capital, where she now runs the National University of Arts from a sunlit office suite housed in a vivid blue, circular building that foreigners call the dog bowl. As we finished our conversation there, she asked me to wait a moment. "You want to see the Stradivarius I play?"
Nazarbayev has given several reasons for moving the capital from Almaty, among them its vulnerability to earthquakes and its proximity to the Tian Shan mountains, which limit its room to grow. But geopolitics also played an important role. Nazarbayev is widely believed to have been motivated by fear of Russian territorial designs on northern Kazakhstan, which borders Russia and encompasses a large share of Kazakhstan's ethnic Russian population. In any case, few were willing or able to challenge the authoritarian leader, who remains popular for promoting stability and economic growth despite criticism of his government for corruption and human rights abuses.
To build his dream city, Nazarbayev solicited help from foreign benefactors eager to do business with Kazakhstan—among them the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which funded construction of a mosque with space for 7,000 worshippers. (Islam is the dominant faith in Kazakhstan, although the state is officially secular.) He also brought in leading global talents such as the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who designed Astana's master plan. But he never left any doubt as to who is in charge. Sarsembek Zhunusov, the city's chief architect, recalled his colleagues' trepidation when Nazarbayev declared some years ago that he wanted a huge pyramid built.
"Our architects kept saying the world already has pyramids," Zhunusov said. "Everyone was scared, because you have to be a great architect to build another pyramid." The job of building the Palace of Peace and Harmony ultimately went to Norman Foster, the British architect who is also responsible for the Khan Shatyr, or the "king's tent," a regal, translucent structure vaguely evocative of a yurt.
Signature buildings aside, Nazarbayev remains deeply enmeshed in the minutiae of city planning, down to the choice of flowers—tulips, delphiniums, irises—laid out in vivid patterns derived from Kazakh folklore. "He always has some comments," said Zhunusov. "He worries about something, then he changes his mind in a week because he thinks about it all the time." And he continues to think big. With the core of the capital near completion, Nazarbayev has ordered his architects to explore the possibility of building another huge tent that would shelter a climate-controlled "indoor city" of 15,000 people.
Perhaps the best place to appreciate the scope of Nazarbayev's ambition—and ego—is the observation chamber atop the Baiterek. Amid the 360-degree views and a bar serving cold Turkish beer is a malachite pedestal capped by a 4.4-pound slab of solid gold, in the center of which is an imprint of the president's right hand. Visitors make a wish as they place a palm in the impression, which on special occasions triggers the playing of the national anthem, its lyrics said to have been written by the president.
The city does have its whimsical side. Mesh sculptures covered with vines—swans, horses, giraffes—seem closer in spirit to Disneyland than to Pyongyang. On a balmy evening in June, children blow soap bubbles in the plaza next to the Dancing Fountain, which is illuminated by colored lights as Russian hip-hop pulses from large outdoor speakers. Skateboarders in low-slung jeans perform tricks as police look on indifferently. An outdoor café serves French wine at $17 (U.S.) a glass.
The capital's boomtown ethos may find its fullest expression in its shopping malls, of which the Khan Shatyr—the Foster-designed tent—is the most distinctive. Its top level is taken up by an indoor beach outfitted with a wave pool and sand imported from the Maldives. One night the mall hosted a bikini party, charging $20 for admission. Men and women in skimpy bathing suits downed vodka and Red Bull as a deejay urged, in English, "Everybody get crazy! Ziss iz bikini party!"
More than a dictator's vanity project or a town where rich people party, Astana is a magnet for strivers like Yernar Zharkeshov. And like Darkhan Dossanov, an irrepressible 25-year-old with a lopsided smile who approached me on the street one evening to practice his English. ("I'm really glad to meet you. My English was almost disappeared from my head.")
I ended up buying him dinner, which he devoured so quickly that I wondered how much he had been eating lately. Only six days earlier, he had arrived in the capital with little more than a cell phone and a portable Sony PlayStation, having sold his digital camera to buy a train ticket from his home 500 miles to the east. He had landed a job as a busboy in a fancy Italian restaurant, where he slept on pushed-together chairs before he found lodging in a cramped three-bedroom apartment that he shared with ten others.
When I saw Dossanov again a week or so later, he told me that he had lost his restaurant job because his poor eyesight had prevented him from noticing when tables needed to be cleared. The restaurant was refusing to pay him for eight days of work; he planned to sell his PlayStation to pay for food. Still, he had a line on another restaurant job and remained confident that he had made the right choice in coming to Astana. "I know that in the future I will be very wealthy," he said. "It's a really lucky place for me."
Indeed, creative and entrepreneurial energy seems to be stirring everywhere among Astana's young people. In a shabby theater on the Right Bank of the Esil River, four young dancers in their late teens and early 20s leaped and twirled through an avant-garde ballet routine under the critical gaze of Adyl Erkinbaev, a 32-year-old dancer and choreographer who wears his hair in a short ponytail.
Erkinbaev is from Kyrgyzstan, where he attended the national ballet school. He moved to Astana in 2002 as part of an initiative by the city government to stock the new capital with artists and performers. Last spring the ballet folded, but Erkinbaev had recruited four of its dancers for an independent production.
None of them seemed to mind that they were rehearsing without wages, at least until Erkinbaev could find a sponsor. "In a good way, he is some kind of mad," said one, Inna Oparina, a 21-year-old ethnic Russian who supports herself as an English teacher. When she first came to him three years ago, she recalled, "I was like a robot. I couldn't express anything." It was Erkinbaev, she said, who taught her that "emotions are more important than technique."
On another night I attended a meeting of young professionals, many educated abroad, who call themselves the Astana Alumni Association. They listened raptly as a guest speaker, 38-year-old Aidyn Rakhimbayev, described his rapid ascent from small-time coal trader to head of one of the country's largest construction firms.
Pressed by a listener for advice on how to turn an idea into a business, Rakhimbayev replied brusquely, "An idea is nothing. Do you have skills? What is your business plan?" He urged them to read books by management gurus such as Tom Peters, while admitting he came late to such pursuits—he was too busy making money. "I made my first million at 29," he says. "In dollars. I made my first ten million at 32. Then I decided it was time to start reading books."
Everyone was looking for an angle. Before my visit ended, I got a call from Yernar Zharkeshov, the newly minted government economist, who asked me to meet him for coffee. We made small talk before he got to the point: His father was trying to set himself up as a consultant to foreign investors and wondered if I could pass along the names of potential clients. Zharkeshov then excused himself to take his nieces and nephews to a showing of Cars 2, the Pixar film that had recently opened in Astana to much excitement, in part because it was the first Western movie to be dubbed in Kazakh instead of Russian.
For all its self-conscious grandeur, there is a tenuous, even temporary, quality to the new capital that came home to me every time it rained, when water poured through the ceiling of the shopping arcade on the first floor of the brand-new apartment tower where I had arranged a short-term rental.
One Saturday afternoon I attended a picnic in a park, thrown by local members of Toastmasters International. A young, American-educated banker approached me, unbidden, to suggest that I should not be too impressed by Astana. "The whole place is like a dream," he said with a wan smile. "It does not sustain itself. It depends on the price of oil, frankly." He paused and shrugged. "We have so many resources we can afford to be stupid at this point."
But that was surely a minority view among his fellow picnickers, who spread a blanket in the shade of a poplar tree and heaped their paper plates with beets, oranges, and meat-filled dumplings called manti. Someone circulated a bottle of koumiss; a few people began tossing around a Frisbee. "Everyone who loves their job raise your hand," commanded Zhanna Kunasheva, a 33-year-old woman who works for the local office of Shell Oil. Most raised their hands. Kunasheva then handed out copies of lyrics to songs by Frank Sinatra and Russian pop stars, leading the group in an impromptu sing-along.
After a few hours the party broke up, as some of the picnickers announced that they had to go to a Latin dance class. The wind sighed in the poplar trees, and the skyline of the new capital, like the evening, seemed to beckon with a bright and thrilling promise.