After a few weeks of working hard and not doing anything particularly noteworthy, we have reached our first holiday of the school year. British schools have a week’s rest towards the end of October, and thankfully we also receive this privilege. Many people choose to leave Kazakhstan to get some final warm rays in the Middle East. I, however, opted to have a ‘staycation’, and chose to explore more of this country’s capital.
As I’ve mentioned before, Astana is one of the newer capital cities in the world. It was a provincial town with little going for it before President Nazarbayev elected to move the capital here from Almaty. The transition was completed in 1997, and the city has become a modern-day project in city-building. It is rare for a major city to be able to build itself up from scratch.
Astana has subsequently become home to many interesting buildings. One of the latest buildings, the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, opened in July. When I arrived a little over a year ago even the foundations didn’t seem to exist. The speed at which the building shot up was incredible. It is mind-boggling that builders continue to construct this city in temperatures that plummet to -40’C.
The building unfortunately caught fire in the winter, which put back the full completion of the mosque, bankrolled by Saudi Arabian investors, until July. The mosque was opened to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the switch from Almaty to Astana.
Kazakh fun fact: The Hazrat Sultan Mosque is now the largest mosque in Central Asia.
I have read that he mosque is big enough to take 5,000 worshippers and is roughly the size of 18 football pitches. The inside of it, as with many mosques, is spacious and elegantly decorated. Its centrepiece is a pretty fountain just inside the main entrance of this jasmine-tinted place of worship.
The mosque is the latest lavish building to have been constructed in Astana, and will definitely not be the last. Indeed, one of the creations designed and completed in 2008 is a scale model of what Astana hopes to look like in 2030, by which time the powers that be believe they will be living in a major international city.
The model is in the Palace of Independence, a building that resembles an upturned shopping trolley. After waiting a rather long time for somebody to enter the ticket office, we were escorted past a fascinating picture before moving up to see the model on the second floor. The picture, as you can see below, is a painting of President Nazarbayev at the opening of Ak Orda, his palace of work. On one side of the canvas are world leaders who were present at the ceremony; on the other side are leaders who, for whatever reason, did not attend. See how many you can name, and if you know which side was in the room in 2006!
The model itself is an incredible achievement – it is the second biggest city model in the world, with only an equivalent in New York City being larger. Our tour guide, a wonderful man called Yerlan, showed us the grand ideas that it is hoped will come to fruition. Some, such as the Khan Shatyr, have already happened. We were told that others, such as the crazy spaceship towers, will not happen. However, if the money keeps flowing into the capital city, then I imagine most of the funky designs will end up shimmering on the steppe skyline…
It speaks volumes of the speed and spontaneous creativity of this city that many new buildings, such as an opera house and music hall that resembles a clay pot, were not on the model. Neither, interestingly, is our school…
We were also treated to an art gallery and a bizarre 4D movie involving a snake climbing up a tree and spitting at us. That part of the film was referring to the legend behind the Bayterek, but the snake was somewhat off-putting. The movie also ended by being in the eye of the President, which was a little bit strange. Nonetheless, the Palace of Independence was a fascinating building that showcases the present and potential and Kazakhstan, and it has been a lovely week exploring her capital before the cold sets in.
Love you all