Astana fascinates me. I'm not a big fan of cities generally, especially not capitals, but Astana is unique. Until about ten years ago it was little more than a village, until the president took the appreciable risk of deciding to create a new capital city, more or less from scratch.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Kazakhstan will likely see a less than academic picture that I'm painting of the situation, but I'm just writing from what I've heard over the last few days..
The previous capital city, Almaty, is hundreds of miles away, nestled in the far South East, towards China. The president wasn't keen on the direction Kazakhstan was taking as a result of this proximity of the capital city to China. Almaty is also kind of at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a road leading to it, and few other access routes.
So the decision was made to create a fresh capital city, up in the North, much closer to Russia.
Positioned with excellent lines of access and communication in every direction.
But what I find more interesting than the history and politics of the story, is how the place feels, and what was done with this opportunity to create from a clean sheet.
One of the first things that you can't help noticing, is that almost everywhere you look there are huge cranes, and other evidence of massive construction. This may be in part due to the current world economic situation, as I'm told it's had a massive effect. Many companies going under, and many projects left unfinished.
But this aside, it's an odd scenario to see this concentration of construction projects in one place.
Everything you look at is less than a decade old. Unusually for Kazakhstan, the roads are of an excellent quality. There is a logic and order to the way traffic and pedestrians move around that I haven't seen for a while. Traffic organisation has been thought through and enforced. There are road signs, and markings and traffic lights that are obeyed almost religiously. Lots of police.
Most areas of the city feel spacious and under crowded. In fact I was told that the population is only 645,000. For a capital city of one of the largest countries in the world, that seems absurdly low, but this is a city in it's infancy.
There's green everywhere, young trees line the streets, and there's a lot of grass. Armies of water tankers circle the city in a constant battle to nourish the flora, in a climate unwilling to support this level of vegetation. Effort has gone into creating an environment where you feel at ease. The wide open spaces are the right proportions.
A water course separates the administrative area of the city from the business and housing side. The architecture is bold, the clean sheet has been used to create inspired and optimistic structures.
The centre of the administrative area is quite something. The iconic centre piece is a monument type structure named 'Bitereac', which is based on a mythical story involving an egg, perched high in the branches of a tree. I took the lift up to the platform at the top, 97m from ground level (coinciding with the completion of the structure in 1997), where I was treated to a spectacular panorama of the city. It's only from this position that you can appreciate the order and artistic positioning of the surrounding city features.
There are a couple of things at the top of this structure that I found of interest. A piece that signifies unity between the many religious groups present in the country. A globe is surrounded by a fan of plaques that represent 17 different religions, each signed by a representative.
The other is a handprint of the president Nazarbaiv, in which you're encouraged to place your hand and make a wish.
I'm told there is a very low level of crime in the city. As well as a disproportionately large police force, there are also specialised criminal units to address all kinds of naughties. An anti corruption unit has been successful in putting away some baddies, including a few prominent governmental figures.
I can't put my finger on quite what makes me feel happy here, it just feels interesting, at a point of change that you rarely see on the surface, and it feels safe and confident.