Glitzy Astana: Photos of Kazakhstan’s Futurist Capital

Glitzy Astana: Photos of Kazakhstan’s Futurist Capital

Astana, Kazakhstan’s glitzy purpose-built capital, sometimes called the “Dubai of Central Asia” due to its unabashed array of flamboyant modern architecture, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Back in 1997, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree moving the capital from the southern city of Almaty, the long-established business center.

Located some 750 miles north on the windy, sparsely populated steppe, Astana seemed a strange place for a capital city. Why did Nazarbayev choose this isolated, out-of-the-way spot?

The Astana skyline boasts architecture by world-renowned architectural firms. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

The Astana high altitude skyline boasts architecture by world-renowned architectural firms
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Nazarbayev’s BabyNursultan Nazarbayev, the curiously popular Kazakh president (he’s been re-elected five times, averaging over 90% of the vote) slid smoothly into the presidency in 1991 from his role as Communist Party Secretary. He’s been there ever since, and has been deftly managing relations with his huge northern neighbor, Russia. Putting an important city with lots of Kazakhstani citizens in it up near the border with Russia seemed a prudent move at a time when Kazakhstan was finding its legs as an independent nation.

“The Tallest Tent in the World” and Other WondersAnd if you’re going to bother building a capital city from scratch, why not make it memorable? Making use of the country’s extensive oil and gas riches, Nazarbayev hired famous contemporary architects, such as Norman Foster, to design and build the new city center, a futuristic landscape of curvy towers, allegorical monuments, a faux Stalinist office building, modernistic arts centers and a Disneyland-esque shopping mall sheltered under what’s called the tallest tent in the world.

The Khan-Shatyr Shopping and Entertainment Center lays claim to the title, "Word's Tallest Tent." Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

The Norman Foster-designed Khan-Shatyr Shopping and Entertainment Center lays claim to the title, “Word’s Tallest Tent”
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Dozens of flashy buildings surround three connecting park-like squares, built on a giant scale, and anchored on one end by the neo-classical Presidential Palace, and on the other, a mile away, by the afore-mentioned tent-mall, the Khan-Shatyr Center.

Tropical foliage lines the walkways of the Khan-Shatyr Center, and on the top floor a beach was supplied with sand from the Maldives. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Tropical foliage lines the walkways of the Khan-Shatyr Center, and on the top floor a beach was supplied with sand from the Maldives
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Baiterek TowerBaiterek Tower has become the symbol of Astana. Representing a tree with a golden egg laid by a magic bird from Kazakh folk tales, the 344-foot tower has a viewing platform with a plate imprinted with President Nazarbayev’s hand. Touch the hand and a song written by Nazarbayev plays.

Baiterek Tower has become the symbol of Astana. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Baiterek Tower has become the symbol of Astana
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Ak Orda (White Horde) Presidential PalaceThe marble-clad Ak Orda (White Horde) Presidential Palace contains the offices of the president and governing bodies, a yurt-shaped hall for summit meetings and various formal and informal spaces. Completed in 2004, the imposing five-story building has a total area of almost 400,000 square feet.

Ak Orda (White Horde) Presidential Palace. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Ak Orda (White Horde) Presidential Palace
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Presidential Palace flanked by the golden “Beer Cans”. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Presidential Palace flanked by the golden “Beer Cans,” as locals call them
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

The Pyramid of Peace in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

The Pyramid of Peace
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

The Pyramid of PeaceThe enigmatic Pyramid of Peace with its transparent peak was designed as a meeting place for leading representatives of the world’s religions and as a global center of acceptance and understanding. Completed in 2006, the structure includes a circular chamber for periodic meetings of faith leaders, a 1,500-seat Opera Hall, a library and a museum. At night the pyramid is bathed in the colors of the Kazakh flag.

(click on small square photos to see a larger version)


Khazret Sultan Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Khazret Sultan Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Khazret Sultan Mosque: The Largest Dome in KazakhstanThe mammoth white Khazret Sultan Mosque was opened in 2012 on the right bank of the Yesil River near the Pyramid of Peace. With the largest central dome in Kazakhstan and eight smaller ones, the mosque is named for a 12th century Sufi sheikh, Hodja Akhmed Yassavi. Instead of tiles, the interior of each dome is fitted with polymer sheets printed with Kazakh patterns.

Inside the mosque. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Inside the mosque
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Polymer sheets instead of tiles. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Polymer sheets instead of tiles
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Khazret Sultan Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Gardens surrounding Khazret Sultan Mosque
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

The “Dog Bowl”Located on Independence Square near the Pyramid of Peace and the Khazret Sultan Mosque, the rounded shape of the Shabyt Art Palace has prompted locals to refer to it as the “Dog Bowl.” Inside, the building hosts the Kazakh National University of the Arts, concert halls, film studios, art and dance studios and a library.

Shabyt Art Palace aka the "Dog Bowl"in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Shabyt Art Palace, a.k.a the “Dog Bowl”
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Rose-Inspired Central Concert HallInaugurated in 2009, Astana’s Central Concert Hall was designed by Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti to bring to mind the petals of a rose, when seen from above. With a 100-foot-tall foyer and thousands of square feet of space, the hall is meant to be an enclosed public square and meeting place. Three concert halls, restaurants, bars, and shops round out the amenities.

Astana's Central Concert Hall. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Astana’s Central Concert Hall
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

The Zher-ana, Mother Earth Monument. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

The Zher-ana, Mother Earth Monument
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Mother Earth MonumentThe Zher-ana, Mother Earth Monument, shows a giant stylized bull ridden by the ancient warrior-queen of the nomadic Saka tribe, Tomyris. She is said to have vanquished the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great, cutting his head off and dipping it in the blood of traitors. “You wanted blood, so drink it to the dregs!” she said, according to the legend. Standing on the bull’s back, she is guarded by leopards.

Mother Earth with flowers. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Mother Earth with flowers
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Kazakh Eli MonumentStanding at the heart of Independence Square is the gleaming white marble Kazakh Eli (Kazakh Land) Monument, commemorating Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union. Rising nearly 300 feet in the air, the monument is topped with a gilded statue of a samruk, a mythological bird symbolizing purity, beauty, and prosperity. The base features four bas-reliefs depicting the modern values of the Kazakh people, including one of Nazarbayev taking his presidential oath.

Kazakh Eli (Kazakh Land) Monument in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Kazakh Eli (Kazakh Land) Monument
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Spot Baiterek Tower between the arches of the headquarters of Kazakhstan's national gas company. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Spot Baiterek Tower between the arches of KazMunayGas headquarters, Kazakhstan’s national oil and gas company
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Home of Expo 2017Kazakhstan scored a coup several years ago when Astana was chosen as the location for Expo 2017 World’s Fair, in which some 100 countries will showcase their best ideas and practices concerning the theme, “Future Energy.” Its aim is to map possible paths toward ensuring safe and sustainable access to energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Kazakhstan’s own pavilion will be powered by 100% clean energy.

When the New York Times gave Kazakhstan 26th place on its 2017 Places to Visit recommendations, the text read, “Ten years after Borat put it on tourist maps, Kazakhstan aims to be a refuge of Silk Road luxury… But an earnest transition from oil state to eco-destination is also underway.”

The overall design for the 62-acre expo site was awarded to Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (which also designed the tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa), and is on a scale matching that of the city center. It’s meant to be one of the most sustainably built developments on earth.

Ramstore Bridge over Ishim river in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

One arch and cables suspend the Ramstore Bridge over Astana’s Ishim River
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

City of the FutureWith its young population, contemporary architecture, and burgeoning cultural scene, Astana has disconnected itself as much as possible from the country’s grim and gray Soviet past. Plans are being made to cooperate with China as that country unveils its “Belt and Road” development initiative. Astana, as Kazakhstan’s capital, will become an important link in the 21st century “Silk Road Economic Belt,” fully integrated into the region as it used to be at the height of the old Silk Road.

Happy 20th, Astana. You’ve come a long way.

Ministry of Defense building in Astana. Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Springtime at the Ministry of Defense in Astana
Photo credit: Igor Strebkov

Travel to Kazakhstan with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Kazakhstan, and has an accredited office in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. MIR has a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

MIR’s expertise can get you to challenging places hampered by fluctuating flight routes, complicated visa regimens and ever-changing border requirements. 

You can visit the Kazakh capital, Astana, on a custom, private tour, hand-crafted to your travel interests and style. Or, opt for our ready-made independent travel itinerary, Essential Kazakhstan.

MIR offers a number of ways to experience Kazakhstan: on a small group tour or on a rail journey by private train.

Top photo: Baiterek Tower flanked by Astana’s “Beer Cans.” Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

PUBLISHED: April 5, 2017

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