Passport magazine: Russian lifestyle
Home Archive October 2008

About Us

From the Publisher

Contact Us

Current IssueArchive
Restaurant GuideRestaurant ReviewsInternational Food BlogsWine TastingsTravelMoscow EmbassiesAirlines to RussiaMoscow AirportsCustoms and VisasResidence permitMoscow Phone DirectoryMuseums and GalleriesWi-Fi Hot Spots in MoscowClubs!Community ListingsMoscow Downtown MapMoscow Metro MapRussian LinksInternational Links
Advertise with Us
Our Readers - a profileAdvertising RatesDistribution List
Click for Moscow, Russia Forecast
Our Partners
Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Kazakhstan’s capital city is 10 years old! Toss me a glass of kumis (a drink made of fermented mare’s milk that is popular in the Central Asian steppes), and let’s get this party started…
Text Tristan Kennedy
Photos Chris Gourlay

On July 6, 2008, with considerable pomp and ceremony, Astana celebrated its first 10 years as the capital of independent Kazakhstan. Though it remains a work-in-progress and cranes continue to clutter the skyline, the casual visitor would be justified in thinking that Astana has every right to celebrate: It is the capital of a booming young republic and has a lot to offer visitors. Why not throw a party?

View of Astana’s grand boulevard, with the entrance arch at one end

Strangely, though, Astana officially became Kazakhstan’s capital in December 1997. So why have the 10th anniversary festivities been delayed by six months? The reason behind this discrepancy in dates is one that cuts to the very core of the city’s identity. And it is this that makes Astana worth more than just a casual visit.

Astana’s identity is intrinsically tied up with that of one Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, a man whose birthday happens to be … July 6! While changing the date of the city’s celebrations to that of the president’s birthday might seem excessive, it is no exaggeration to say that this city owes its existence, in its current form, to Mr. Nazarbayev. The gleaming towers of mirror-glass that rise incongruously out of the barren Central Asian steppe miles are obviously brand new. This town came from nowhere, as a quick glance at its fascinating history reveals.

The town now known as Astana has been through almost as many name changes as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The original settlement on this site, Akmolinsk, grew from a fort established by Cossacks in 1824. Despite the extreme climate of the region — temperatures range from plus 35 Celsius in summer to minus 40 Celsius in winter — the town grew fairly steadily throughout the 20th century. The name, which means “white graveyard” in Kazakh, became curiously apt when Stalin decided to establish one of his notorious Gulags on the unforgiving steppe outside the city.

In the late 1950s, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev launched his Virgin Lands Campaign — a plan intended to bring Central Asian land under high-tech cultivation and surpass the West’s agricultural output — from Akmolinsk, renaming it Tselinograd. When the farming scheme failed, some of the immigrants stayed but Tselinograd entered the 1990s as an unremarkable and slightly dilapidated post- Soviet town.

Until Nazarbayev decided that his brand-new nation, which gained its independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, needed a brand-new capital. Small matter that the tiny city he chose boasted one of the world’s harshest climates or that it was miles from anywhere. While commentators joked (though not too publicly) that the re-renamed Akmolinsk would become Nazarbayev’s political graveyard, the president, flush from selling concessions to American oil majors, pressed on. He poured billions of petrodollars into his pet project, and renamed the city “Astana.” The Kazakh word for “capital” (as in the governmental seat of a country — not as wealth and value-added by labor) in 1997.

View of the Ishim River at night from Astana’s central park

Today Astana is fascinating for tourists as an example of what one man, armed only with a few billion dollars, can achieve. Nazarbayev gently encouraged businessmen to move to the city by offering them tax breaks. Rather less gently, he ordered his civil servants to relocate or lose their jobs. Thus the city’s population ballooned to its current size of over 600,000. New apartment blocks sprang up with incredible speed; many more are still being built. Most are clad in a brightly colored plastic that leaves this private presidential playground looking a bit like Legoland. This impression is reenforced by a visit to the mini-Astana model in the city’s central park. It’s well worth having a look at just how ambitious the final plans are.

A grand ceremonial boulevard sits to the south of the main city. It is lined by ministries, government buildings, and the identikit houses allocated to foreign ambassadors. Just in case there was any doubt about who is in charge, the boulevard culminates in the enormous, impressive blue-domed presidential palace. In the center sits the Bayterek Tower, a slightly bizarre-looking monument topped by a golden mirror-glass ball that sits at a symbolic height of 97 meters. Taking the lift up to this is well worth the 1,500 tenge (about US $12) fee just to see the golden handprint of Nazarbayev at the top. Place your hand in His Excellency’s, and the Kazakh national anthem blasts out of surprisingly loud surround-sound speakers. The views from here are also impressive. Marvel at the vast new mosque to the south. Gaze at the newly rebuilt ministry of communication, nicknamed the zazhigalka (cigarette lighter), which ironically burned down in 2006. Be amazed how the arid semi-desert begins just a few meters from the well-watered ceremonial flowerbeds.

Though some international observers may scoff at the waste of money, internationally renowned architects continue to contribute. Japan’s Kisho Kurokawa designed the dramatic airport and planned the grand boulevard. Britain’s Sir Norman Foster has already built one monument, an enormous glass pyramid, and is designing a second. Astana’s buildings are certainly impressive and are defi nitely its main attraction. There’s also a peaceful central park where shashlik is sold on summer evenings. There’s an aquarium to visit where sharks swim over 6,000 miles away from the nearest ocean. About an hour’s drive north of the city you’ll find the Tenghiz nature reserve which boasts the world’s northernmost flock of pink flamingos! For those with a taste for the bizarre, all these attractions make Astana a must-visit destination.

Most Kazakhs are very proud of their shiny new capital and are usually very willing to take time out to show visitors around the “Dubai of Central Asia.” In general, they are very grateful to their president. So grateful, in fact, that in January 2008 the parliament voted to change the city’s (slightly unimaginative) name once again, this time to Nursultan. The president modestly declined but hinted that it might happen in the future. Looking at the date of the anniversary celebrations, which were recently declared a public holiday as “Astana Day,” one can’t help suspecting that the man who made this city in his image may have intended this all along.


Air Astana flies direct from Moscow Sheremetyevo to Astana 7 days a week, US $555 round-trip Most foreign nationals (except CIS countries) need a visa for Kazakhstan. This can be arranged by the Kazakh consulate in Moscow, located at 3A Chistoprudny Bulvar
Tel.: (495) 927-1701, (495) 208-1570
Fax: (495) 208-1549 E-mail:
For a one-month, single-entry visa, no letter of invitation is required.


Astana boasts a range of 4- and 5-star hotels, including the Okan Intercontinental, and Rixos President Hotel, as well as budget options. Visit for more information.

 Copyright 2004-2012 +7 (495) 640 0508,,
website development – Telemark
OnLine M&A Russia Deal Book
Follow Us