The world has seen a number of new cities sprouting up over the past two decades. Dubai, Malaysia's Putrajaya and Myanmar's Nay Pyi Taw are among those often mentioned in news reports. However, none of them is as eccentric and out of this world as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
Replacing the more earthquake-prone Almaty further south as the political centre of the Central Asian nation since 1997, seven years after the country broke off from the Soviet Union, Astana is now Kazakhstan's second-largest city.
Built from scratch on the empty steppe on the western bank of the Ishim River, the new capital also incorporates the existing urban area on the other side of the waterway. But of course, it's the new part of the city that represents Astana.
Central to the new capital is the Bayterex observation tower that stands in the middle of a 2km-long boulevard which serves as the core of the city.
At the eastern end of the boulevard is the Presidential Palace, and further east on the other side of the river the wonderful pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
At the other end of the boulevard stands the KazMunayGaz Building, named after the state-owned oil and gas company that is housed there. A stone's throw from the office building is the city's newest shopping mall and entertainment centre, Khan Shatyre.
You might think that doesn't sound particularly impressive, but a look at the accompanying photographs reveals those places are just a few of the truly distinctive structures that make up Kazakhstan's first city.
The buildings shown here are just part of Astana's large architectural collection of diverse designs, from the insanely futuristic to the retro styles of the Soviet years and even further back in time to the ancient Roman and Chinese empires.
These architectural marvels are one of the highlights for travellers visiting Astana. The following is a shortlist of buildings not to be missed if you get the chance to spend a day in this unique city.
Said to have been designed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's one and only president having served since before the country declared independence from the USSR, the tower represents the Kazakh people's legendary Tree of Life topped with a golden egg of a mythical bird. The spherical egg is actually a glass-walled observation deck from where you can get a vista of the entire city. But apart from enjoying the view, another must-do for virtually every visitor at the top of the Bayterex is to have a photo taken while putting a hand on the golden handprint of President Nazarbayev.
Like many other structures in the city which have nicknames, Bayterex is also known as Chupa Chups.
This tent-shaped shopping mall, which has a translucent surface that glows in different colours after dusk, is one of the latest architectural marvels of Astana.
Apart from brand-name shops and restaurants, the building, designed by the firm of celebrated British architect Sir Norman Foster, also houses an indoor amusement park and an artificial seaside with waves and sandy beach. (In case you didn't know, Kazakhstan is land-locked.)
If you look across the street from the main entrance and through the arched opening of the KazMunayGaz Building, you can see the big lollipop of Bayterex in the distance.
This may remind you of the US White House, and it serves the same purpose. It is the official residence of the Kazakh president. With the curve of the Ishim River to its back, the Presidential Palace faces west towards two green-golden cones designed to match the sphere on top of the Bayterex tower (which is further away in the same direction). Just a few steps from the presidential residence is the Central Concert Hall.
PALACE OF PEACE AND RECONCILIATION
Beyond the eastern end of the city's axis, across the river from the Presidential Palace stands the pyramid-shaped structure called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Another architectural work designed by Sir Norman, this modern pyramid houses a theatre with more than 1,350 seats on the bottom floor, a small museum featuring traditional costumes of the country's ethnic groups and a conference room at the apex, the glass walls of which feature pictures of white doves, the symbol of peace. The floors are connected by elevators that travel diagonally.
In front of the glass pyramid stands a large mosque and two architectural structures with interesting designs. One of the buildings is fondly called the Dog Bowl. At first sight, you'll have no difficulty understanding why.
There are many other striking examples of architecture in Astana, among them a circus building that resembles a flying saucer, the egg-shaped National Archives, and the apartment building called Triumph of Astana designed in Stalinist style.
All these buildings are distinctive and will prove hard to forget once you've seen them. Next time you see them in a photograph, you'll be able to tell right away where in the world it was taken.
There is no direct air link between Bangkok and Astana. Almaty, the former capital, remains the main international gateway to Kazakhstan. Air Astana, the country’s national airline, runs several flights a week connecting Suvarnabhumi and Almaty airports. From Almaty, you can take domestic flights to Astana.
About the author
- Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor