Nur-Sultan (1,500 kilometers northwest of Almaty and 300 kilometers south of the Russian border) is Kazakhstan’s relatively new capital, which some have compared to the baseball field that emerges in cornfield in the film “Field of Dreams.” Formally known a Akmola and Tselinograd, and renamed Nur-Sultan in March 2019 after being called Astana for more than 20 years, it is has been built up and developed at a rapid pace in recent years and now boasts futuristic skyscrapers, business towers, an international trade center, restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, sports complexes, theaters, casinos and new bridges across the Ishym river, which runs through the center of town.

Sprawling over 248 square kilometers (96 square miles), with an ultra-modern central area, the city is the dream and work of President Nazarbayev, who liked the idea of creating a city from scratch in accordance with his dreams and ambitions and moving the power center away from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital and placing it in the traditionally more Russfied northern part of Kazakhstan to reduce the chance that the Russians might annex northern Kazakhstan the same they did with the Crimea, A widely shown television public announcement about Nur-Sultan shows Nazarbayev as giant walking its streets. Billions of dollars has been spent to make Nur-Sultan a showcase city of the 21st century.

Liberal amounts of gold paint have been used in creation of Astana and Nur-Sultan, because, one official told the International Herald Tribune, “it’s a northern town” and “we decided to choose some warm colors.” Nur-Sultan is the world’s second coldest capital (The coldest is Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia.) In the winter temperatures can reach -40 degrees C. When the wind chill factor is factored in — with the buildings seeming to channel the wind rather block it — it seems like a -100 degrees C. In the summer then can climb to 40 degrees C.

Many of those who had to move to Astana-Nur-Sultan to keep their government jobs would have preferred to stay in Almaty, where the winter temperatures are about 20 degree cooler and scenic mountains — rather than empty steppe — lie just outside the city. Local from Nur-Sultan are the surrounding area are happy about the capita; and the jobs it has created and the elevated status it has given their community. Today, Nur-Sultan is regarded as brash and grandiose and place where the young and ambitious can find success.

Population and Name Change of Nur-Sultan (Astana)

As of September 2017, the population of Nur-Sultan (Astana) was 1,029,556; over double the 2002 population of 493,000. It is the second largest city in Kazakhstan after Almaty, which has about 1.8 million people. The third largest city is Shymkent, which has about 1 million people. In 1999, Astana was the fifth largest city in Kazakhstan after Almaty, Shymkent, Karaganda and Taraz. At that time Astana was home to 312,000. As you can see it has grown a lot since then: 230 percent between 1999 and 2018. Between 1997 and 2005 the population rose from 250,000 to 600,000.

Nur-Sultan is inhabited by the representatives of more than 100 nationalities. As of 2018, ethnic Kazakhs made up 78 percent of Nur-Sultan’s population, representing an increase from 17 percent during the country's independence. The ethnic makeup of the city's population in 2014 was:
Kazakh: 65.2 percent
Russian: 23.8 percent
Ukrainian: 2.9 percent
Tatar: 1.7 percent
German: 1.5 percent
Other: 4.9 percent

In March 2019, Astana was renamed as Nur-Sultan as a tribute to former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned a few days earlier. The order to change name was issued Kazakhstan by Kazakhstan's new interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. "The opinion of [Nazarbayev] will be of special, one can say priority, importance in the development and adoption of strategic decisions," Tokayev said. Small protests took place in Almaty and other cities after the name change was proposed. [Source: Al Jazeera, March 24, 2019]

History of Nur-Sultan

Founded in 1824 in a swampy area in northern Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan began as a Cossack fort. In the 1950s and 60s it was ground zero for the Virgin Lands campaign (Tselinograd means “City of Virgin Lands”) and was known for windy, colder winters. The Virgin Lands campaign was plan to dramatically boost the Soviet Union’s agricultural production in order to alleviate the food shortages by encouraging Soviet citizens to move to remote area with agricultural potential.

John Lancaster wrote in National Geographic: “Founded as a tsarist fort, Aqmola developed as a railroad junction and was known during the Soviet era as Tselinograd. In the 1950s and '60s, it was the focal point of Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands initiative, which aimed to turn the region into the granary of the Soviet empire. By the 1990s, however, the town had fallen on hard times and was mostly known for qualities that would not be found in a chamber of commerce brochure: Temperatures that plunge to minus 60°F in winter, clouds of mosquitoes in summer, fierce winds that kick up dust storms from overharvested fields.”

Some gulags (labor camps) were located in the area. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn spent time in a camp east of Astana. ALZHIR (32 kilometers west of Astana) was created by Stalin in 1937. ALZHIR is the acronym for Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. It was populated by mainly by housewives, nurses, actresses and dancers who were declared enemies of the state or were be married to political prisoners. The name Akmola means “white grave”. summoning images of the icy death that awaited those condemned to internment there.”

Situated at the center of a major wheat producing area, Akmola had a large Russian population. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991 after the Soviet Union broke apart. Astana was made the capital in 1997 as both a concession to Russians, and encouragement for Kazakhs to migrate to the predominately Russian northern parts of the country and to locate the capital a safe distance away from China and its Central Asian rivals.

Russia went along the plan in part because it was keen on keeping Kazakhstan from falling into the orbit of neighboring China, which has lusted over Kazakhstan’s considerable oil reserves to fuel its expanding economy. So, wrote Sly “in an act of post-imperial bombast, the capital was moved 750 miles from its previous location near the Chinese border, Almaty, to Akmola, which is close to Russia — and not much else. It was renamed Astana, which means, simply, “the capital.”

Historical Timeline:

1832 — Date of foundation
Before 1961 – City of Akmolinsk
1961 — 1992 – City of Tselinograd
1993 — 1998 – City of Akmola
October 1997 After the edict by the President of RK the city of Akmola is declared Capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan
June 1998 Akmola is renamed by the decree of the President of RK into the city of Astana.
March 2019: Astana is renamed by the presidential decree into the city of Nur-Sultan.

Moving the Capital from Almaty to Astana

Astana replaced Almaty as the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 in accordance with formal decree issued by President Nazarbayev. Almaty, is still the largest city and most important financial and cultural center. It is located at the base of the Tien Shan Mountains in the far southeast near both China and Kyrgyzstan. John Lancaster wrote in National Geographic: “Never mind that the previous capital, Almaty, is a temperate, pleasant city that few save the president wanted to leave. In late 1997 the government officially relocated to frigid, windswept Aqmola, 600 miles to the north, on the treeless steppe of Central Asia. The town was subsequently rechristened Astana — the Kazakh word for "capital" — a change that is commemorated every July 6 on Astana Day, which coincides with Nazarbayev's birthday. “

A masterplan for the city was created by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. In 1997 Astana was a dilapidated provincial town. Between 1997 and 2005 the population rose from 250,000 to 600,000 and construction was carried out at a breakneck pace. As of 2005 much of the city was still under construction and government business was being conducted in refurbished buildings in the old downtown area. Projections called for the population to reach 1.2 million in 2030. That goal was largely met by 2020 when it could be argued that Nur-Sultan was a relatively smooth-functioning capital, certainly better than built-from-scratch counterparts in Myanmar and Brazil.

The move from Almaty to Astana is seen by many as a way to reduce the power of the Russian elite by moving the center of government away from Russified Almaty to the Kazakh steppes in northern Kazakhstan and this in turn would help that part of Kazakhstan to become more developed and ease ethnic divisions between the predominantly Russian north and the Kazakh south. The former capital, Others think it was simply a manifestations of Nazarbayev’s ambitions. One Kazakh newspaper editor told the Los Angeles Times, “The logic of our president is clear. He wants to build a new nation, a new state, with a new capital.”

Officially, the move of the government from Almaty to Astana was due to Almaty's susceptibility to earthquakes, its proximity to the Chinese border, and nearness to the Tian Shan mountains, which limited its room to grow. Eric M. Johnson wrote in Countries and Their Cultures: “The move of the capital was very controversial among many in Kazakhstan. There are three main theories as to why the move was made. The first theory contends that the move was for geopolitical, strategic reasons. Since Almaty is near the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan (which is a friend but too close to the Islamic insurgent movements of Tajikistan and Afghanistan), this theory maintains that the new, central location provides the government with a capital city well separated from its neighbors. A second theory asserts that the capital was moved because Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev wanted to create a beautiful new capital with new roads, buildings, and an airport. The final theory holds that the Kazakh government wanted to repatriate the north with Kazakhs. Moving the capital to the north would move jobs (mostly held by Kazakhs) and people there, changing the demographics and lessening the likelihood of the area revolting or of Russia trying to reclaim it. [Source: Eric M. Johnson, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Building Nur-Sultan (Astana)

Over a period of two decades, no expense was spared to transform “the capital” into a world-class city. High-tech skyscrapers rose from the barren landscape. A-list world architects were put to work bringing utopian ideals to reality. John Lancaster wrote in National Geographic: “Just as 18th-century tsar Peter the Great claimed a swampy patch of Baltic seacoast and stamped his brand on St. Petersburg — the national seat of power in imperial Russia — so, too, did Nazarbayev pick out a remote spot on which to plant the flag of a new Kazakhstan. [Source: John Lancaster, National Geographic, February 2012]

“Rich in oil and other mineral resources, Kazakhstan has lavished billions on the new capital, inviting some of the world's leading architects to showcase their work on the Left Bank of the Esil River, which separates the administrative "new city" from the older, mostly Soviet built district on the Right Bank. The results are eclectic, visually arresting, and not to everyone's taste. But love it or hate it, Astana is here to stay, its population having swelled from 300,000 to more than 700,000 in a decade. Along the way, it has become a billboard for Kazakh nationalism and aspirations — a statement as much as a city.

“Other capitals have had similar origins, including, of course, St. Petersburg, which Fyodor Dostoyevsky once described as "the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe." The description was not meant to flatter. But eventually the Russian city took on a life of its own, endured, and prospered. Will Astana do the same?

“To build his dream city, Nazarbayev solicited help from foreign benefactors eager to do business with Kazakhstan — among them the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which funded construction of a mosque with space for 7,000 worshippers. (Islam is the dominant faith in Kazakhstan, although the state is officially secular.) He also brought in leading global talents such as the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who designed Astana's master plan. But he never left any doubt as to who is in charge. Sarsembek Zhunusov, the city's chief architect, recalled his colleagues' trepidation when Nazarbayev declared some years ago that he wanted a huge pyramid built.

"Our architects kept saying the world already has pyramids," Zhunusov said. "Everyone was scared, because you have to be a great architect to build another pyramid." The job of building the Palace of Peace and Harmony ultimately went to Norman Foster, the British architect who is also responsible for the Khan Shatyr, or the "king's tent," a regal, translucent structure vaguely evocative of a yurt.

“Signature buildings aside, Nazarbayev remains deeply enmeshed in the minutiae of city planning, down to the choice of flowers — tulips, delphiniums, irises — laid out in vivid patterns derived from Kazakh folklore. "He always has some comments," said Zhunusov. "He worries about something, then he changes his mind in a week because he thinks about it all the time." And he continues to think big. With the core of the capital near completion, Nazarbayev has ordered his architects to explore the possibility of building another huge tent that would shelter a climate-controlled "indoor city" of 15,000 people.”

Bringing the Astana Masterplan to Reality

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “Astana is being built according to a general plan devised by the famed Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. His design called for a city that proclaimed the Age of Life, to replace the Age of the Machine. What this appears to mean, in practice, is that the machines get to have a better life than the people: the Left Bank is laid out on a grid, for ease of automotive navigation, and the access roads to the several bridges across the Ishim are convenient and unclogged. Furthermore, for reasons of temperament and vigilant policing, Astana drivers are the best behaved of any I’ve seen in the post-Soviet world. There is talk of a light-rail system, but for the moment it’s all cars, bridges, and meandering buses. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“New Astana is currently framed by the two Foster buildings — the Khan Shatyr at one end, and the Palace of Peace at the other. (Beyond them, the steppe.) For the Khan Shatyr, the client, President Nazarbayev, suggested a traditional Kazakh tent; for the Palace of Peace, he wanted a pyramid. If you are an architect, there are definite advantages to a place where the President is not just the President but the Leader of the Nation (El Basy, in Kazakh) and the co-author of the national anthem. When I spoke to Norman Foster in the Foster-designed Hearst Tower, in New York, he recalled the travails of Richard Rodgers, whose design for Heathrow’s Terminal 5 took twenty years to complete. In the meantime, Foster and Partners won the competition for Beijing Airport. “And Beijing Airport is probably about five times the size of Terminal 5,” Foster said. “We opened Beijing Airport in time for the Olympics” — which is to say, in four years. “Terminal 5 spent that long in a public inquiry.” In Astana, construction never gets hung up in a public inquiry.

“Still, erecting skyscrapers on a steppe is a tricky business. There was certainly something peculiar about the Northern Lights. For a set of three forty-story towers, there didn’t seem to be many people living there. The three buildings were connected by a long foyer or corridor, which included some small shops: two mini-groceries, a travel agency, a bank. One afternoon, I walked by a young woman in one of the stores who was engaged in what I thought was karaoke, until I read on the storefront that it was a production studio. The building, though occupied, was still under construction. “Press button for concierge,” a sign by the front door said, but there was no concierge, and in any case the door was unlocked. “Walking around the building during working hours is strictly forbidden,” another sign said, which struck me as unfriendly. Strangest of all was the wind howling through the elevator shafts. “Whooooo,” it said. “Whoooo-ooo-ooo.”

“I woke up early each morning owing to a serious case of jet lag, yet, no matter how early it was, the workers at the construction site outside my window were already at it. They hadn’t built very much just yet — a few pilings, a foundation. What were they building? Several big yellow cranes with the Sembol logo loomed over the site. The construction workers were the first outside; as the sun rose in the sky, they remained the only ones. Pedestrians would appear momentarily, then be swallowed up by a car or a bus. This was no country for walking men. The prisoners in Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” set not far away, spend a lot of time discussing the cold; when I arrived in Astana, in late February, it was colder. The temperature would rise to minus fifteen degrees Fahrenheit during the day, then drop to minus thirty at night. Plus, there was the wind, which whipped in off the steppe. Nazarbayev has been planting trees on the outskirts of town, to keep the wind at bay, but so far there are too few trees and too much wind.

“Khan Shatyr — the name means “King of Tents” — is the tallest tensile structure in the world. Designed by Foster and Partners, it took four years and four hundred million dollars to build. The wide, spacious sidewalks of the Left Bank and the long pedestrian mall running down the central axis were covered by a thin layer of ice, which, in turn, was covered by a thin layer of snow. It didn’t matter; there was so much room in every direction that one could just slide along at one’s leisure. It was dicier in the parking lots, which were entirely frozen over. S.U.V.s leaving the underground parking of the shopping mall next to the Northern Lights would jump out into the cold with great confidence and then start sliding around on the ice. The places with the surest footing were the areas that had not yet been built upon. There was always a nice, hard path that had been beaten through the snow by one’s fellow-Astanians, and you could walk on that.

“The steppe is never very far away in Astana. It lurks on the edge of town, ready to reclaim the land as soon as the Astanians let down their guard. Residents of the city like to tell of the hardships they faced, or might have faced, when moving here. An American Embassy officer said he’d heard so much about the lack of basic amenities in the capital that he had a thousand pounds of food shipped to him from the States in advance of his posting, mostly Rice-A-Roni. It turned out that there was plenty of food, though the Embassy officer is still glad that he brought the Rice-A-Roni.”

Layout in Nur-Sultan

The old city of Nur-Sultan is on the right bank of the Ishim River. The newer part of town is on the left bank. The lay out of the new city is somewhat like the Mall in Washington D.C. The new presidential palace stands at one end and the Senate and the lower house of the parliament are set along side, with the glistening observation tower in the middle. and the grandiose energy complex and a towering transport building situated at the other end. Some building are made of granite and marble, Others have gold-tinted glass. Apartment blocks sit in between parks and fountains.

Many of the changes have been cosmetic: — old Soviet-era building given a fresh coat of paint — and some of the grand plans have been “scaled back due to lack if funds.” Locals have given many the showcase buildings nicknames based n their shape: L Seven Kegs, Grain Silo, Cigarette Lighter.

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “Astana is a government city, not a tourist city, but all you do is tour it. You tour it in the cab from the airport, passing the gleaming new English-language Nazarbayev University and then the new soccer stadium, speed-skating track, and ten-thousand-seat velodrome. (“It’s like a bug,” I ventured of the velodrome. “A giant, low-slung, predatory — ” “It’s a bicycle helmet,” the taxi driver said, and, yes, this made more sense.) You tour the city from the observation deck of Bayterek, a weird white structure that resembles a giant badminton birdie, with a golden bird’s egg on top; you tour it from the seat of every bus that takes the long, circuitous way through town because there aren’t yet enough bus routes. You tour whether you want to or not. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“Marat drove slowly. We passed the Astana Triumph apartment complex, built in the style of the seven skyscrapers raised in Moscow after the Second World War. (“We must be ready for an influx of foreign visitors,” Stalin had fretted. “What will happen if they walk around Moscow and find no skyscrapers?”) Left Bank Astana was beautiful at night, each building, it seemed, with its own nighttime color scheme, and the street lamps all going full blast. We arrived at the two-mile strip that houses the main government buildings and architectural wonders of the city. Marat took me past Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a pyramid glowing a pale, ethereal yellow; the Presidential Palace, a big, blue-domed version of our White House; the central concert hall, by the Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti, whose exterior consists of a series of inwardly slanting, non-contiguous, bright-aqua walls that resemble an unfolding flower, and which last year hosted the first annual Astana International Action Film Festival, organized by the Kazakh-born Timur Bekmambetov, the director of “Wanted,” the 2008 film in which Angelina Jolie is an assassin in the employ of a giant loom; the Beijing Palace, built in a Chinese style; and the St. Petersburg Shopping Center. Marat named each of the buildings in turn, lovingly, even the big white structure that housed the K.N.B., formerly the K.G.B. “Here is the Ministry of Defense,” he said, as we pulled up to an intersection in the very heart of the Astana government mall. “And, right across from it, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” To our left was Bayterek, the big badminton birdie, the symbolism of which was so involved that even Marat didn’t bother going into it. To our right, as he now pointed out, were some Kazakh girls — kazashki. Their car had pulled up beside ours and they were laughing. Handsome, married Marat gave them a dignified nod.

“Finally, we arrived at the three blue-green glass skyscrapers that dominate the western part of the mall. They are called the Northern Lights, and there is a curve to their silhouettes, making them look like long cardboard boxes that have been bent out of shape. For eight thousand tenge a night (fifty-four dollars), I had rented an apartment on the fourteenth floor of the middle tower; it had a large modern living room with a segmented black-and-red leather couch, standing Hitachi surround-sound speakers, a flat-screen television of prodigious dimensions, and a bidet. In the evening, several spotlights are directed up at the Northern Lights from below to underscore their beauty, making it a little hard to sleep, but this was a small price to pay. I had a great view of the Khan Shatyr and of a fellow high-rise, the Ministry of Transportation — which, O.K., suddenly burst into flames a few years ago — and also of the Nur-Astana Mosque, one of the biggest in Central Asia, which shines a bright white in the evening and whose sixty-three-metre-tall minarets represent Muhammad’s age at the time of his death.”

Entertainment and Culture in Nur-Sultan

Although Almaty is still regarded as the culture and education center of Kazakhstan it will probably be eclipsed in those roles by Nur-Sultan (Astana) in the not so distant future. The L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian University and Akmola State Medical Academy are located in Nur-Sultan as is the National University of Arts and the Kazakh Scientific-Research Institute of Grain and Agricultural Products. Many shopping malls have entertainment areas such as Zhastar, a sports and entertainment complex. Kinderdorf is a children's park. There are drama theatres and a branch of the Union of Writers and Artists of Kazakhstan. A memorial to the famous Russian poet A.S. Pushkin is also located in Astana

Astana doesn’t match Almaty or Tashkent as cultural center but it is not a one horse town either. Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “ While I was in Astana, a ballet master from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre staged a performance of “Giselle” in the opera hall. It was one of only a few performances to grace Astana’s concert spaces in many weeks, and tickets were impossible to come by. I had better luck getting a seat at the playoff series of the Astana KHL hockey team, though, sadly, it was overmatched by the Ak Bars of Kazan. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

National Opera and Ballet Theater of K.bajseitova was created at the initiative of the President Nazarbayev in 2000. It stages Kazakh and world musical cultural events. Kazakh Drama Theatre named after K.Kuanyshbayev opened 1991 and stages mostly Kazakh- and Russian-language productions. M.Gorky Russian Drama Theatre operates out of a 19th century building that was built for a grammar school.

Cinemas in Nur-Sultan include: 1) TRKArsenal 3D, a cinema complex in opened in 2004, with two 80-seat theaters; 2) Kinopark 8 3D (Sary-Arka), an ultramodern 8-screen cinema located on 2 floors of a shopping center; 3) Kinopark 6 3D (Mega), a multiplex with sic cinema halls with 630 seats and a VIP room; 4) Kinopark 7 (Keruen) IMAX 3D, with seven theaters, one of them an IMAX 3D hall, opened in 2009; and 5) Star Cinema (Khan Shatyr) 3D, a 6-tisal multiplex. See Shopping Malls Below.

John Lancaster wrote in National Geographic: “The city does have its whimsical side. Mesh sculptures covered with vines — swans, horses, giraffes — seem closer in spirit to Disneyland than to Pyongyang. On a balmy evening in June, children blow soap bubbles in the plaza next to the Dancing Fountain, which is illuminated by colored lights as Russian hip-hop pulses from large outdoor speakers. Skateboarders in low-slung jeans perform tricks as police look on indifferently. An outdoor café serves French wine at $17 (U.S.) a glass.” [Source: John Lancaster, National Geographic, February 2012]

The chain of rope amusement parks "Gammi" rightfully enjoys the reputation of one of the most beloved places for both children and adults, as well as corporate events and team buildings. The largest park is a complex of 5 tracks of various heights (from 0.5 meters to 10 meters) and difficulty levels. Also in the park there is a sports trampoline and a platform for events In addition, high-speed trolls (high-speed descents) are installed in the Student and Zheruyyk parks. There are four of these parks: are located: 1) Central Metropolitan Park (Turan Avenue, 7a) - The largest park in the city (for adults and children from 2 years old), a small park (for adults and children from 5 years old). 2) Student Park (near Kazakhstan IC) - children's park (for children from 5 years old). 3) Zheruyyk park (intersection of B. Momyshuly and Zhumabaev ave.) (For adults and children from 5 years old)

"Babylon Arena Park" is a Family Entertainment Center in the Keruen shopping center that covers 2000 square meters that has eight rides and 90 gaming machines and includes mini bowling, photo studio, curved mirrors, a toy shop and a jolly jumper

Astana Circus is housed in a unique circus building, made in the form of a "flying saucer". The auditorium with a performing ring with a diameter or 13 meters can accommodates 2,000 spectators. The separately located VIP-box has 36 seats. A 4-storey hotel block with 113 seats adjoins the circus building. There is also an administrative and host unit, which houses the administration of the circus, artistic lavatories, training arena, animal enclosure, workshops and other utility rooms. Available suites and double rooms, cafes, bars. Each room has a winter-summer air conditioning system and amenities. All this will allow artists to live without hassle during performances. Address: 6.33 Astana, Kabanbay batyr ave., 5. Tel .: 7 (7172) 24 42 08

Shopping in Astana

Shopping Malls in Astana: 1) SEC "Asia Park" shopping and entertainment center opened in 2009. 2) Trading house is a shopping center that has retained its historical appearance with modern style and high-tech interior. 3) Keruen Shopping and entertainment center "Keruen" is located in the special economic zone "Astana - New City" and created in 2002 by a presidential decree. 4) Saryarka shopping and entertainment center is a convenient modern multifunctional shopping center with a unique design and architecture. 5) Khan Shatyr is a new symbol of the capital of Kazakhstan. It is the first and only life-style center in Astana, which combines shopping and world-class entertainment under one roof (See Below). 6) Mega Astana is a world-class shopping and entertainment center.

John Lancaster wrote in National Geographic: “The capital's boomtown ethos may find its fullest expression in its shopping malls, of which the Khan Shatyr — the Foster-designed tent — is the most distinctive. Its top level is taken up by an indoor beach outfitted with a wave pool and sand imported from the Maldives. One night the mall hosted a bikini party, charging $20 for admission. Men and women in skimpy bathing suits downed vodka and Red Bull as a deejay urged, in English, "Everybody get crazy! Ziss iz bikini party!" [Source: John Lancaster, National Geographic, February 2012]

According to Lonely Planet: Sary Arka mall is worth visiting for two stores. Red Carpet features ladies' fashion and accessories by Kazakhstan designers such as Aida Kaumenova, Gulnara Kassym and Aseem Nurseitova. Dresses and accessories at at Dinara Satzhan are more outlandish, and there are some beautiful woven wall hangings there as well. Gifts & Souvenirs: Empire has “(mostly) tasteful, high-end gifts include framed traditional silver belt ornaments and necklaces, locally designed crystal goblet sets, chess sets, jewellery boxes, leather wallets and fairly garish, nomadic-themed porcelain. There are four more branches in Nur-Sultan's other main shopping malls.” Talisman has “a mind-boggling array of all things Kazakhstan: felt yurts, hats and booties, replica nomadic objects, such as the phallic-looking vessels for carrying fermented mare's milk, models of the Bayterek Monument, porcelain, wall hangings and more.”

Khan Shatyr – Capital’s Symbol

One of the most anticipated events, dedicated to the Astana Day in 2010 was the grand opening of the shopping and entertainment center “Khan Shatyr”. At that moment it was the largest shopping and entertainment center in Central Asia and is still the highest building in the world in the form of the tent. In general, this “very-very-very” object has all chances to become the new symbol of Astana. Well, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London, the Kremlin in Moscow, “Khan Shatyr” in Astana — sounds good. Excellent opening with participation of the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and some of the heads of foreign states, the stars of international scale became a serious claim to leadership in the architectural diversity of Astana.

It fits perfectly into the architecture of Astana; it closes the main axis of the city center, which starts from the residence of the President Akorda and the complex of government buildings. Many of the technologies and materials applied in the construction of the tent are unique and some of them were used for the first time. The unique shell of the tent allows you to maintain comfortable microclimate inside the building, even if the raging storms and raging cold, familiar to residents of Astana take place outside. Consistently good weather and plenty of sunlight are special features of Khan Shatyr. There are lots of green plants, which naturally grow in different climatic zones, but here they are located between the stepped terraces.

All of these can be admired from the top terrace, equipped with a viewing platform. A spacious flexible floor in the center of the building is assigned for the exhibition and entertainment events. 40 000 square meters of comfort is given to various cafes, restaurants, cinemas and shops. Special charm of Khan Shatyr is represented by a tropical water garden and man-made lagoon with a beautiful beach with soft sand, brought from the distant Maldives Islands. “Laguna” is formed of the interconnected basins, the surface of one of them has artificial waves. Here you can relax at any time of year and enjoy comparable to the rest of the Mediterranean, but without the “charms” of tiring flight.

Liz Sly wrote in Washington Post: Khan Shatyr is “a giant, translucent shopping mall designed in the shape of a tent by the British architect Norman Foster and built from a kind of fiberglass that helps trap warmth. Inside is an artificial beach, where families lie under parasols on sand imported from Dubai while snow falls on the roof above them. Illuminated at night in various shades of mauve, it hovers over the city like a glowing purple spaceship.

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “You enter the Khan Shatyr through a severe, gray granite doorway slightly reminiscent of the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow. Inside, though, the resemblance fades. The dramatic central atrium is full of light. The white steel beams that Sembol lifted with such difficulty rise from a black granite floor and meet four hundred and fifty feet in the air at a kind of orb, from which, in turn, the cables that hold up the structure descend through the ETFE. Five levels of white balcony, small green plants spilling over the ledges, rise up toward the ceiling from the atrium, shops on the first two floors, restaurants and a cinema on the third, an arcade and a game room, mostly for kids, on the fourth, complete with a bumper-car track, and then, on the fifth, the beach. There was a sale at the Timberland store, but I could find nothing in my size; the Polo store seemed to carry mostly shirts with big embroidered designs; but the Gap was the Gap, large and spacious and staffed by fresh-faced Kazakh teens in Gap sweaters. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“The mall wasn’t overrun by shoppers, but it was certainly much busier than the streets. The temperature rises the higher you go, so that, by the time I reached the fourth floor in the Arctic boots I had bought at Dave’s, in Manhattan, I had begun to feel a little uncomfortable. The beach is on the top floor of the Khan Shatyr. In addition to the yellow sand shipped in from the Maldives and heated to create that beachlike feel, it has comfortable beach chairs, a pool-size swimming area for adults and one for kids, and a small water slide. The twenty-seven-dollar entry free (thirty-eight on weekends) provides full-day access to the beach and the spa, which includes a fitness center, three saunas, and a Turkish bath. The weekend fee is fifteen times the hourly wage of an Astana construction worker, but no one said it would be cheap to reverse the course of nature. From where I stood, sweating, a few bathers were visible, wearing small post-Soviet swim trunks, in one of the coldest cities in the world.”

Building Khan Shatyr

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center “took four years and four hundred million dollars to build. It devoured a thousand truckloads of materials, which came from all over. The special ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, polymer that envelops the Khan Shatyr, and makes it look, at certain times of the day, like a terrible sea creature risen from the steppe, came from Germany and China. The sand lining the beach on the top floor came from the Maldives. The tropical plants came from Spain. Is it hard to ship plants? “Yes!” said Caner Demir, who was the head of on-site logistics for the final phase of the Khan Shatyr project. A genial, bearded Turk in his mid-thirties, Demir has limited English and chooses his words carefully. “You are shipping plants, in a truck. For eighteen, nineteen days. Live plants.” [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“Khan Shatyr is Kazakh for “King of the Tents.” It was designed by Foster and Partners, the firm of Norman Foster, who is known for his ability to put flesh (or, at least, ETFE) on the theoretical postulates of postmodern architecture. But Lord Foster does not drive trucks. The Turkish company Sembol did the construction, so most parts of the giant tent were routed through Turkey. The most direct overland route went through northern Iran and then Turkmenistan, but it had a drawback. “Drivers do not like going through Turkmenistan,” Demir said. “In Turkmenistan there are many regulations. But no rules.”

“The government of Kazakhstan is not without its own rules and regulations, but as Nigel Dancey, of Foster and Partners, put it to me, “You’re presenting to the President, he shakes your hand, you make a decision, and the process is very quick.” To speed the construction of the other Foster building in Astana, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the President sent the Army. Khan Shatyr was built on a less exigent schedule, but it was still helped along: customs officials opened an office at the construction site in order to save time at the border; visas were expedited.

“For Sembol, the trickiest part was lifting the three giant steel beams that hold up the Khan Shatyr. The beams had been assembled on the ground; now they weighed two thousand tons and had to be hoisted simultaneously and brought together at their highest points so that they could support one another. A whole separate structure had to be built to perform this feat; when it was done, an international squadron of mountaineers arrived to run hundreds of cables from the base of the tripod to the top, before hanging the ETFE on them. The Presidents of many countries, including countries that hate one another, came to the opening ceremony, last July 5th. It was a fitting present for Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who turned seventy the next day, and who had constructed this entire city, ex nihilo, in the middle of the Kazakh steppe.”

Transportation in Nur-Sultan

Astana is a transport hub for the country. All roads connecting the country to Siberia, China, Central Asia and Europe meet in Astana. Public transport consists mostly of buses, trolleybuses (buses connected to electric lines over the buses) and minibuses and shared taxis. There is not subway or Metro system yet. Astana Light Metro is a proposed light rail system. Nur-Sultan also has air taxi service and the modern Astana Bike bicycle-sharing system. [Source: Wikipedia]

Over 720,000 people use public transport daily, almost three fourth of the city’s population. There are over 40 bus lines served by more than 1000 vehicles, with over 3000 people working in the public transport sector. Just like buses, minibus (share taxis) have their own predefined routes and work on a shared basis. There are nine share taxi routes in total.

Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport is located 17 kilometres (11 miles) southeast of the city center. the main gateway for the city's domestic and international air service, it is the second-busiest airport in Kazakhstan, with 2,960,181 passengers passing through it in 2014. The airport hosts 13 airlines operating regular passenger flights inside the country and internationally. Air Astana maintains its second-largest hub at the airport.

Astana railway station is the city's main railway station and serves approximately 7,000 people each day. A new railway station, Nurly Zhol was built during the Expo 2017 event with a customer capacity of 12,000. Tulpar Talgo is a daily express train to Almaty. Short-term plans include construction of a new railway station in the industrial district; in the vicinity of CHPP-3 a new terminal will be erected for freight cars.

M-36 Chelyabinsk-Almaty and A-343 Astana-Petropavlovsk highways are routed through the city. The strategic geographical positioning of Astana allows the city to serve as a transport and reload centre for cargoes formed at adjacent stations in the area.

Modern Buildings in Nur-Sultan

Nur-Sultan is full of exotic buildings that are often best summed up by their irreverent local nicknames: the banana (a bright yellow office tower), seven barrels (a cluster of apartment towers), the cigarette lighter (the Ministry of Transport and Communications). Liz Sly wrote in Washington Post: “The buildings, like the ambitions, are vast. There’s a glowing blue pyramid called the Palace of Peace and Accord, also designed by Foster, that houses a 1,350-seat opera house. The parliament buildings are flanked by two giant gold cylinders that recall Ancient Egypt but have been nicknamed the “Beer Cans.” The 344-foot Bayterek, or “Tree of Life,” monument looms over the skyline like a golden lollipop and features inside a gilded handprint of the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.” [Source: Liz Sly, Washington Post, January 27, 2017]

Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “Between the pyramid and the Khan Shatyr are the government buildings and a dozen towers that seem to have been airlifted from midtown Manhattan. In Manhattan, the buildings get higher and higher because there is no room; in Astana, situated in one of the most sparsely populated areas on the planet, the buildings get higher and higher just because. Some signify their functions visually: the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kazakhstan is housed in two twenty-five-story glass-and-steel buildings where the glass is colored gold. The building of the ministries, ten stories high and three-quarters of a mile long, includes two cavernous arches, which lead into the main square before the Presidential Palace, as if to say, “We guard the President, but you are welcome in.” The big KazMunaiGas building, at the other end of the mall, is in the same style, with an arch through which you can see Khan Shatyr, as if to say, “We dug up the gas, now let’s go shopping.”[Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“Many of the major office and government buildings seem to have been completed, but there are still many large apartment complexes on the way; some have been delayed by the ongoing financial crisis. The population of Astana has doubled in the past fifteen years, and is expected to double again in the next fifteen. For the moment, the massive scale of the city never seems designed to intimidate a person moving through it, the way Stalinist architecture did, in places like Moscow, Warsaw, and Bucharest. In Astana, it’s more as if an extravagant promise were being made, and clothing it in glass and steel and ETFE will somehow make it come closer to becoming true.

“There will be no shortage of room for them. A shiny poster of a future building hangs outside each construction fence. Even on the observation deck of the mighty Bayterek, the main attraction is a three-dimensional model of the city some years from now. A young tour guide stands beside the 3-D model, pointing out the buildings already visible from Bayterek, and those not yet built.”

Left Bank and Old Town of Astana

The new, ultra-modern part of Astana is on the left bank of the Ishim River. Striking in both its power and the scale of its construction. Among the most interesting facilities there are “Astana-Baiterek” tower which, rather quickly, won the hearts of all and became a symbol of Kazakhstan,the egg-shaped building of National Archive and the graceful and statuesque “Nur-Astana” mosque; a Round Square with its surreal lines and Central Square framed with Ministry Houses. “Khan-Shatyry” facility, a creation of Englishman Norman Foster, where the idea of everlasting summer is realized, being covered with a gigantic tent, and offering shelter from the cold of winter. A concert hall of non-standard form; dozens of skyscrapers of different configurations and certainly, “Akorda” the President Palace, with its splendid decor making it the most glorified building of the whole country.

The Old Town of Astana is on the right bank of the Ishim River to the north. Keith Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: “ I could see it from my fourteenth-floor apartment. Across the frozen river lay a city that was dusty-gray and beige. It was not a city of ten different buildings that, after a week, one could name but a city of endless anonymous apartment blocks in which people actually lived. I made it over a few days later. The old town wasn’t pickled in oil, exactly: the waterfront had seen a lot of construction in the past few years, including a Radisson (five hundred dollars a night for the basic room, broadband included) and three apartment towers that looked suspiciously like my own Northern Lights. But, if you took the bus a bit beyond the river, you were back in the U.S.S.R. [Source: Keith Gessen, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011]

“ The place had been developed at the whim of Nikita Khrushchev, as part of his Virgin Lands (Tseliny) project, practically his first initiative after Stalin’s death and, forever after, his pride and joy. Hoping to recapture the spirit of pioneering young Communism, Khrushchev announced a mobilization of the young to “virgin” Kazakhstan, which was to become the granary of the Soviet Union. The young people went, sowed wheat, wrote songs, didn’t know what they were doing, received Khrushchev a couple of times. “Please, send some girls,” the First Secretary later recalled one group telling him, for it consisted of many men and just one young woman. Amid the virgin fields was an old Russian fort called Akmola. In 1961, it was renamed Tselinograd; it couldn’t have hurt that this sounded a little like “Stalingrad.” In the post-independence years, it became Akmola again; then, after the move, Astana — which simply means “capital” in Kazakh.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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