Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back Again! And off to Astana...

Exactly a week ago I got out of bed in Sonoma California and completed my final household chores before being picked up by a friend and taken to Petaluma to catch the bus to San Francisco International Airport and begin my journey   back to Kazakhstan.  My rout this time was the longest yet.  A direct 10+ hour flight to Amsterdam arriving at 9:15am.  Then a layover of 6 hours before taking a 6+ hour flight to Almaty, where I had a 1:25 hour layover before flying 3+ hours back west across Kazakhstan to Atyrau.  

It was a long journey but there was an unforseen benefit of entering Kazakhstan and clearing immigration and customs in Almaty.  Almaty has an airport that functions more or less like any smaller European airport.  The plane taxis up to the terminal and one exits directly into the terminal. There is no quarter mile bus ride to get from the plane to the terminal door 50 yards away across the deserted tarmac. There it is a short walk to immigration, where there are still the booths and cameras, but otherwise a reasonably quick and efficient entry process.  The baggage appears reasonably quickly and there is no entry x-ray and interrogation process.  In short, it could be a different country to the one in which Atyrau is located.  They seemed to lack the desire to inflict discomfort and confusion on their visitors.  

Inside the terminal there are shops and cafes, and whilst they are not exactly world class retailers and five star dining establishments I could get a cold beer at 2am, which was quite good enough for me.  So Almaty scores good marks and only goes to emphasise the "could do better" grade that Atyrau easily earns.

Arriving in Atyrau at about 5 on Friday morning I was met by...nobody.  The Agip taxi did not show up.  Not having my Kazakhstan cell phone with the Agip Transport number on it I was wondering how I could best arrange transport, public phone boxes being about as prevelant as steam trains these days.  
Sneaky shots inside and outside Atyrau Airport, very little else to do as I waited!
But then the Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth back! No phones but WiFi!  So I Skyped Sandra and had a free video call with her, while she sorted out the problem with Transport.  I made it to the apartment about an hour later than expected, and was glad to be "home".

Since I booked my trip out to Atyrau Sandra had a need to go on business to Astana.  Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and back on the east side of the country.  So after a jet lagged night's sleep Saturday saw us both on a plane heading back eastward, whence I had just come.  I had not been to Astana and so decided to accompany her for the three day trip and see something of what must truely be one of the strangest capital cities in the world.

When I started this blog I had two purposes in mind, to give our family and friends around the world a chance to keep up to date with what we are doing, and to provide us both with a diary that we can look back on in our senile years.  As it happens, many other people read it, including people thinking of moving here, or who already here.  So I try to occassionally think of you too when writing, so now I apologise for being overly simplistic or blindingly obvious, but a little bit of history is in order, if for no other reason than it rather unusual.

At the end of the 1980s the USSR was in a mess.  Gorbachov had taken over a failing system and there was increasing unrest in the individual states, especially the Baltic states.  Gorbachov tried to appease the states by granting them more autonomy but it wasn't working and there was unrest in many places.  The supreme authority in Kazakhstan was The First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian, who dealt with the unrest so heavy handedly that Gorbachov replaced him with an ethnic Kazakh, Nursultan Nazarbayev in June 1989.  There was a Soviet referendum in March 1991 and the majority voted to retain the USSR, but there were big geographical differences and the Baltic States in particular wanted independence. In August 1991 the Army staged an unsuccessful coup in an attempt to return to a central authority, but it failed.  A fellow called Boris Yeltsin in Russia was one of the main opponents of the coup. Naverbayev appeared to support the continuation of the USSR, but as the various Soviet states declared independence over the final months of 1991, he eventually joined their ranks and declared Kazakhstan independent on December 22, 1991.  Kazakhstan was the penultimate state to declare independence, followed a couple of days later by Russia.  Three days later Gorbachov resigned and the USSR came to an end. This was how Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared on the scene.

Shortly thereafter Nazarbayev was elected the first President of Kazakhstan, he was unopposed.  He has remained president ever since, through a number of elections and a couple of constitutional changes.  
(Astute readers will note that here in Atyrau and for miles around we are below sea level.)
When Kazakhstan became independent it's capital city was Almaty.  Almaty, shown on the above map (bottom right, SE), is a city of well over a million people.  Nestled in a fertile area in the foothills of the Zailiysky Alatau mountains, it is the original home of apples (alma=apple in Kazak)  and tulips (sorry Holland!), with beautiful lakes and ski mountains.  But it is very close to the southern border on an active seismic area...two potential dangers.  The climate is continental with winters below freezing and summers getting up into the 30Cs.  

Nazarbayev decided to create a new capital city in the north of Kazakstan, on the steppe.  The old town of Akmolinsk (in various versions, "White Mausoleum") became the new capital, Astana ("Capital City") in 1997.  Astana is on the Ishim river, which winds across the steppe about 100 feet above sea level.  It is very flat.  It is also very cold in winter, with temperatures  in the -40s it is the second coldest capital in the world (....Ulaan Bataar!) . Last week, early summer,  it was in the high 30Cs.  

The planning of Astana formally started in 2002 with a competition to choose an architect, city designer, for the new city.  The Japanese architect, Kisho Kurokawa, was selected and he drew up the first plan, but it was scrapped a couple of years later when it became obvious that it did not foresee the population growing as quickly as it was.  A city agency, AstanaGenPlan took over and it is headed by Amanzhol Chikanaev.  However, by all accounts, Mr Nazarbayev himself is very active in the planning and approval process for the building of Astana.

In fact it is rumoured that he sketched the design for the monument, Baiterek (Poplar Tree) that was built in 2002 and serves as the symbol of the capital, on the back of a paper napkin in a restaurant.

Oh! And if you are wondering about the money required to build this new capital, I should remind you that Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world at over 1 million square miles has a population of only 16 million people.  But those sixteen million people get to "share" 33% of the world Uranium production, the worlds number one producer. Kazakhstan also has 10% of the worlds asbestos (the 3rd largest producer), and it is the third largest producer of chromium and manganese, eigth largest of zinc, tenth of iron and gold, and eleventh of copper.  Then as if these weren't riches enough, it ranks in the top ten countries for its oil reserves.  All in all it defies explanation as to why it was one of the poorest Soviet states, perhaps the money went elsewhere?

So to Astana and the grand design.  The map below shows the main area of the new part of Astana on the Left Bank.  This blog will largely be a picture tour of the City.

1.   The Khan Shatyr (Great Tent) Shopping Mall
2.   A new construction like a temple!
3.   Circular Square
4.   Mosque
5    Rixos Hotel (Our resting place)
6.   Balbaltas
7.   Emerald Towers 
8.   Na Vodno-Zelenom Bulvare (Residential)
9.   Unknown!
10.  Severnoye Siyanie (Northern Lights) Residential . Where we stayed the first night.
11.  Shopping Mall and Imax
12.  Baiterek (Poplar Tree)
13.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs
14.  Peking Palace
15.  Twin Towers (Government Offices)
16.  Senate Building
17.  Concert Hall
18.  Presidential Palace
19.  Ministry of Defence
20.  House of Ministries
21.  The "Pyramid" (Palace of Peace and Reconstruction), Humanities University, Mosque and Museums.

1.   The Khan Shatyr (Great Tent) Shopping Mall

It looks OK from the front, but....
From the side you can see a definite tilt, hopefully intended!

Mighty tent-poles support the fabric shell

On the top floor is a water parkand running round the inside of that a "train" on a rail
This is one of two buildings designed by Norman Foster and Associates.  The other is the pyramid.  There are at least two more buildings on his drawing board.

2.   A new construction like a temple!
I have no idea what this is, it looks like a theatre but behind morph's into admin type buildings.
In this picture you can see them adding the Capitols, a neo-Kazakh Corinthian style, I think?
Awaiting their capitols
Not exactly how the Romans did temples, but demonstrating the ingenuity of modern construction methods
3.   Circular Square

Not sure whether this was watering or cleaning, we observed this ritual cleansing a few times.
I felt as silly as I look posing with these birds for Sandra!
4.   Mosque
This was taken from the reception of our first night hotel (38th floor).
5    Rixos Hotel (Our resting place after the first night)

This hotel is one of the best in Atyrau but I am afraid that I was not that impressed.  Costing upwards of $400 a night I expect the bins to be emptied, the Wi-Fi to work and the in room tea and coffee to be replaced each day.  None of these luxuries were afforded us.  The Irish Bar in the hotel was modelled on an English gentlemen's club  with the only similarity to Dublin appearing to be a tolerance of cigar smokers in a non-smoking eating place.

6.   Balbaltas

I am not sure if this is an area or a building that has not yet been constructed?

7.   Emerald Towers 

8.   Na Vodno-Zelenom Bulvare (Residential)

The Street View

The view from above , taken from Beyterek

9.   Unknown!

10.  Severnoye Siyanie (Northern Lights) Residential . Where we stayed the first night.

These three skyscrapers constitute Skyscraper City.  We stayed in the center tallest building in an "hotel" on the 38th floor for our first night, it was called The VIP House Apartments.

The room was rather odd.  Not a style that is immediately recognisable. Balbaltas Boudoir perhaps? But the views were fantastic.

There were a couple of small idiosyncrasies  about the place.  For some odd reason the sheets were too small for the bed.

We also found that the in room safe was both unlockable and highly portable, neither of which mattered as it was too small for cameras and ipads anyway.
Breakfast was just what it claimed to be, fried eggs (3), coffee, bread and cheese (spread).  A little cramped as it had to be eaten at a small table in our room.  
However the most unusual feature of the room was the exploding toilet seat!  I decided to sit on the toilet seat as I brushed my teeth after breakfast.  After a couple of seated seconds there was a loud bang, I jumped up and the toilet seat had broken into several pieces, luckily I was dressed!  This exciting feature of our room turned out to cost us an extra $70 for the night. 

11.  Shopping Mall and Imax
View from our First Night room down on the IMax theatre and beyond
12.  Baiterek (Poplar Tree)

This is the famous tower that serves as the symbol of Astana.
In the park by Beyterek

Views from viewing tower a the top of Beyterek
The Stadium, or one of them.
I told Sandra this was a world famous museum of birds eggs, but actually I have no clue as to what it is, that is a shopping mall and Imax behind it.
I cannot find out what this building is?
The Palace Framed by the Government Buildings

This Gold slab has an imprint of the President's hand in it.  One is supposed to put ones hand in it and make a wish (like this lady), I just took a photo instead.

We spent our first night in the top left corner of the middle tower (4 floors from the top).
13.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This building looks onto Beyterek Park and is opposite the Ministry of Defence

14.  Peking Palace
I am not sure what this building is doing here.  It is an hotel which I suspect focuses on Chinese visitors, of which there are likely to be quite a few, given Kazakhstan's natural resources!

15.  Twin Towers (Government Offices)

These are quite imposing golden towers which frame the wide open spaces in front of the presidential palace. 

The joining buildings fan out into an arc at each side and house various ministries.

Just beyond the towers to the left is the Senate building, shown below.

16.  Senate Building

17.  Concert Hall

On the other side of the square to the senate is the concert hall.

18.  Presidential Palace

At the end of the square is the presidential palace.

19.  Ministry of Defence

The Ministry of Defence is this large building looking onto the park which has in its center the Tree of Life (Beyterek).

At the other side of the park, facing it, is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

21.  Over the river.
Looking down towards the Presidential Palace from the top of Bayterek (the sphere on a pole) you can see the river and on the other side of the river the continuation of the grand design.  

The Pyramid

The first major building is the Pyramid or more accurately, The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.  This is what Wikipedia has to say....

The Pyramid was specially constructed to host the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. A 1,500-seat opera house is built into the lower levels..."
Sandra was actually there, or perhaps she was Photoshopped in?
Inside the main pyramid hall
A view up through an hole in the ceiling to the apex of the pyramid

A collage of the dove stained diamond windows

The steps up to the very top, where there is a meeting area where the provincial leaders meet...spot Sandra?

Seating for the provincial heads, who meet in this room at the top.

Looking up to the very top the blue changes to gold, Kazakh national colors.

Sandra in front of a dove stained window...you can make out the city in the background.

Chairs in the background are the VIP seats, the big one is for the President (I sat in it, it isn't for sleeping in!)

The Stage

Outside the pyramid there were children swimming in the ornamental ponds and fountains.  It was hot, it was tempting!

Across the main road in front of the pyramid is the next stage of the planned construction.  There are three buildings already and two under construction.  The three already there are the Humanities University, the Independence Monument and the Palace of Independence, irreverently referred to as The Dog Bowl, Chicken on a Stick and the Bread Basket.
Lots of wide open spaces, and few cars on this very wide road between the Pyramid and these buildings.
Here in more detail...
The Humanities University
Independence Monument
Palace of Independence (home of the model...more later)
Still under construction are a new mosque and a museum.

The footprint of the museum represents an Eagle, but you will have to fly over it to notice
Inside the Palace of Independence there is a model of the future city of Astana, how it should look in 2030, if the money comes in from the oil.  Unfortunately the oil money is taking rather longer than planned to arrive so things are a little behind, but I am sure they will catch up!

So below are a couple of pictures of that model showing how this area is goin to be one day.
That yellow building is the "Eagle Museum". 
Top left is the pyramid.  to its right you can see the mosque that is being constructed, and moving round (about 7 o'clock) there is the Dog Bowl and Bread Basket.  The yellow building on the left is the museum that is currently under construction.  There is a lower road going from the bottom left to the top right...everything below this is work for the future.  The picture below shows just how much more is planned...the pyramid is just that little blob a quarter of the way down.!
This model is very interesting and if the city develops like this it will be a real show piece.  The trick will be to build the last piece before the first piece falls down! 
Construction is not always very long lasting.
There were other interesting things to see on the model.  The Tent is going to be encircled by high rise buildings with walkways across into the mall (not shown on the model)
There are plans also for a residential area connected by covered waterways, Venice indoors, where people get about by boat.
And of course there are more unusual looking buildings on the drawing board.

Here are some pictures of the future of Astana.

There also some more "real" buildings to impress as one walks around, and I walked around for two days while Sandra worked.  Here a few pictures before we end this architectural uber-photo-tour of Astana, and get on to some food!  I should tell you that this blog has taken far longer than I expected because there are no guidebooks to Astana.  So one sees a building, takes a photo and then has to try and find out what it is on the internet.  Pyramids and palaces are easy, but some general buildings are not.  It may help to read Russian, instead I just apologise for any mistakes!
The building I can't identify
Transport Tower: HQ of Kazakh Railways.
Astanalyk: a business center
Triumph of Astana: Soviet inspired?
The Parliament Building (opposite the Senate)
I don't know what this is...perhaps a mosque?
Granda Alatau: Residences
The Radisson Hotel and Complex on the river
KazMunaiGaz HQ Building...you know it has to be full of important people...
Transport Tower
Caught fire in 2006.
The irony is it is nicknamed the cigarette lighter!
One final opinionated perspective on the big bold building of a new capital city is found in this article from an English newspaper.  And that's the end of today's architecture tour.

So we had to eat, and Astana has a great deal more restaurants than Atyrau.  In fact it has a good deal more everything than Atyrau.

On our first evening we went to a restaurant recommended by a colleague for its steaks and crayfish.  We were told the crayfish were about 6 inches long so we had to go and see for ourselves.  It was called Beer Bar or Pivo Bar, I cannot find it on the Internet now, and it was a cross between a German Bierkeller and a Western (ie Cowboy) bar or restaurant.  And they had crayfish that were large enough to acually make it worth cracking the claws for the meat. We must have been extremely hungry because we had scoffed them before we remembered we had forgotten their photocall.  So here is a picture of the large shrimp we shared for our second course.  They were very good.  The Crayfish were from a Kazakh lake somewhere, I think the shrimp must have come from the Gulf.  Neither were cheap.
We could have had something cheaper and more ethnic, such as the "lovely dish of Tchingis Ham. Stuffing foal's flesh with garlic and spices" but we wanted seefood (even if it did come from a lake).

 As you can see I had drunk half my litre glass of beer before the food arrived, or Sandra had even started her Georgian wine.
 The next day we went walking around the new city, taking hundreds of photographs, which I now regret, having had to sort them all out.  The first stop was the Norman Foster Tent, Khan Shatyr.  This was a bit of a con really as I had been lead to believe that with its water park and monorail it had some recreactional appeal.  To Sandra I think it probably did, and the recreation was "shopping", as it is really just a big shopping mall.  The first order of the day was more food, it had been almost two hours since breakfast and Sandra was hungry again so she decided to have some Pide.  The bemused look on her face was a result of her little snack turning out to be a wee bit larger than expected.  
Unfortunately, by this time I was rather unwell and avoiding all food, so I did not help her.  Actually, she took off for the shops and left me with my cokes, and I did sneak a bit that she left and it was pretty good for food court fast food.  Much better, I'm sure, than the KFC opposite.

We walked a lot that Sunday and ended up, late afternoon, at Line Brew, another restaurant famous for its steaks.  So of course we had something else!  Sandra's Caesar salad was a bit heavy on the croutons, which was a shame because those are the part of the salad she never eats, and it had tomatoes instead of anchovies, but I guess she wanted something green after all the meat and fish we had been eating.

I ordered a plate of dried horse meat for us to share.  It was pretty tasty though a bit salty and very chewy.  We liked it almost as much as the flies did.  There seems to be more horse on the menus in Astana than in Atyrau.  The breakfast buffet has cold plates of dried horse and horse sausage that I had each morning, though I did not eat the large chunks of fat in the sausages.

Then I finished with some suitably fatty mutton kebabs.  Maybe I should have tried the steak instead?
It was warm, we were hot, we sat outside.  Sandra was especially hot, in fact so hot that I daren't show the photograph that I took of her bright red shiny face. So here instead is a picture of no-one and the Line Brew garden!

That night we went back to the Rixos Hotel, which I have already told you I was disappointed with.  We had changed our room from the first room with a view of some of the fancy buildings and a strong smell of stale cigarettes to a non-smoking room with a view of the adjacent up-scale compound of homes. (Sandra had to tell them we would be changing hotels before they found an available room.)  This was our new view!
Flags flying outside some buildings suggest embassy residences or consulates
The next couple of days Sandra was at work so I explored on my own and took many of the pictures that you have already seen.  One day was warm but overcast. I went out wary that it might start to rain, and sure enough it did. suddenly those great big wet raindrops started falling, the type that you can walk between but if one lands on you, you have to towel your hair dry.  I made for the cover of a doorway where I stood and watched the local reaction for clues as to whether this was likely to be a short shower or the start of the monsoon season.  The astonishing thing was that people continued completely oblivious to the rain.  They didn't have any rainwear, nobody used an umbrella, the lady walking to the bus shelter didn't hasten her gait, and a man sitting nearby in his car, got out and began to wash it!  Nobody reacted, they just got wet.  After about ten minutes the rain stopped (for a bit) and I emerged from hiding and went on my way, as did they.  However they not only had a destination but a need to dry off, which I am sure they did soon enough.  In the picture below you can see the resulting puddles in front of a flying saucer.

I walked over the bridge (there are two like this) and down the river bank.
The river path was wide and well maintained (compared to Atyrau).

There were a couple of boats going up and down the river, they appeared to be taking school children on an outing of some kind.
And of course there was a beach, with bathers on it, even though it was raining.

As I have blogged I haven't said much about language, why play to ones weak suit?  But as I walk around, just like many other expats here, I try to read the signs.  We are often surprised to discover that once the letters have been untangled, the word is not such a puzzle.  Walking along the river bank I saw this sign on the side of the Radisson Hotel complex...which transliterates to
PH  I  T  N  E  S     K  L  U  B   (Fitness Club)

There are many examples like this, I'll have to start collecting!

As I walked back from the Radisson towards Khan Shatyr I went past a big Ram Store like we have in Atyrau and a couple of malls, like we don't have in Atyrau.  There were even men working on one with a construction tractor changing light bulbs.  In Atyrau they would have had to climb a slippery pole.
And the all along the main road were a series of restaurants, and they were big and sophisticated looking, in a way that US themed restaurant like "The Lotus Garden" and "Sinbad's Seashore" are sophisticated.  One was Korean, another Italian, I think one was Dutch and another possibly Turkish; anyhow, they are in the picture below and located on Turan Avenue just North of the Big Tent.

We had three full days in Astana, but Sandra worked for two of them.  After our day together, when we went into the Tent, Pyramid, Future Astana Building, Lolly on a Stick etc, I spent most of my time walking and looking.  I did go into the Museum of the First President which is actually the building that was his first palace.  

Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately!) nothing is labelled in English so it is a relatively quick journey through three floors of the history of Kazakhstan since it became a country, and most especially the history of the president and his background and achievements.  There are displays of all his awards, it seems that he has received some significant honours from every country that does business in Kazakhstan.  There are lots of ribbons, medals and gold.  There are also quite a few arms, ancient and modernish, from old spears and sabres, maces and axes to small arms that don't take as much effort to use.  I think he must like arms, or at least a lot of gift-givers have spare arms to give.  There are lots of documents like congratulatory telexes, along the lines of "Congratulations on becoming a country".  How much fun would it be to get one of those? I toured the museum as a lone tourist.  There were two or three groups of very young school children (the Jesuit modus operandi perhaps?) being ushered around and me, with at various times, attractive female attendants in tow enthusiastically practicing English and making sure I missed none of the significance of the items on display such as the boxing glove of a Kazakh champion and the bicycle of another Kazakh champion both gifted to the president.   There were also two cars, the first two built in Kazakhstan, I think one was a Lada and the other a Kia.  The Lada was much more old fashioned and is still built here, the Kia is now being built back home in Korea.

So we left Astana.  It was like leaving another country, restaurants that didn't all have the same menu with most items unavailable, shops selling recognisable brands in sizes that normal women fit, good roads that don't mean that unless you drive an SUV your car rattles apart in three months, a real airport staffed by people with facial expressions; and then there are the buildings that look like they should be in Las Vegas (or perhaps Disney Land).

I'm not missing it....yet.  But I try not to think of the Crayfish too often.