Why you should visit Astana, Kazakhstan: A strange and fascinating city

It's five degrees in Astana today. An icy wind is whipping through the city, blowing in from the endless grassy plains of the Kazakh Steppe beyond. There might even be a typhoon later, according to my guide, Dana. One hit yesterday, tearing cladding off the city's modern buildings, forcing residents to flee for cover. 

Attractions have already begun closing in anticipation. The Bayterek Tower, a golden orb balanced atop a steel frame 100 metres off the ground, a symbol of modern Kazakhstan, has had to shutter its doors. The city's fountains have been switched off. It's a ghost town out here, the odd bit of rubbish blowing past like tumbleweed.

But Dana just smiles. "Let's go to the beach."

She's not joking. There is a beach here in Astana, and it will be packed on this late-spring day.

There will be hundreds of the city's residents swimming in clear, warm waters, sipping cocktails at the bar, lying on sand imported from the Maldives, enjoying reliable air temperatures of between 30 and 35 degrees, listening as the wind howls and the walls shake and life just goes on outside.

Welcome to Astana, Kazakhstan. Welcome to a strange and fascinating city. Welcome to a place that could seem like hell – the weather, the food, the autocratic rule – and yet its residents treat it as heaven. Welcome to a city that's boldly attempting to define itself on the world stage, that has visions of Dubai-like grandeur and has taken significant steps towards achieving that goal, even though no one else seems to be watching.  

The fake beach is just one of Astana's many feats of architectural wonder. It's housed on the top floor of a shopping mall shaped like a giant tepee. It has palm trees and a waterslide. It basks in natural sunlight that filters through a conical, fabric roof. It's a favourite spot for local Kazakhs on particularly cold days, the perfect place to thaw out and pretend you're somewhere else, somewhere warmer, somewhere nice. 

Though it does seem that there's nowhere most residents of Astana would prefer to be than their home town. 

"I like the wind here," says Dana, pulling her coat closer to her, snuggling into the fur lining. "It makes everything clean. It makes you feel like you're being cleaned."

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That's a sweet sentiment, though a little baffling. As so much of Astana is baffling. As so much of Kazakhstan itself – known to the rest of the world as the home of Borat, a fictitious oaf, but in fact a highly developed, multicultural hub – is baffling.

Twenty years ago, Astana wasn't even the country's capital. In fact, it wasn't even a city. In Soviet times this place was known as Tselinograd, an isolated place with a few thousand residents living in bleak apartment blocks standing sentinel on the plains. After independence it was renamed Akmola, and the city immediately began to boom when the country's new president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, made the shock announcement that he would be moving his capital from beautiful, bustling Almaty in the south to the place that would be known as Astana in the country's bleak centre.

Since that time Nazarbayev has poured money from Kazakhstan's resources boom into creating a world-class capital city, commissioning internationally renowned architects to pepper Astana with weird and wonderful structures. 

Here you'll now find the world's largest sphere, a glass and steel structure that once hosted a world expo, but now houses a museum dedicated to renewable energy. You'll find the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan, a stunning building shaped like a giant eye, designed by the Briton Norman Foster. You'll find a huge glass pyramid (also designed by Foster), as well as two cylindrical golden towers, a crater-shaped museum known as the "dog bowl", and a grandiose Presidential Palace that's seven storeys tall. Amazing. Surprising. Baffling.

Nazarbayev is still Kazakhstan's president – the first and only. He's been in power for 27 years, and was last re-elected in 2015 with a highly unlikely 97.7 per cent of the vote. Many of the tourist attractions I'm taken to on this visit to Astana relate directly to the country's revered leader. 

There's that eye-shaped library, a gigantic structure that holds only books that are either written by Nazarbayev or written about him (or gifted to him by other world leaders). There's also the Museum of the First President of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev's former office, which has been turned into a shrine to the nation's kingpin, featuring photos of him in important meetings, video recordings of his major speeches, long lists of his notable achievements. Even the city's National Museum boasts a large section dedicated to Nazarbayev's rule (it's in the same room as the laser light show, a predictably mystifying display that starts each day at 4pm).

To the outsider, this is all quite strange. Nazarbayev's reign is a cult of personality, a clear example of dictatorial rule. And yet the local Kazakhs don't seem to mind. No one I speak to has a bad word to say about their president – or at least none they're willing to put on record. He's a strong ruler, they tell me, but a good one. One who has united the multiple ethnicities of the capital city. One who carries prosperity for a former Soviet badland in his iron fist.

That optimism, you find, is generally the way with the people of Astana. They can put a positive spin on almost any situation, regardless of how dire it may seem to an outsider. 

Take their national dish, beshbarmak. It's a meal of celebration, this one, a treat. It's made using sheets of pasta topped with horse meat, fatty chunks that have been boiled without the use of spices or herbs. "It is a dish," says Dana lovingly, "that you cannot describe."

And yet, I can describe it. It's horrible. It's oily from rendered horse fat; intensely equine in flavour. I can barely manage more than a few polite bites, bites that I'm forced to wash down with kumis, the traditional drink of fermented horse milk. This is not my idea of a good time.

Kazakhs, of course, love it, in the same way they love Nazarbayev, in the same way they love their new capital city, in the same way they even seem to love the weather – or can at least manage to find something good to say about it.    

"We are only the world's second-coldest capital city," Dana tells me one day as we stroll the banks of the Ishim River, passing buskers and school kids and families at play.

"Ulaan Baator beats us." She shrugs. "Anyway, it's not so bad. Sometimes here in the winter it will be minus 30 degrees, but really, with the sun shining, it will only feel like minus 10."

Sounds perfect, to me, for a trip to the beach.

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wendywutours.com.au

traveller.com.au/kazakhstan

FLY

Etihad Airways flies daily from all major Australian ports to Astana, via Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com for more.

STAY + TOUR

Wendy Wu Tours creates bespoke holidays in Kazakhstan that include stays in Astana, with accommodation, transfers and English-speaking guides included. See website above for more.

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours

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