What to do in Nur-Sultan

Nur-Sultan – The city that has become Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) was an obscure industrial town in the northern hinterlands of Kazakhstan. Today, it is emerging as one of the world’s great capitals in the heart of the Asian steppe.

Nur-Sultan is a stunning example of the achievements of Kazakhstan in its first two decades as an independent nation. It’s also a symbol of aspiration for other emerging Central Asian nations.

Though seemingly built overnight, Kazakhstan’s new capital has developed a vibrant personality of its own. Its people have a sense that their potential is as limitless as the steppe that the city’s futuristic architecture celebrates.

astana_2It’s a young person’s city. Neighborhoods teem with children and teenages and young couples fill the curving promenade which runs along the Ishim (Esil) River through the heart of the city. Nur-Sultan’s young professionals also pack the city’s modern nightclubs.

Nur-Sultan offers a wide variety of restaurants from the luxurious to small neighborhood cafes and bars whose chefs churn out spectacular dishes of borsch and stroganoff.

Kazakhstan’s First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is the visionary behind the new capital and was involved in all aspects of its planning. He wanted to get away from the drab Soviet-era concrete designs that were stamped out on the cities of Soviet Asia during Communist times.

Nazarbayev hired and worked with the best architects in the world to create the concepts that have redefined the image of Central Asia.

Working closely with the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and British architect Norman Foster, Nazarbayev helped create a city celebrating old and new – the rich past of Central Asia and its potential in the new millennium.

At night, the lights of the buildings reflect off the river as young couples stroll the promenade enjoying cuisines ranging from Michelin Guide-quality restaurants with classical music, or live jazz, to vendors selling pretzels and ice cream.

The government complex in Nur-Sultan has also been built from scratch over the past decade, and it is not to be missed. The two Parliament buildings (the Majilis and the Senate) face each other, and the Ak Orda presidential palace makes up the apex of a triangle.

Nazarbayev gave physical expression to his strategy of placing Kazakhstan as the communications and cultural hub of Central Asia. He promoted the construction of a 62 meter high, glass-sided pyramid officially known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony, or more colloquially as the Pyramid, which houses the Institute of Cultures and Religion.

Like all the new public buildings of Nur-Sultan, the Pyramid is spectacularly lit up by night – glowing in succession with what seem like all the colors of the rainbow. It contains the national opera house, a national museum of culture and a “university of civilization.”

Towering nearly 105 meters (350 feet) above the city is the spectacular Baiterek Tower. The unique golden dome at the top evokes a bird’s nest where the mythical Samruk bird laid its egg.

Nur-Sultan also celebrates the culture of the wider world. The new 3,500-seat Kazakhstan Concert Hall is one of the world’s largest classical music halls. And with its curving turquoise blue walls evokes the Sydney Opera House. It was designed by Italian architect Manfredo Nicoletti and opened in 2009. Traditional Kazakh music, rock and jazz also are regularly performed there.

Kazakhstan will become the chair of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in June 2011, and the architecture of Nur-Sultan also expresses how Kazakhstan has re-embraced their Muslim heritage since breaking free from atheistic Communism.

Nur-Sultan’s Islamic Center with its core Nur-Astana Mosque opened in 2005 but looks much older. It was sponsored by the Emir of Qatar and also contains a madrassah. Attractively lit by night, it’s a testimony to Kazakhstan’s identity as a moderate, mainstream, Muslim nation. The mosque has four minarets rising to heights of 63 meters each (about 200 feet) and can hold 5,000 worshippers.

astana_1The Ak Orda (in the Kazakh language, “white horde” or “white headquarters”) is the official workplace of the President of the Republic. Erected in 2004, it rises 80 meters and has a total area of 36,720 square meters. The Ak Orda is striking for its hall of marble and granite shaped like a yurt. A golden hall, evoking memories of the fabled Golden Horde of the steppes, is reserved for diplomatic conferences and negotiations with visiting dignitaries.

The best way to view Nur-Sultan’s unique buildings is to walk around the city, which has remarkably clean air – swept by the bracing steppe winds.

The best time to visit is in the spring and summer when temperatures are moderate. Summer and winter are times of intense temperature extremes, ranging from -35 C to +30-35 C. However, modern heating and air conditioning systems allow the city’s indoor attractions to be enjoyed all year round.

Despite its rapid growth, Nur-Sultan remains one of the world’s safest capitals. Teenagers hitch rides without a second thought and young children play in playgrounds that accompany all apartment complexes without any parental supervision. The sense of mutual support among ordinary citizens remains strong.

Less than half a year old, the latest stunning addition to Nur-Sultan’s cityscape is the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center that opened in July. Designed like a colossal traditional Kazakh nomadic tent, or yurt, it towers 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) above its elliptical base, bowing to the unforgiving steppe winds. The Khan Shatyr holds a park, a shopping and entertainment area with squares and cobbled streets.

Even when the temperature is -35 C and the Eurasian winds are howling, visitors stay warm under the Khan Shatyr’s roof which allows sunshine to penetrate. It is a domed, enclosed Asian answer to Disneyland. And it carries a message of the fortitude of the Kazakh people. For millennia, they have survived and even prospered through the extremes of one of the planet’s harshest climates. The Khan Shatyr’s celebration of the yurt – a symbol of Kazakh adaptability – testifies that these qualities survive and flourish in the 21st century.

There is more to come. For Nur-Sultan, like other new cities of rising Asia, is still a work in progress. Ambitious new construction plans are underway that will not be completed for 20 years.

Nur-Sultan is a city on the move.