Kazakhstan: A Land Almost Lost, Now Found

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Kazakhstan on World Map

Our flight from Washington took us through one of the world’s oldest capital cities, Istanbul, once Constantinople, to set us down in one of the world’s newest. At 4 a.m., with our driver at hand, we stepped in light snow to the shining black Lexus. The sleeping city still reflected the many colors that illuminated buildings of odd and varied design.

The quiet drive to the hotel, the feeling of wide-open space and the long day’s travel made us envision ourselves in the middle of nowhere. Where on earth were we? Was it the future? We were surprised by this city on the steppes last year, just as it is today surprising the rest of the world with its Expo 2017. There we were in Astana.

We were surprised by this city on the steppes last year, just as it is today surprising the rest of the world with its Expo 2017. There we were in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, the Central Asian nation now making its boldest step forward since independence in 1991. A new nation that appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, built on oil and gas reserves and vast natural resources, its goal is “Future Energy” — green and sustainable.

At first glance, Astana looks like a Bizarro Las Vegas (no gaming here, though), with an array of buildings by wellknown architects that distract and delight the eye: Bayterek Tower, an egg on the tree of life, nicknamed “the lollypop”; the KazMunayGas headquarters; the Central Concert Hall; the Presidential Palace; the Hazrat Sultan Mosque; the UFOlike Metropolitan Circus; and two by Norman Foster — the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Accord and Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall with an artificial beach in the shape of a nomadic yurt. Atop Bayterek Tower, visitors routinely place their hands in an impression of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s hand and make a wish. For them, he is indeed father of this new, stable nation.

Astana became the capital 20 years ago, when Nazarbayev, in office since Kazakhstan become independent, moved the government from Almaty, its longtime capital and largest city. The windswept, formerly bland outpost, closer to Russia, is now awash in color. It is one of the coldest capitals in the world.

Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country — exotic, harsh, hospitable, diverse, modern. It can trace its roots to Huns, Mongols and Turkic peoples. With its location along the Silk Road, it borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Today, it is part of China’s Silk Road initiative.

Kazakhstan’s claims to fame — no thanks to Borat’s 2006 mockumentary — are impressive. Insulted by the comedian’s depiction of Kazakhstan, its president later admitted that even bad publicity made the world look at his nation anew.

Upon independence, Kazakhstan controlled the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal. Working with Americans and Russians, Nazarbayev safely disposed of Kazakhstan’s atomic armaments and fuel — a decision applauded by the world. A strongman who sees himself as an international peacemaker, Nazarbayev lobbies for a world without nuclear weapons.

Having won elections by more than 90 percent, the 77-year-old Nazarbayev appears forward thinking and savvy — balancing partnerships with Russia, China, America and the European Union.

As guests of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were part of an international group to observe parliamentary elections. Nazarbayev’s party won 82.15 percent of the vote (some Western observers consider the election procedures not quite up to snuff). Nazarbayev strode out in the concert hall atrium to vote on election day. In line to go to the voting booths, eager city voters stood near a wall with busts of Apollo and Julius Caesar.

Celebrities — like Olympian Aleksandr Karelin — and party leaders were on hand. After voting, the president held a press conference. The next day, international observers deemed procedures normal and praised Kazakhstan’s “growing political maturity.” Later, we sat down for a traditional Kazakh dish, Beşbarmaq — broad noodles with horse meat and mutton — along with soup, dumplings and more. It seemed a bit strange, and yet was not.

Part of Kazakstan’s plan to move beyond its nomadic roots to the age of the Jetsons is the energy-themed Expo 2017, which runs through Sept. 10 and includes 115 countries and 22 international organizations. It’s a big deal, as the country pushes past its oil-centric economy. The Nur Alem orb at the center of the venue is the largest spherical building in the world.

After the Expo ends, the circular area will hold the English law-based Astana International Financial Center, with a court, a stock exchange and an arbitration tribunal — and with connections to Shanghai and Dubai. The head of this regional hub is Kairat Kelimbetov, a Georgetown University alumnus.

The nation is hosting peace talks on Syria. It belongs to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an anti-terrorist group of nations, as well as to the Eurasian Economic Union.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome — the oldest and largest spaceport, now leased to Russia — saw the first human space flight, by Yuri Gagarin, and now also launches NASA astronauts into space.

Kazakhstan is larger than Western Europe, but its population is only 18 million. It is the land where apples originated; some say tulips, too. (One of the best books about this old country/new nation is “Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared” by Christopher Robbins.)

More than 130 ethnicities — Kazakh, Russian, Tatar, German, Uyghur and Korean — live in relative harmony, with 70 percent of the population Muslim and 26 percent Christian. One Kazakh joke explains that outsiders see them as Russian-speaking, Chinese-looking Muslims happy to deal with the West. At their best, many women and men appear to be an enchanting combination of European and Chinese.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s negatives astound as well: the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea, radiation victims and ghost towns from the Soviet Union’s ground zero for nuclear tests (Semipalatinsk, “The Polygon”), government corruption and the numbing history of the Gulag system. In its Czarist and Soviet years, Kazakhstan’s prisoners or exiles included Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Leon Trotsky. Under Stalin, 40 percent of the nation starved to death. Used and abused, it was forgotten.

Former capital Almaty, close to Kyrgyzstan (30 miles) and China (160 miles), is named after the apple and called the Big Apple in its own right. As the largest city and banking center, it remains the country’s favorite city.

In the city square, we viewed a high-spirited, colorful New Year’s celebration — Nauryz — staged for television with guests in the stands. Dancers and singers vibrantly displayed the many ethnic groups as butterflies and drones flew about. From the Rahat Palace Hotel, we saw the city and the Alatau mountains, which touch the Tien Shan range. Outside the city is the Shymbulak ski resort — even Prince Harry has visited. Near the presidential park and up the hillside in the nature preserve, we witnessed eagles flying from their handlers (who were on horseback) to hunt and rule the sky.

From the Rahat Palace Hotel, we saw the city and the Alatau mountains, which touch the Tien Shan range. Outside the city is the Shymbulak ski resort — even Prince Harry has visited. Near the presidential park and up the hillside in the nature preserve, we witnessed eagles flying from their handlers (who were on horseback) to hunt and rule the sky.

Kok-Tobe, Almaty’s highest point, commands the best view and has an amusement park, a petting zoo, restaurants and — of all things — a bronze sculpture of the Beatles at a park bench, installed 10 years ago. An aerial gondola whisks riders there from downtown in six minutes.

Despite its growing pains, Kazakhstan is whisking itself into the future. The country is well worth the 6,000-mile journey into the center of Asia

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