Building boom on the steppe

On his arrival to the capital of Kazakhstan on Tuesday, September 13, 2022, pope Francis saw a completely different city than did John Paul II, staying there in 2001. The pace of Nur-Sultan’s development is astonishing.

Kazakhstan as whole is changing too, but not everywhere and not at such a pace. But after all it is a huge country, where between cities there are hundreds of kilometers leading through the steppe. It was once an area inhabited by nomadic tribes; it was only under USSR that Kazakhs were forced to live in wooden, brick or stone houses. And before WWII this country became a true “prison of the nations” as huge gulags were installed here, it was also here that Poles from Ukraine were deported to in 1936 and 1939-1941.

Today it is trying to find its place in the world. A proof for that is the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions currently being held. Which is actually the main purpose of the Pope’s visit.

Akmolinsk, Tselinograd, Astana

To imagine what Astana looked back in the past one has to go to another big Kazakhstani city. Be it Almaty although the former capital is now several times bigger than Astana years before. But the first hasn’t changed so much, as has Nur-Sultan.

In the year of Pope’s visit, i.e. in 2001 it was a typical, post-Soviet regional city. Built in 1824 as the Akmolinsk fortress (Akmoly meaning in Kazakh “White grave”) was granted city rights only in 1862. For the first time the city changed its name in 1961. It was then that the then general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev launched the campaign to transform wasteland into fertile soil, i.e. to transform the steppe into fields, in which wheat was to be cultivated. Akmolinsk became the hub of this enterprise, which is why it was called Tselinograd, from the Russian word “tselina” meaning wasteland.

When Kazakhstan gained independence, in 1992 Tselinograd turned into Akmola. And then the authorities of the republic decided to transfer the capital from Alma-Ata (now the name of Almaty is used, but Alma-Ata is allowed). The reason was simple: Akmola was located in the center of the country, and the former capital in the south-eastern outskirts, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. Of course, it required a great deal of effort, both organizational and financial. Ultimately, Akmoła technically became the capital city in 1997, and a year later it was called Astana, or simply "Capital". SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE

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However it was relatively low buildings that dominated, of several stories at most. The former district committee of the communist party and the seat of the district administration were adapted to the needs of the central authorities, but that was definitely not enough. In 2001, one tall hotel towered in the center, strangely overlooking much lower buildings. Apparently, the idea was that foreigners – foreign state delegations or even businessmen – should have somewhere to live in good conditions. In old hotels, sufficient for the district city, guests from other countries could, for example, be surprised by breakfast sets: apart from a few unappetizing sausages or scrambled eggs, also a chop with porridge.

On the other bank of the Ishim River, work has just begun on a new administrative center, including the presidential palace. The Bayterek Tower, a monument and symbol of Kazakhstan, the embodiment of the Kazakh folk tale about “the mythical tree of life and the magic bird of happiness” was slowly growing up. According to these stories, the bird Samruk put its egg in the gap between the two branches of a poplar tree – a tree of life supporting the sky, thus creating the sun ...

An awful lot of space

The old town of Astana remained on the right bank of the Ishim River, the new one having been built on the left bank. What it looked like was described in an interview with the newspaper “Viechernaya Astana”, the head of Astanagenplan (Astana general [urban] plan) Sarsenbek Zhunusov. He described how he lived in a hotel in Akmola in 1995: “Even the front door could not be opened because it was so windy. Scary! And the first thought: where are we moving the capital to? ”. Interestingly, the capital expansion plan was designed by the famous Japanese architect Kise Kurokawa. The first project was intended for a city with a population of 640,000. inhabitants, then – for 800 thousand, and finally – ca. 1 million, 1 million 200 thousand. And according to current estimates, this number is expected to increase to 1.6 million in 2030.

Akmola was situated on the steppe. And the steppe is best understood if you go a bit further away from towns and villages.
In the steppe, you can turn around yourself and see only a flat void. There are no houses to the horizon, not a single tree. Nothing. And if you only have enough money, you can build anything you want there, because there is a lot of space. Therefore, Kazakh villages do not resemble Polish ones - their streets there are wide and their houses are scattered. Why build close to each other when there is poignant emptiness all around?

The problem is the harsh Kazakhstan’s climate. For example the wind described by Zhunosov. Winter lasts eight months there. Temperatures go down to minus 45 degrees (although over the past few years there have been “only” minus 25 degrees ...). When there is a blizzard, or “buran”, it is better not to leave the house. It happened that someone went out and couldn’t find their way back – they just froze to death several meters from the warm building. And when spring comes, there are melts that move the roads. And that's why many roads in Kazakhstan look terrible. Before anyone can fix them, snow is coming. And as they melt, the road is not suitable for travelling.

And yet the decision to make Akmola the capital – Astana – turned out to be feasible. Although the effort that had to be put into it turned out to be huge. Overall, investment in the city is estimated at nearly $ 30 billion.

Success of Expo 2017

Today Astana, bearing the new name of Nur-Sultan (adopted after the resignation of the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev), can really amaze you. The right bank of the Ishim River looks like a modernized version of Astana from years ago - just like any developing city would look like. But on the left side of the river it is completely different.

It is primarily space. Lots of space. Because when more of it is needed, you can extend the street by a few kilometers and put up new buildings. This is how it was before the World Exhibition 2017. Driving from the city center along Qabanbay Batur Street, we reach the monumental building of the University of Nursultan Nazarbayev on the right. And on the left there is this huge Mega Silk Way shopping center.
You had to go through it to get to the area of Expo 2017. And here, in turn, the visitor was astonished by its unusual appearance, now – the Expo Congress Center, with the “spherical museum” Nur-Alem. This very museum was an exhibition showing Kazakhstan five years ago. The round, glazed building, as if a glass ball was placed on the ground, made and makes an amazing impression. It is one hundred meters high, and has eight floors. During the World Exhibition it was undoubtedly the most interesting, although some countries tried very hard to make their exhibition – that is, parts of the buildings surrounding Nur-Alem – made it really interesting.

It should be said here that the Expo turned out to be a great success for Kazakhstan. 115 countries and 22 international organizations took part in it, and some 4 million people visited it. Well, the construction of Nur-Alem and other buildings alone cost a considerable amount of 2.1 billion dollars. But the profits were also high. Thanks to the construction and operation of the Expo, nearly 1.5 thousand Kazakhstani companies received orders; the activity of Kazakh tourism companies doubled. But after the exhibition ended, it was not known what would happen to its objects for a long time. Perhaps they were just too big and too expensive to be used easily and on a daily basis. After all, it is used today for its original purpose: fairs and exhibitions are organized here.

Palace, tree, tent

But the symbols of today's Nur-Sultan are two buildings and one monument: the Ak-Orda presidential palace, the Khan-Shatyr shopping center and the Bayterek tower.

The palace stands on the banks of the Ishim River: a huge structure covered with Italian marble, with a blue dome on top of it. Its construction started in 2001 and was completed in 2004. The most important state institutions are located nearby: the seat of the government and the parliament, the Majlis (lower house) and the Senate. They are all monumental, built in white and blue colors. And of course not to be seen from the inside for an ordinary tourist…

Bayterek is located only three hundred meters from the palace. White, widening upwards, openwork “tree” - and at the top a 22-meter golden ball. It is a symbol of the capital of Kazakhstan. Well, it is…
7. Khan Shatyr or “Khan's Tent” designed by Norman Foster. Photo Aliia Raimbekova / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The author designing the monument is the British architect Norman Foster, who built, among others, London's new Wembley Stadium, London Stansted Airport passenger terminal and the second largest building in the world – Beijing Terminal 3. You can get to Bayterek by elevator, because there is an observation deck at the top. It's just that there is usually a very long queue to the elevator, so it is better to admire the Nur-Sultan's panorama from another place, and from the vicinity of the monument go to another, extraordinary work of Foster’s –Khan Shatyru.

Khan Shatyru simply means “Khan's tent”. In the daytime it is gray-blue in color and indeed resembles a round, pointed tent, sloping slightly to the side. In the evening it turns out that the upper part of it is translucent, so the "tent" just shines from the inside. And inside - a whole lot of miracles. The lower part is a few floors of the shopping center surrounding the inner courtyard. High above the floor there is a single railroad track, and on the top floor there is Sky Beach, advertising itself as “tropical paradise”. There is a Dinopark for children - and adults can do shopping during this time. Looking at the list of shops, you can get the right impression that many of them can be found in Warsaw - but there are also others, unknown to us, although not many. Likewise for the fast food outlets on the third floor.

Khan Shatyr is a great place to visit, but not the best place for shopping, because it is mercilessly expensive…


The new part of Nur-Sultan is an amazing mixture of buildings that do not fit together very well. They are dominated by those monumental ones, in the – let's call it like that – Central Asian style. But there is also a building resembling a pagoda and another, similar to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (PKiN). You can see who put what - most of them are made by Kazakhs or architects they hired from abroad), but there are also Chinese and Russian ones. They are a bit overwhelmed by the momentum, because the streets are wide and the houses are huge.

Sometimes buildings look strange. Going from the side of Bajyterek to the presidential palace, we pass two Golden Towers.
Green Boulevards, the Bayterek Tower and “golden cans of beer”. Photo by: Michael Gottschalk / Photothek via Getty Images
The locals call them “beer cans” because they actually look like cans. There is also a luminous pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Understanding, which, among others, stands on the sidelines. It welcomes the guests of the meeting of religious leaders of the world - and it is here that the participants of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, including Pope Francis, will meet. There is also the Palace of Arts, rightly called “dog bowl” because it actually looks like a huge, blue bowl ...

The Muslim Nur-Sultan also has numerous mosques. Of course, huge ones. In 2012, the then largest mosque of Sultan Hezret in Central Asia was opened. But recently the “principal mosque of the republic”, built on the initiative of Nursultan Nazarbayev, was opened. It was he who laid the cornerstone for this temple in March 2019, the day before his resignation from the office of president. Officially, no state money was spent on the construction, but it is not known who paid for it. According to the Kazakhistani media, the mosque’s dome has a diameter of 62 meters, and the minarets are 130 meters high. Thirty thousand of the faithful can pray in the temple.

Kazakhstan is a country of many denominations and beliefs, so it is not surprising that we find here the beautiful building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, built of red brick. It is situated on the right bank of Nur-Sultan, at in a beautiful place. On the right bank, there is also the monumental Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God, i.e. the main church of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are far fewer Catholics here than there are Orthodox Christians; in the past, Poles and Germans dominated among them, but most Germans went to West Germany, and some Poles – to Poland. Mostly Russians and Ukrainians by origin are Orthodox.

Nur-Sultan shows how great the possibilities of Kazakhstan are – but also its appearance shows the fact that it has many development paths ahead of it, but it is not yet known which one she will choose. The Russians are tempted by building their houses in their own style. The Chinese are tempted by proposing their buildings. Kazakhs are trying to choose their own path, drawing from their neighbors, and from the West, and even from the Far East.

– Piotr Kościński
–Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Center of Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. Photo Aliia Raimbekova / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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