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Remembering The City Formerly Known As Astana

A sudden name change is the least absurd thing about this place.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic- Astana is no more. The place no longer exists. It happened back in March but it’s ramifications are just setting in with me as the new name for the city is now widely being used:

Nur-Sultan.

The place is now named after the man who created it almost literally from scratch: Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s ruler for life.

This went about as peachy as you’d expect.

Until recently, Nazarbayev was the only ruler independent Kazakhstan has ever known. He was the guy in charge when the Soviets were around, and didn’t give up the throne until mid-March, calling the shots for 30 years.

Now that Nazarbayev is transitioning from real world dictator to legacy, arrays of things are being named after him. A degree recently went out that all cities and towns should name their main streets Nur-Sultan, Nur-Sultan’s airport was re-named after the supreme ruler in 2017, and I imagine that legions of monuments of his likeness are being carved right now.

The city formerly known as Astana is one of my favorite places on the planet. The main reason? The place is bonkers:

The world changes faster than our perceptions can keep up with.

“How old is that Radisson?” I asked, pointing at the giant hotel rising up on the other side of the river.

“It’s really old,” she said. “Maybe five or ten years.”

It is a vast understatement to say that Astana is young. It was named the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, as the president issued a decree to turn the 100,000 person town of Akmola into the new seat of government. People who worked in the government, which was previously located in Almaty, were then formally migrated to the new city in the frigid north.

The city that Nazarbayev built was something taken out of the pages of a 1950s-era novel about the future. It is exactly what cities were supposed to look like in 2017. The master plan was the work of no other than Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who has an entire collection of strange new cities to his name — including the concentric circle CBD of Zhengdong New District in China. There are bright, contorted skyscrapers, twin conical towers plated in gold, a giant shopping mall in the world’s largest tent, a giant, gold-ornamented mosque, and colossal, anachronistic Western housing complexes that rise up into the sky — all sitting side by side. It is truly something to marvel at; Astana looks like nowhere else in the world, and each time I go there I feel this sense of displacement, as it is difficult to believe that what I’m looking at really exists.

Why I like Astana:

I have a peculiar attraction to new cities, and there are few in the world as new or as intentional as Astana.

Astana has no history. Astana has no pre-set character. Astana has no period of evolution where diverse architectural influences were gradually dissolved into a particular style. Astana is 100% artificial; it’s a made-up city. Almost literally, the place is the creation of one man: the president, Narsultan Nazarbayev. In 1994 Nazarbayev said let there be a new capital here, and by 1998 it was so.

Architecture is a snapshot of a place at a certain point in time. As eras pass, successive waves of “contemporary” buildings are constructed, but many of the previous ones still remain. Eventually, cities become mirrors of themselves, a kaleidoscope of its history, a living record of who was been there for how long. Over the cityscape buildings are like graffiti saying, “Joe was here 1972.” Only “Joe” is the Romans, the British, the French, the Turks, the Chinese . . . all leaving their tag in architecture.

Eventually cities become architectural messes — shards of different colors and shapes piled in altogether and churned constantly. Walk down the streets of London and you will see age-old palaces and dungeons and mansions presided over by a colossal, uber-modern prism-looking thing. This is how cities should look. Architecture blends time, people, and place and is a constant reminder of who we are and where we came from. Architecture is the great chronicler of change.

Compared to how absurd the city and the story of its creation is, the sudden name change should come off as almost normal.

I’ve always had fun in Astanan … I mean, Nur-Sultan. From hanging out in the customer-less first McDonalds in Kazakhstan to “Coyote Ugly”-like bars, to going on TV, to feeling cold like I’ve never felt before, to walking to a place that feels about as familiar as the moon, the place was always memorable — which really is one of the prime directives of travel.

Filed under: Kazakhstan, New Cities

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3546 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

6 comments… add one

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  • Trav June 8, 2019, 3:24 pm

    I’m not sure if I want to go there or not go there based on this post.

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    • Wade Shepard June 8, 2019, 3:28 pm

      I recommend going.

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  • Trevor June 9, 2019, 12:46 pm

    I never made it to Astana, but come on, they changed the name ? that’s cool!

    am back from Transnistria.. if you need some facts about the place, the link is on my details re this comment

    and how come you r back in CZ… i thought u went back to NY for the duration ???

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    • Wade Shepard June 9, 2019, 12:58 pm

      Cool. I will have to check out your posts about the place. I’ve always had an interest in going there. NY was just a visit. My wife took a job in Manhattan, so we should be getting an apartment there next month. My family will stay there but it will be a base of operations for me to jump off to other places of the world. During content processing phases it doesn’t matter where in the world I am. So if they can have a life somewhere that would be better. Also, JFK is a world class air hub. I should be here in Prague until the beginning of July.

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  • Johanes June 9, 2019, 5:06 pm

    Great. That is quiet interesting. Also, I noticed the architectural design of buildings is pretty.

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    • Wade Shepard June 9, 2019, 5:29 pm

      Thanks! Yes, the place looks like nowhere else in the world.

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