I travel to Astana for the second time (in the winter!) to find the place still unbelievable.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan- “Boston is cold and boring,” she said. “There is nothing to do. You can’t even spend any money there.”
She grew up in Almaty, in the south of Kazakhstan.
It’s funny to hear someone who is from a place that is thought to be one of the preeminent backwaters of the planet — the land of Borat — visiting the great, advanced America and finding it starkly behind the times, under-stimulating, boring. But I had to agree with her, compared to Almaty — a city that’s lined with fun, creative, local cafes, bars, clubs, and shops — Boston does come off as a little stale.
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.
“This all wasn’t here even eight years ago, there was nothing here before,” is one of the most popular things that people tell you here.
I expressed my continued wonder over Astana to a former journalist from Almaty. She thought I was naive.
“You can do things like that when you have an unlimited amount of money!” she exclaimed.
I guess she was right.
“There are not even many people living here and we already have this traffic problem.”
Astana does have a traffic problem. The streets are plenty wide enough, often being six to eight lane thoroughfares, but there simply isn’t enough of them. This is the unintended consequence of the Soviet system of super-blocks. While they look grandiose from above and theoretically make sense — have giant roadways on the peripheries and large, contiguous living spaces in the centers — they just don’t work in the automobile era. All the cars are funneled onto the same roads, and even a city that doesn’t have that many people or that many cars becomes locked in traffic.
It often takes over a half hour to get just about anywhere in Astana by car, even though you’re only going a few kilometers.
While China is engaging in a national program to break up super-blocks to relieve traffic congestion, Astana is still building new ones. There is an entire quadrant of the city that has not even been built yet.
“Now that I came back and it’s all being done, it’s like a fairytale.”
Inspired by the president, Kazakhstan began planning their pan-Eurasian logistics apparatus around seven or eight years ago. This plan would see landlocked Kazakhstan as the center of a great network of transport corridors and logistics hubs that would connect the country with the Yellow Sea at Lianyungang in China, the Indian Ocean at Bandar Abbas in Iran, the Baltic Sea at Klaipėda in Lithuania, along with dry ports and logistics zones arranged strategically throughout their country, Tajikistan, Iran, and Europe.
However, when a group of inspired young Kazakhs working for a newly formed think-tank called the National Center for Transportation Logistics Development began promoting this idea to the country and the world beyond few took them very seriously.
In 2017, these dreams are now a reality. It’s happening. The ports and transportation connections that once seemed like little more than lofty ideas in the presentations of impressionable youths, are now physical entities handling thousands of tons of cargo. Some of those kids are now leading some of Kazakhstan’s most dynamic transportation companies.
“Do you know of any other country that has done that?” the media relations manager for KTZ Express once asked me.
I thought for a moment. “No. No, I don’t.”
I had coffee with a friend in the Rixos Hotel in Astana yesterday as the Syrian peace talks were taking place in the room next to us. The place was packed with press and security. I was stopped at the metal detectors that were set up at the door just for the event, and if the friend I was there to meet didn’t walk over to intervene it would have been a challenge to get inside.
I arrived just in time. I watched a mob of media with their big cameras and other appendages go flooding into the room next to us. On the TV in the hotel’s Irish pub was a live feed of what was going on directly on the other side of the wall. It was like looking in through a window. We watched until the feed went dead when the media was given the boot.
Felt strange not covering this event, but that’s not really my beat. Although I probably should have gotten in touch with someone to see if they wanted the story — it would have given them the article without having to pay to fly someone in and it would have been an easy one for me to get. I suppose I was too focused on the #NewSilkRoad.
However, as I sat there on a couch in the bar, drinking two super expensive cappuccinos that my friend paid for, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach because I knew I missed something. This meeting represented something at the core of this New Silk Road movement. Countries like Kazakhstan are becoming internationally relevant neutral terrain between contending global powers. To the north is Russia, to the east is China, to the south is Pakistan and India, to the west is Europe. Kazakhstan sits in the middle, friendly with countries on all horizons — so neutral as to host a major peace talk being presided over by Russia and Turkey, a kind of Switzerland of Asia. This geopolitical position was cultivated by intentional design, and as I sat there in the Rixos Hotel I knew that there was not any better example of it actually working.
Countries filling this multi-vector position are the links which hold the entire Silk Road network together.
Many times when doing interviews with people in prominent positions here, I stop them short and ask how old they are. They know what I’m getting at and they tend to laugh.
In 1993, Kazakhstan understood that the country needed not only to change the ways things were done but the mentality of the people who were pulling the strings. The country was mired in the old top-heavy thinking of the Soviet era. Culture is real. To these ends, the president began a scholarship program called Bolashak, which means “the future” in Kazakh, which aimed to send promising students abroad for their university educations. The thinking was that they would learn how things were done in the West, grow accustom to international standards, then return to their homeland to revitalize the country. Since the program began, over 10,000 students were sent abroad, completely funded by their government.
Now many of these kids are back, and many are actually being rewarded with the promised positions of power — which is something remarkable in and of itself. The people who are starting to run this country are young. The much heralded “new generation” has arrived.
The new CEO of Khorgos Gateway is 34. The vice president of KTZ Express is 31. The current finance minister, a Bolashak product, is 38 years old. Kuandyk Bishimbayev, the previous finance minister and another former Bolashak student, is 36. He was recently charged with corruption.
I once thought that the lack of major international cafe chains in Almaty was due to the place being too chic to want them — as in a post-globalization, trendy sort of way. The streets of that city are lined with interesting and creative local cafes, which, when taken altogether, surpass about anything that the West can dish out. But I was wrong. The major coffee chains didn’t avoid Almaty because of a lack of marketability but because the logistical apparatus that they depend on simply wasn’t set up yet.
I learned this at the new Astana logistics center — a massive transportation and warehousing operation on the barren outskirts of the city. This place opened around a year and a half ago, and almost as soon as it did many major chain cafe, supermarket, and retail chains began moving in — including Starbucks. As I walked through the halls of one of the warehouses there I saw an array of glass windows and shelving, which were destined for the first H&M store in Kazakhstan, which is set to open soon.
I once mistakenly thought that the presence of major international chains in a place was a testament to culture or economics. While it is certainly impacted by these two things, it is first a matter of logistics. New logistical and transportation infrastructure has the power to change commercial and cultural paradigms, it has the power to open the floodgates — almost literally.
Astana is cold.