Astana, a City Steppes Ahead

Astana, a City Steppes Ahead
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When I was invited to Kazakhstan I had my doubts. It is after all, a very, very long trip. The amount of time I would be there was short, and I was to spend all that time in the new capitol Astana. When I Googled the city for images it was apparent that the city was designed to be the face of the New Kazakhstan as a regional and perhaps a global, mover and shaker. I had no idea if I would be able to bring back anything in the way of music, which is what I generally cover. But I have long wanted to visit Kazakhstan, so once I managed to include a visit to the former, older capitol Almaty, into my itinerary, I took the plunge, and hoped for the best.

Every trip is a unique experience, and I never know what kind of story I will bring back. So I just keep shooting as I go. But there is plenty to shoot in Astana, because it is an intensely visual place, a city constructed from a dream; part fantasy amidst the steppes, part cliffhanger — and all business.

Astana is about the future; in 2017 it will be hosting a world expo and conference on renewable energy. This is a major step for a country whose biggest revenues come from oil, and there is an entire section of the city under construction to host this event, complete with pavilions and a monorail. This leads to an interesting ambivalence in its citizens regarding cultural pride vs. modernity. We may think of Kazakhstan as that land of endless steppes over which fantastic nomadic equestrians gallop, or hunt with eagles in its snowy mountains. But my young student guide Malika waxed indignant with me at one point and said “We are not just horses!!” I imagine that is how I would feel as a 21st century American being asked by a visiting tourist “where are the cowboys?" Malika is working hard at the university in her language studies; her English is excellent, and both her parents are doctors. One does not move to Astana for anything but serious work; it is not a party town. Business and politics dominate.

Astana is a work in progress, and I find that even now it is hard to evaluate it. For one thing, I am used to New York, where disparate architectural styles exist cheek by jowl, giving the overall look of a crazy quilt that somehow works. But New York’s visual is an aggregate created over time and dictated by a compressed geography. Astana, by contrast has modern architecture everywhere; some inspired, some genuinely kitsch-- and limitless borders. They do not need to raze anything to erect a new structure. They just build. The city is laid out grandly, like Washington DC, and has generous plazas, plenty of public art, and impressively wide boulevards.

I am also used to a bustling, densely populated city, and Astana is not that either. There are simply not enough people to make it what I am used to. But should what I am used to be the benchmark of a city? Is urban life to be ever defined by density? My Astanite acquaintance Inara was quick to say that she did not like a crowded city. She likes that she can enjoy the uncluttered public spaces of Astana, “free to breath” and be alone in herself. There are beautiful public parks, excellent museums and concert halls, and restaurants with magnificent views. At the same time, she also admitted it is not easy to meet anyone new outside of her job. Her coworker Lyudmilla had her own perspective on this; as a person who was born in Astana before the development of the city, when it was a small town, she loves it in spite of the changes; she has friends and family that she grew up with here. Perhaps that is why I chose to include some interview footage of both these ladies, and to mention their publication WE in this video. WE exists to create Community by introducing the professional people of Astana to each other, giving them a sense of social engagement outside of work. With this kind of energy and commitment, I suspect the young population of Astana will form the character of this glittering city over time, and create a place not just for working, but for enjoying a rich and convivial life.

Note: As expected, I was unable to catch any music on this trip. Instead, I was given some wonderful recordings of Kazakh music, both traditional and contemporary and you can hear some of it in the soundtrack of my video.

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