Just a little more about Astana, which is currently celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Kazakhstan's capital moving there from Almaty. Astana is basically the city being built from the ground up - the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and growing at a jaw-dropping pace. At least, the buildings are appearing quickly -- so far, the people have not been so quick to follow. As a result, many of the unbelievably huge apartment buildings in the city (at least those on the far side of the Ishim river) stand virtually empty. I could liken it to being in Disney World after hours - all these fantastical buildings and interesting stuff to see...but with a weird, ghost-town kind of feeling to it.
Astana is also distinguished by some of the craziest architectural designs you'll likely see in Central Asia (possibly in the world). This monument here is called the Baiturek, symbolizing the "tree of life" that occasionally appears in Kazakh folklore. People can ride an elevator up to the golden globe at top of the tower. Inside you can see a miniature model of Astana (including future building projects) and a raised platform area where a large bronze rendering of Nazarbayev's handprint stands on a podium. You're supposed to put your hand in it and make a wish -- I'm not kidding about this! If you're getting a slight whiff of personality cult at this point, keep reading- it gets WAY better.
This is the gorgeous National Mosque, near the Baiturek and funded largely with Saudi Arabian money. There's a madrassa (Islamic school) attached to it, the only one I've ever seen although I know there are lots more in various places in Kazakhstan.
The last place I want to highlight has no pictures attached, because I wasn't allowed to take any! The former residence of President Nazarbayev has been turned into a sort of presidential museum where you can learn all about his early life, rise through the ranks of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, and notable accomplishments since his becoming president in 1991 (of course there a quite a few, according to the museum). Various rooms were devoted to his medals and honors from many different nations (for what? dunno.), honorary degress from various universities, and TONS of gifts from diplomatic visits as well as quite a few "from the people of Kazakhstan." But by far my favorite part was hearing about Nazarbayev's musical contributions: not only did he (supposedly) provide edited lyrics to the country's new national anthem (changed in 2005), but he also (supposedly) wrote lyrics for a popular song recently recorded by the Kazakh boy-band Muz-Art, "Ush Konir (Three Winds)." An entire display case was devoted to the anthem; meanwhile the music video for "Ush Konir" was played over and over on a beautiful, flat-screen HDTV hung on one of the museum's walls.
Ok, so getting back to the personality cult thing -- well, probably the less said the better (I don't really know who reads this blog) but I think that this last example speaks pretty loudly for itself.
Another Turkmenbashi in the making, perhaps? Hmm.