I can’t believe I’m in Kazakhstan!
The largest landlocked nation in the world (and the ninth biggest overall) north of Afghanistan and India is very much in the heart of central Asia. And yet its national football team plays in the European confederation. Whoops of delight emanated from Ireland’s hardy band of travelling fans when the qualifying draw for the 2014 World Cup paired Kazakhstan and Ireland in the same group. For seasoned Irish supporters, this was going to be THE trip of the tournament, not just a change from the fun but familiar western European hotspots, but also a journey into the exotic unknown.
It is just so VAST
Astana has been the capital of Kazakhstan for only 15 years but it is an example to Brasilia and Milton Keynes of how to create a new town from nothing. It is just so VAST. Everywhere is wide open spaces, six lane highways going in straight lines to the horizon and gleaming awe inspiring architecture everywhere you look. It’s an exhausting city to walk because everything is so far apart and distant. And yet you want to walk it in order to slowly take it all in. In another respect, Astana is like Las Vegas in that it is a city build practically in the middle of the desert and is able to expand almost infinitely. Make no mistake, it is the buildings and architecture that catapults Astana into the 22nd, never mind 21st century. Pretty much all remnants of the Soviet era are gone, to be replaced by an Architectural Digest wet dream. Superstar architects like Norman Foster and Kisho Kurokawa were drafted in to design buildings of bold imagination and innovation. Chiefly along the Green Water Boulevard that runs south of the Ishim River. This is virtually a one-stop tourist attraction, with several of the city’s main sights all in a straight line. Each separated miles apart by grandiose gardens and squares.
Green Water Boulevard
At the beginning of Green Water Boulevard is Khan Shatyr. Resembling a giant transparent tent, this shopping mall has a curious Tardis effect in that the inside is a lot bigger than it looks outside. It is here that the kids of Astana hang amongst the three storeys of shops, the food court – the default eating place of the Irish supporters – and a multiplex cinema. A monorail runs along the top, where there is also a beach club, complete with sands, pools and water slides. The Khan Shatyr is probably the second most famous landmark of Astana. Further along the Green Water Boulevard is number one; the Baiterek Tower. Very much the symbol of Astana and looking like a giant lollipop emerging from water, it stands at 97m tall (’97 being the year Astana became the capital). The golden sphere at the top is reached by a lift and from there, the level and ambition of Astana’s construction becomes startlingly apparent. Weapons-grade hallucinogenic drugs surely must have played a part in the conception of a city of such mental oversized scale and aspiration. Everywhere you look; there are spectacular buildings and construction works going on. Truly a breath-taking sight.
The 250 or so Irish made it out to Astana had a fine time of it and no mistake. The local Irish bar, The Sligo, were charging high prices for beer and was mostly avoided. Some went to The Chelsea Bar, but many more did not because… well, it was called The Chelsea Bar. The Guns & Roses by the Ishim River became the del-facto meeting point for the travelling Ireland supporters; drinks prices were reasonable, the food was edible, and there was a live band playing rock covers every night (but not Sweet Child O Mine curiously enough). Normally on away matches we get on great with the local people but here it took a while to build up a rapport. Kazakhs seemed a bit cold and standoffish initially, suspicious as they were of these boisterous green-clad aliens. But they eventually warmed to us – who doesn’t? – and towards the end, the craic positively flowed. Part of the reason for the initial scepticism was the language barrier. Astana locals spoke little English, which marred attempts to strike up conversations. Though I accept it’s a very arrogant American/British attitude to expect the whole world to speak English for your benefit.
I was staying at the Orion Hotel, which seemed to be in the middle of run down housing estate miles from anything. Upon my arrival at 4am on Thursday morning, I found my room had only one electrical socket, so if I wanted to plug anything in, I had to unplug the TV. What’s more, there was no hot water in the shower. But to the hotel’s credit, when I arrived back after being out all day, the hot water was working and they had put in a socket extension set for me. Not only that, they also deducted the cost of one night off my bill. Very decent of them.
The match on Friday evening was at the Astana Arena, a fine ground resembling a mini Wembley where Kazakhstan against Ireland kicked off at 22:00. Criticism of Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni has been mounting in the wake of Ireland’s woeful results at Euro 2012 and a strong performance was needed to assuage critics. Boy did that so not happen; Kairat Nurdauletov headed in from a corner before half time to give Kazakhstan a deserved lead. Ireland huffed and puffed but there was no invention to make something happen. Confidence has clearly drained from the Irish team and a shock defeat was imminent until Ireland were awarded an 89th minute penalty which Robbie Keane put away. And in injury time, substitute Kevin Doyle stabbed in a winner to earn an undeserved 2-1 victory. Utter disbelief reigned in the away section; we could not believe Ireland had gotten 3 points from such a poor performance. Indeed, once the immediate delight subsided, we were actually sorry for the Kazakhs, whose team honestly deserved better than this late mugging.
Celebrations (more in relief than joy) went on at the Guns & Roses bar late into the early morning. It’s distinctly possible I drank more that I possibly should have, because I left at about 02:30 and could not find a taxi. So I jogged back to my hotel instead. Very stupid because A) the hotel was 2-3km away, and B) a walk along the same route during daylight revealed it to be full of potholes and craters, I could have so easily done my ankle in on one of those.
With a free Saturday, further exploration of Astana was in order. Like the Khan Shatyr, The Palace of Peace and Accord is also the work of Norman Foster. Known locally as the Big Pyramid, it is 62m high and was built to promote peace and understanding between the different ethnic groups and religions of the world. A summit of all world religions is held in the main conference hall here every 3 years. Light shines in from the glass top all the way down to the matte black ground level, beneath which is a large concert hall and theatre. This makes Palace of Peace and Accord the ideal venue for the Miss World Contest I thought. A suggestion that went down like a lead balloon with the po-faced tour guide. On the other side of the road – well, the other side of the 12 lane highway you risk life and limb crossing – is the Kazakh Eli (Land of Kazakhs) column. It is 91m tall (’91 being the year of Kazakhstan’s independence), made of white marble and surrounded by ostentatious fountains. At the column base is a sculpture of President Nazarbayev. Though democratically elected (dubiously with 91% of the vote), there seems to be a vaguely sinister cult around Kazakhstan’s first and only president. There’s a museum devoted to him, his name is everywhere and there was even talk of changing the name of Astana to Nazarbayev. So it comes as a mild shock that it is not his statute on top of the column, but that of Samryk, the mythical golden bird as seem on the Kazakh flag.
On our last night, we went for some proper local food. Epoch is a Soviet-themed restaurant, with the walls and tables covered in communist-era memorabilia (which the restaurant staff very sportingly allowed us to take down and pose for photos with). There are themed private booths, one of which as a prison cell, however it was already occupied otherwise we’d have snapped it up. At the back was a loud karaoke and dance floor area with a resident couple of singers. Luckily for everyone else all the songs were in Russian otherwise there would have been no stopping me. As for the food, I went for the pickled vegetables and chicken hot pot. How much of a local speciality it was, I’m not sure, but it was indeed mighty fine. The previous night, we got chatting to Arman, an Astana local at a bar and hit it off with him so much we gave him an Ireland scarf and shirt. He was so happy with this that towards the end of this evening, he found out from the hotel where we were and turned up at Epoch with his wife (married for only 10 days!) to gift us some Kazakh souvenirs. It was a generous and unexpected surprise. Arman positively lit up when I gave him my old Ireland rain jacket in return, so much so that he spontaneously offered to take us on a late night tour of Astana. And so on our last evening in Kazakhstan, we got to see all the main attractions of Astana again and if anything, they looked even more enchanting lit up in the night. A fine end to a great trip.
So there you have it. This trip to the unknown was a revelation. Astana aspires to be the hub of central Asia and it may well happen. There were other tourists here, predominantly from Russia and the other former Soviet republics, but will others from the west follow? Make no mistake it takes a sod of a long journey to get here (seven hours by plane, via Minsk) but those of us who made it to Astana will testify that it was absolutely worth it.