Corruption Overshadows Astana

astanaOur final destination in Kazakhstan, Astana, shook us deeply.

Where to begin? Kazakhstan was not the first and won’t be the last country to move its capital to a less developed and scarcely populated area. While walking amongst the city’s massive buildings, Brasilia came to mind. Supposedly Brazil’s government built the new capital to develop the central area. However, just like in Astana it seems that demonstrating power was at play too.

What can’t be denied is the huge environmental cost of such a move. The world is entering a phase of very limited resources and using vast amounts of concrete, glass, steel and wood to build this new mega city ‘just because’ may not be the smartest move. Plus, are all the buildings occupied? What about heating, cooling and upkeep costs?

The city wasn’t built from scratch though. Old Astana to the north of Ishim River is dominated by modest free standing residential buildings, streets lined with trees and a couple of boulevards, typical of cities built during communist times. The modern capital on the contrary embraces monumentalism and showing off at every corner. Sprawled on mega boulevards, most buildings adopt unusual design, with flashy materials, shapes and colors. The main axis starts at the Presidential Palace, passes under the Bayterek Tower and goes all the way to Khan Shatyr Shopping Centre. It is entirely pedestrian, dotted with benches, interesting sculptures and fountains (quite opposite of Brasilia where it’s very hard to walk).

Just like its architecture, people in Astana are showing off too: new haircuts, fancy outfits, huge cars and luxurious jewelry. The relaxed vibe of Almaty is nowhere to be found. Could this tension be part of the bureaucratic machine? Bureaucracy is giving all of us headaches across the world, but here it seems to be in a whole different level. And here is where our troubles begun.

All foreigners are obliged to register before the local police within 5 days of entering the country. Authorized agencies and hotels normally do this. Our hotel in Astana offered to register us and we agreed. But on our 7th day in Kazakhstan they informed us that our registry didn’t go through and that we had to go to the immigration police to explain ourselves. To our surprise, officers at the police station seemed annoyed and ordered us to go to an official translator a couple of blocks away. When we got there, we were told that we had to appear before a judge and explain why we hadn’t complied with the law. The judge will decide what to do with us: jail or a fine of at the most 260eur each! We got really scared and departed. The whole situation seemed like a scam, and we didn’t know who was involved. Information online was pretty confusing, with a major Central Asian website claiming we didn’t even have to register at all.

We rushed back to our hotel and took a double approach. I went directly to the hotel’s management and demanded they take action; this frog has some leverage now! In the meantime E called his embassy, in Moscow! Thanks to them and the lovely management of our hotel the problem was solved, albeit very confusingly. Our passports were taken away, and after several hours, we were driven to the police, met the same officers that were so harsh to us and signed papers we didn’t understand. The mess took us the whole day to solve, so we missed our trip to Borovoe Lake.

A similar incident occurred to us when we were going to Sharyn Canyon. Just before coming back to Almaty the driver suddenly realized the price we agreed for the ride was only one way and tried to overcharge us. Then we got stopped by the police, and a bribe had to be paid. After leaving Astana we couldn’t help but think everything is all part of organized game. Never before have we been cheated like this twice in the same country. While at the police station, we couldn’t help but wonder, if we were treated like this, what about poor locals?

This was the first time we were happy to leave a country, everywhere we go we are left wanting more. As absurd as a fine is, wouldn’t it be easier to just charge us at the airport? What’s the point of being harassed by the police? We came to Kazakhstan to explore its beauties and promote it around the world, and ended up with a bad taste in our mouths. That said, Astana is a very unique city, worth exploring. As an architect I find its buildings ridiculous and bizarre, but in my travels I strive for strong impressions. And Astana and Kazakhstan certainly did comply!

Soon a text on the city’s weird architecture.

Almaty Day Trips: Sharyn National Park
Almaty - City of Fountains, Trees and Parks

14 Responses

  1. Darinka
    | Reply

    I will repeat…Sorry to hear what you think about Kazakhstan, but that is your point of view and your opinion. My experience about Kazakhstan is completely different than yours. Kazaks are welcoming people, open to strangers and visitors, they want to help, to show, to explain, to talk, whatever you ask them. There, in Astana, I did not have a single problem with locals, with city authorities or imigration police. Not a single problem !!! To those who follow your blog, your lines can make totally wrong picture of this beautiful country and its positive and friendly people.
    Talking about modern Astana architecture my opinion is also totally different than yours. We are both Architects, but I think we both are not on the professional level that we can judge and assess about Kisho Kurokawa and his Astana Master Plan, or Norman Foster`s unique and magnificent designs for the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and Bayterek, especially not in the way how you qualify Astana modern architecture in general, as a „bizarre“ architecture. What about architecture of each new faceless glass metropolis in the world like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Shanghai, even New York, or the new city parts of Paris, London, Barcelona ? Unlike them, Astana has her face and identity, which are not „bizarre“, for shure.
    How they spend the money ? Building their country and capitol city ? That’s their business. Kazakhstan is rich country, also country of the future….so, they are building their future, with their money 😉
    Forgot to say. Your Astana photos are lovely.
    Wish you a better luck and more positive energy 🙂 by your side on your next trip.

    • happyfrogtravels
      | Reply

      Dear Darinka, Thank you so much for your honest comment. I really appreciate it! We both agree that Kazakhs are very lovely and friendly people, and as I said, Astana is really unique and worth visiting. Unfortunately, a bad thing happened to me and I want my readers to be aware of this.

      Regarding architecture, I think that environmentally speaking building a city from scratch is a major problem, and since nature knows no borders, I believe we should all take care of our resources. I agree with you that many modern buildings around the world are faceless, and I do think searching for a local expression is a major plus. But I believe Astana came a bit short on this. A great example comes to mind: Georgia. Hope you remember my text on Georgian architecture (http://happyfrogtravels.com/architecture-georgia-centuries/). All architects are subject to evaluation, we build for people and everyone should have a say on what is nice or not. Yes, Foster’s buildings are beautiful, but the White House Inspired presidential palace didn’t seem serious to me. I find Kurokawa’s plan to be much better than that of Brasilia, since as a pedestrian I loved walking about Astana. Thanks again for your opinion, I really enjoy debating with a colleague!

  2. Жамбыл Жабаев
    | Reply

    As a pedestrian, I have never encountered more pedestrian-unfriendly city in my humble travels. Astana is a city planned and built for Landcruisers and for parcour lovers, having soo much fences dividing public spaces and making pedestrian strolls stricktly sidewalk-wise.
    People and authorities are corrupt, learned from Russians I dig. But popullation in general is very open and welcoming, surely a whole lot more than our countrysmen in Belgrade. And, except for national tradition of spitting everywhere, the Kazakhs are far more well mannered, or at least better fostered (in sense of home upbringing) than most of our today’s youth in Serbia.
    Happyfrog is also right about one major paradox – building a resource-devouring city from a scratch, and holding a World Expo on FUTURE ENERGY in it…. Haha…
    So, being a third architect in this discussion, and having lived through almost 4 years in different regions of Kazakhstan, I must say that you are both right to a high degree, but unfortunately world is going downwards on all levels, and Kazakhstan is no exclusion.

    • happyfrogtravels
      | Reply

      Dear Sava, Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t argue if it’s pedestrian friendly or not, spent there a couple of days so my perspective is very limited. I do find that the central area mentioned in the text is quite walkable. Talking about the unfriendly cities you should definitely visit Brasilia, pedestrians there are completely neglected. I agree with you about the Kazakhs: they are very well manered and fun to be with. There was an interesting talk we had with our taxi driver; I asked him how did he feel about the EXPO and he said he wasn’t particularly happy, saying too much money went there instead than on more important projects for the locals. Let’s see if it brings tourism and let’s hope resources will be spent more wisely here and all around the planet.

  3. Steven Hermans
    | Reply

    Hi Happyfrog,

    If you would have read the article on my website to which you refer, it says in the second paragraph:

    Two stamps on the card indicate that the traveler is registered. If the card contains only one stamp, the traveler must register with the Migration Police (OVIR) within 5 days.

    Sorry you had an unpleasant experience in Kazakhstan, you are not the first nor the last. I have known many people who have gone to jail for weeks as a tourist in Kazakhstan for not understanding the rules.

    This is the major problem with tourism in this region, that people who are used to traveling to Europe or Thailand now also start traveling here, with the same mindset. They don’t understand that their privileges are worthless here.

    • happyfrogtravels
      | Reply

      Thanks for you comment Steven, but I think you are missing the point here. I don’t have a typical mindset, I am quite aware of a priviledge of living in Europe and I do understand that different countries have different rules. However, in our case something was wrong. We were told by our hotel that we can register there and eventually (after our 5 day period expired!!!) they backed up saying something was wrong. So we did everything we were told to do and it didn’t work out. Plus I don’t want to mention the conversation I had with a police officer and the translator… It’s all organized to scam the foreigners.

      • steven
        | Reply

        Hi Milos,

        sorry I got angry there for a moment. I did not read your whole text. As I now understood, you did not have to pay anything or go to jail.

        Great! It was simply a scam or a confused officer, and I was right after all. But I will make a nuance to the site, saying you might still need to register, and that scams are prevalent.

        Once again, sorry to hear about your misfortune, I see you are from Serbia, so indeed, you know about corruption and lack of travel opportunities, sorry for that too. And apologies for getting angry.

        Enjoy your future travels, and watch out in Central Asia! It’s the same everywhere!

        • steven
          | Reply

          Can you also tell us what hotel you stayed at?

        • happyfrogtravels
          | Reply

          No worries Steven. I am just happy things worked out well. The funny thing is that my Embassy in Astana did nothing to help. It was the Argentinean one in Moscow that did all the job! We stayed at the Diplomat Hotel near the Bayterek Tower.

  4. cristiano
    | Reply

    It’s pretty clear that you didn’t sudied enough before departing: central asia has its own rules and you should prepare yourself before visiting.

    It’s not Europe and it’s not South Eastern Asia.

    Steven’s website is of great help to travellers, it is well written and infos are always clear.
    Anyway, in that area things can change every day, and some scams still exists.

    If you travel with the right mindset, I’m sure you can avoid all the problems and enjoy the people and the places.

    • happyfrogtravels
      | Reply

      Hi Cristiano, Please read the reply I wrote to Steven’s comment. We did everything by the rules and still there was a problem. We went through hell and on the top of it all here you are judging us. That’s not a nice thing to do!

      • cristiano
        | Reply

        No, Milos, sorry but I don’t agree:
        you knew when you entered in Kazakhstan, and, if you read Steven’s website, you knew you needed the double stamp on the immigration card.
        Did you asked at the border guard if you needed registration yes or not?
        If yes, what did he replied?
        Did you had this double stamp yes or not?
        If yes, you didn’t had to bother about registration, so you acted wrong asking to your hotel.
        If not, you should have thinked about that in the first five days in Kazakhstan, checking with the OVIR, so you acted wrong waiting 7 days and trusting to your hotel.

        I’m not judging you, but from what you write, it looks like you didn’t knew the rules and didn’t thinked about them, which is an error. And then, probably, you got a bit too much scared and acted as perfect target to scammers.

        Scams can happen, and they can happen in hotels, at borders, at police stations or anywhere, but if you are well prepared, you can avoid them.

        • happyfrogtravels
          | Reply

          I did not wait untill the 7th day. They told us that the registration is OK and that we shouldn’t worry about that. And suddenly on the 7th day it wasn’t. It was a nigtmare for us, the police and the translator threatning jail etc. And now you defending them. There is no doubt it was a scam…
          So basically you are calling me stupid for trusting the hotel management? I read on different sources that hotels do registrations for tourists. Cristiano, no offence, but I don’t want to get into any further discussion with somebody who lacks a complete respect.

          • cristiano
            |

            Am I defendig who?
            Am I calling you stupid?
            No, if you can’t understand what I’m writing, it’s your problem, not mine. I think I was clear, and for sure Steven’s website is.

            Writing on forums that people “share unconfirmed information” is no respect.
            Me, trying to make you understand how things works, is not unrespect.

            Sorry for me being so direct, but we had enough of unprepared tourists in central asia complaining for things happening because of their faults.
            Cheers, cristiano

Leave a Reply