Our 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!
If you do decide to give this fascinating country a chance take a look at this post for things to do in Kazakhstan.