Astana, the NEW capital of Kazakhstan, brand spanking new! Ten years ago President Nursultan Nazarbayev had the vision to build up this small frontier town into a megapolis of half million people. He probably had “Field of Dream” visions of constructing skyscrapers. Surely the big players in investment would come and fill the palatial buildings. That remains to be seen and the building projects continue in different stages of completion.
I was surprised how huge Astana has become from Akmola, what it was known as 15 years ago. We are staying in the old part of the city where it has the typical Soviet style of architecture. We visited the ball on top of the tower, Baiterek, that faces ALL directions, toward the president’s palace to the east, the airport where Ken’s cousin Jack flies into is to the south (makes sense, closest to Almaty as the crow flies). The better part of Astana is to the north and to the west are the flat plains. What is missing are the mountains and I wonder how Nazarbayev copes with the lack of mountains though one would think that it would make construction much easier if everything is on level ground.
Riding the Spanish train that went east first and then north we had in our coupee a Russian gentleman whose business is with Astana’s drinking water. He said that the water table is quite high in Astana as it was built on a swamp. Rivers dissect the city into Left bank and right bank or Old City, reminded me a little bit of Kyiv and also a tinge of San Antonio, TX. There are no basements in any of the buildings as a consequence. I’m wondering how the architects deal with sinking of land due to abundance of swamp water. At least they don’t have to consider earthquakes which are known to happen in Almaty along the Tian Shan mountains. Too much for me to ponder on as an English teacher. I just hope the buildings being built will be filled but not too full that they start sinking into the saturated land.
We also had as our traveling companion on the fast train to Astana a woman by the name of Zhibek (silk) as in Zhibek Zholy which we all know means Silk Road. She is in her late twenties and her English was very good. She told me stories of her family being from a wealthy tribe on her mother’s side. As is typical in Kazakh families, the oldest son inherited everything. However, when communism clamped down on kulaks, they evenly distributed the wealth to the youngest son and hid the gold and silver. Consequently, the oldest brother was sent off to Siberia while the youngest one who appeared poor, stayed behind. As in many other stories I’ve learned, they buried the silver and gold to find it again for later use.
As it turns out, Zhibek’s grandmother was taken care of by the younger brother in Kazakhstan. She told of how her grandmother’s younger sister when they returned from Siberia to Kazakhstan was put on the shelf in the train. They had no food to feed the baby or themselves. Their thought was, if the baby is still alive by the time they get back to Kazakhstan, okay, she would live. This same little girl when she was 2-3 years old was deathly afraid of sheep, she had never seen them before in Siberia. She would scream and carry on whenever they got close to her. As discipline, the mother tied the little girl to the sheep so that she would not be afraid of the sheep any longer.
For Kazakhs of the past, breeding and raising sheep used to be their livelihood and to have fits about sheep was considered unnatural. What was also very unnatural was to have the collectivization project come through their sheep-herding steppes and have the soil upturned to plant vast fields of grain. Zhibek’s mother remembers seeing her grandfather crying when their sacred family burial plot was plowed under. Their ancestors memories were desecrated with the grain growing above their withered remains. Since Zhibek’s family had been a wealthy one in the past, they had had their own place to bury the dead. However, with collectivization Zhibek’s great grandfather saw that being erased as well as his future dwelling place for his old bones. Thus, the tears.
So, to put together these sad stories from the past with that of what I witnessed of Astana the glittering new capital, was a bit disjointing. Reading Christopher Robbins’ book In Search of Kazakshtan and the chapter titled “Howling of Wolves” concerns Nazarbayev’s sad past, similar to Zhibek’s family. How do the Kazakhs regain what has been lost of their heritage with its tribal values of honor and respect for the old while keeping pace with what is going on in the globalized world swirling around them? I guess they can look to China as an example of achieving much the same thing. No, China is too real a threat as is Russia. Thus, the reason for Nazarbayev wanting the capital to be moved from southern Kazakhstan in Almaty to the north.
I was surprised, as was Robbins, about the Kazakhs not appreciating Solzhenitsen and his contributions to the literary world about how difficult life was in the gulags. I should not be surprised because the Ukrainians react the same way to Solzhenitzen, he was a thorough going Russian nationalist to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups. As it turns out, Kazakhstan had many death camps, especially around Karaganda. Tomorrow I hope to have a student take me to one of the places Robbins mentions in his book, in Ajir, about 50 kilometers from Astana. Ajir was the place where the wives of the “Enemies of the People” were taken, guilty by association and sadly worked to the bone. Why do I want to see such a depressing place? Out of curiosity I suppose but also because not much is known about this by a majority of westerners, to our shame.