They say that Astana is the Dubai of the steppe, and it’s true that if you replace sand by snow, you get to a comparably incongruous result. But Astana is more than that, and I’ve had micro-moments of mental sensations that I had never experienced before anywhere else in the world than in North Korea.
If you think that Dubai, as a tourist destination, is pretty much all I hate – getting on a plane just to be able to sit on a beach and spend money in shopping malls – then Astana belongs definitely to the same category. Being in the middle of the steppe, it offers an even more seamless experience as its own beach is a fake one on the top of a shopping mall.
What Dubai and Astana also have in common, is the unbearable weather conditions, which makes it almost impossible to walk in the city – too bad for an absolute lover of city walks like me. Too hot in Dubai; too cold in Astana with its unbearably icy steppe winds.
Foot paths are often missing or impassable, making it almost compulsory to drive. And in Astana’s rich neighbourhoods, the snow is constantly being removed, leaving room for a thick layer of extremely slippery ice that is a nightmare for the passers-by.
But nouveaux riches don’t walk anyway, and in both Dubai and Astana they parade in their SUVs, so who cares?
The comparison with Dubai was the first thing that came to my mind in Astana; particularly as I arrived by land after a week of immersion deep in Kazakhstan: in the very first moments it seemed quite off-key to me to see such excessive modernity in the middle of the snow-covered steppe of a still rather traditional nation.
But it’s really in North Korea that I felt once I started to explore all what Kazakhstan’s capital has to offer. So much propaganda, and delivered in such way… that I found myself confused from time to time – to the extent that I several times requested my museum guides’ permission to take photos or ask a question, like if I were in Pyongyang!
- The leader embodies the nation: his personal achievements are the achievements of the nation
Nursultan Nazarbeyev has been the President since independence, and whilst he has some presence across the country, particularly in museums, you don’t realise how much of a dictator he is until you make it to Astana.
Personality cult is everywhere – there is a statue of him at the bottom of the Independence monument, there is a museum dedicated to him – and what is interesting is that the official propaganda does not differentiate between the history of the man and the history of the country: all his achievements are Kazakhstan’s achievements.
Like the Kim dictators; he’s the one setting the course and taking initiatives, and the whole Nation is behind him and supports him in the realisation of his vision.
- There are plenty of paintings of the leader… and even a carpet!
One of the joys of visiting North Korea is the discovery of hundreds of propaganda paintings depicting the great leaders – often being inspired by a landscape even more beautiful than you can see yourself.
To my intense pleasure, there are a lot of these paintings in Astana as well, and they are as kitsch as you can expect; being Central Asia, I even found a mural which was not painted but woven!
- Guides are robots who have learned the propaganda by heart
Have you read my portrait of North Korean guides? In Astana, similarly; they tend to be women who wear a uniform and talk with a robotic monotone. It’s when you ask questions that you realise they don’t always speak English so well – they have just learned their speech by heart.
Typically they stand in front of an artefact, tell you what they need to tell you; and they haven’t finished their sentence but are walking to the next one already without giving you a second to digest the information or think about it.
Sometimes I have asked questions though, and experienced the same embarrassing feeling as in North Korea when guides don’t know the answer – or won’t tell it – and instead of admitting that they just bounced back to some propaganda material they also know.
- Guides tell you all the numbers
Like in North Korea, it’s about facts more than whys. Dimensions are really important in Kazakhstan; and particularly since they’re usually symbolic: for example the Bayterek tower is 97 meters high because Astana was designated capital of the country in 1997.
Beyond the dimensions, the Astana propaganda gets also very high on the number of seats a hall has – it might be a result of the legendary Kazakh hospitality that makes it so important to be able to host as many people as necessary.
- Guides also keep an eye on you
This goes nowhere as far as North Korea, nonetheless I’ve found the officials were keeping a close look on me during my visits.
Many monuments cannot be visited without a guide (such as the Independence Palace, or the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation; and incredibly enough they allocate you a personal guide as you arrive without having to book or wait), so like in North Korea, they choose what they focus on or not.
Something strange also happened in the First President Museum, in the galleries where they exhibit all the wonderful awards and decorations that Nazarbayev has received. One of them was a Liberty award from the people of New York; I took a photo because I didn’t know this award and wanted to do a bit of research about it.
To my great surprise, I was asked to delete this picture though. I first pretended that I didn’t understand, but the lady truly seemed embarrassed, so to be kind to her I did cooperate and show her in my camera how I was deleting the one odd photo, which she found a relief.
- The country is craving international recognition
International recognition is a way to increase internal legitimacy, and North Korea uses this trick very well.
So does Kazakhstan, and I have seen so many photos of Nazarbeyev shaking hands and receiving decorations from all sorts of leaders, and not just the current ones, but also the older ones.
- Solemn fetish aka bite your tongue and don’t burst out laughing!
But Astana has a nice surprise for its visitors, and it is to be found on the top of the Bayterek tower: face eastwards to where the Presidential Palace is, and place your hand in a gilded hand print of the President’s actual hand. Absolutely breathtaking!