Stranded in Kazakhstan

There is a single interesting thing to do in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. In front of the parliament building stands the Astana Tower. If you go inside it and pay a few pennies to a frumpy woman in a recycled Soviet uniform, she lets you take the elevator up to the viewing gallery.

You can see miles from up there. A boulevard stretches out beneath you, lined with weird cubist buildings in wonky symmetry. At one end is the parliament building, flanked by two imposing copper spaceships - the twin buildings of the Ministry of Justice.

At the other end, you can see a shopping mall designed by Norman Foster, in the shape of a giant yurt, built around a single off-balance tent pole 150 meters high.

Beyond that, the town abruptly ends. There is a smudge of marshland, then steppe: a flat, featureless plain, surrounding the city for two hundred miles in every direction. But the steppe is interesting, compared to Astana. Astana is as dull as borscht.

I never intended to spend 10 days alone in the Kazakh capital. I had been travelling with a friend, a DJ from England. We had started in Turkey and made it as far as southern Kazakhstan together. He had been here before, and he knew half the DJs in Central Asia.

But he never made it to Astana. Before we got that far, he was offered a gig on the fringes of the Eurovision Song Contest. He flew back to Azerbaijan and got the celebrity treatment for a week. I made the 700 mile train journey to Astana alone, and waited ten days for my flight back to Istanbul.

As capital cities go, Astana is strikingly mundane. Half the place consists of low, drab buildings thrown up in the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev was trying to turn Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union's bread basket. A nearby gulag housed “enemies of the people”.

But after the Soviet Union collapsed, Astana became capital of the new Republic of Kazakhstan. To mark it out as the center of national life, the government commissioned a new, ultra-modern city alongside the old one.

New Astana is a post-modern architect's wet dream, and it's hard not to admit that some of the buildings are impressive. But to me the place felt soulless and artificial. It's like a mini Dubai, 2,000 miles from the sea.

Astana had one redeeming feature: almost nobody there spoke a word of English. When I'm travelling, the global reach of my mother tongue irritates the hell out of me. It's no good trying to practise my 30 words of Russian when the person I'm talking to has a degree in English literature.

This was not, however, a problem I faced in Astana.

Hardly anybody in town spoke a word of anything apart from Russian and Kazakh. I was completely off the backpacker trail, and for a day or two, that made me feel incredibly smug.

But I soon worked out why so few people in Astana speak English. Nobody from outside the former USSR visits the place. There's nothing to see. Unless you're interested in used cars and whacky buildings, or you have a job in the oil business, there's almost nothing to do.

After a couple of days wandering around town, I was lonely and bored. My only contact, a friend of my erstwhile travel buddy, had left town on urgent business. I was the only backpacker in town. I didn't even have a phrasebook - we had one between us, but Mr Globe-Trotting Celebrity DJ had taken it with him to Baku.

So I hung out for hours in restaurants, eating greasy rice and re-reading George Orwell. I walked for miles, and admired the wild cannabis plants in the parks. I narrowly escaped death between the fangs of a pair of stray dogs.

On the evening of my flight, I had an attempt at conversation with the barmaid at a seedy little dive near the train station. We gave up on my Russian, but she was nice enough. She served me a beer and a bowl of slimy meat dumplings.

As I ate, I watched two of the other punters get into a heated argument in loud, coarse Russian. The argument degenerated into a fistfight, then the police came. I paid my bill and shouldered my bag. I was feeling suddenly liberated. It was time to get out of Astana.

P Raymond

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