Out of place in Astana

I was on a flight with Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Every chair had its own tablet to watch movies on. I just started watching my movie when it was interrupted for an announcement. A text and a Turkish flag showed up on my screen, declaring that Turkish Airlines supports the brave people who resisted the coup. It was 5 August 2016, and Turkish president Erdogan had almost been overthrown weeks earlier.

‘’What business are you in?’’ asked a Romanian dealer in medical equipment I met when I arrived to my hotel-lobby. It’s an odd question for a backpacker like me, but I clearly wasn’t in a touristy place. Astana is unique, as I found out when I discovered the city during daylight. The centre consists of huge squares and long promenades. Around it are buildings so futuristic that you’d think this is Star Trek. What made it more unique was that I was almost the only person outside. I knew it was hot, and still this is a city with half a million people. Where were they? I found out they were mostly indoors during the day, like in the huge shopping mall housed in what I can only describe as a huge metal tent.

The people that did want to go outside did this in the evening when it was cooler. This was, however, also the time when mosquitoes showed up. Through couchsurfing I met Layla, a Kazakh lady who had lived in the US and therefore spoke fluent English. During sunset she showed me around the city. Most of it was built after the nineties, since it has only been the capital since 1997. She pointed out some of the oldest buildings, namely the ones built twenty years ago. We later walked to a waterfront where in summer a lot of people hang out. Here, amongst a big crowd, we watched a fountain- and laser-show picturing the birth of Kazakhstan. I liked some of the traditional tunes they used on the background.

In the middle of the city is the iconic tower ‘’Bayterek’’, meaning ‘’big tree’’. I decided to visit it by day. I went to the top floor for the views, but suddenly ended up in a queue. The queue went in a circle towards what looked like a statue with a guard next to it. These appeared to be the golden handprints of Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev. People put their hands on Nazarbayev's handprints and had their companions take pictures of them. When it was my turn some guys tried to get ahead of me, but were told off by the guard. The guard then told me to come forward. I put my hands on the handprints, having no one to take a photo of me though. Then I asked the guard in my limited Russian “хорошо?” (“good?”), and he confirmed I could move on. I felt a bit out of place there, like elsewhere in Astana. But the city did amaze me.