Astana And Me: Photographing the Freezing Capital


Here I found myself in the coldest capital in the world, drinking Samagon, the grappa of Kazakhstan, and Medevuha, Russian liqueur made from fermented honey and berries, while eating Shahslyk, the delicious local kebab, and Beshparmak, a traditional dish with pasta and kazi meat, a local “edible” horse breed. Not bad.

Just remember: do not whistle inside buildings; it means that you are broke. You are also dooming the place to an eternal low income state.

Whistle outside, in the open; if you’re lucky, you will also get to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, played from retro street-pole loudspeakers outside some mall, while trying to hail a taxi at -30C. Which won’t take long. Just raise your hand, in mere seconds someone will stop and take you to your destination for a fair amount of Tenge.

Kazakhstan has been independent for 25 years, and it’s progressing fast. It was a “closed” country for a total of 100 years, first by the Chars and then the Soviets. I am here for only a few months and already have a great appreciation for Kazakhs.

These people have endured the worst, and they are still calm, proud nomads that know their tribe, their horde and seven generations of their ancestors – at least they are supposed to – most young ones, laugh when you ask them if they do. Kazakhs are at the same time very modern in their ways and I have the impression that a bright future lies ahead for their country.

Astana is a flat city in the middle of the steppe. Some nights you’d think that the steppe wind will uproot the building and nail it down on the earth. Which makes me wonder how on earth these people survived in yurts for thousands of years, wandering around the endless steppes. The movie Kelin, by the Kazakh director Ermek Tursunov, can only give a little taste of that past.

In the present, this is a city of antitheses. Walk around Keruen, the city’s business center on the left bank of the Ishim river, and you will get the impression that you’ve gone back to the future. Jump in a “taxi” and go to Old Town, or to the right bank. Walk into Artyom, the local bazaar, and around it. You’ve just travelled into the past. Just remember to get a bag of Almaty “Aport” apples from Artyom – your whole house will be filled with appleness. These are the most delicious and aromatic apples in the world.

My presence in Astana has been a soul-healing process. You need to be here, in order to understand it. And now that I’ve resonated with the place – I am just waiting for the good weather to arrive. That’s when I will get my camera and start roaming around Kazakhstan – the Land of the Wanderer.