I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan before getting here. For most people, the ‘stans just kind of blend together in some vague blur (umm…over by Russia…somewhere?), if they even register at all. Kazakhstan did get some publicity – unwelcome by many – as the home of the Borat.

But it’s pretty much considered a backwater…even the Soviets thought so, using it as a home for a sprawling labor camp network and then a nuclear test site. Despite the less-than-charming recent history, when Kazakhstan was offered as a three-week gig, I took it. Central Asia, why not? (Slide show below)

Arriving in Astana at 4:00 a.m. on the red-eye from Istanbul, I wasn’t really in the mood to face the scrum of people jostling for places at passport control or the severe-looking matrons from customs barking at me in Russian. “Anglisky?” was my feeble rejoinder, always met with a stern “nyet!”

Slightly traumatized, but really too tired to care, I waved off a couple of shady guys asking if I needed a taxi and grabbed an official-looking one which took me on a smooth-as-silk ride into town. Unremarkable? Perhaps. But the June trip from airport to town in Mongolia, just to the east, involved lots of pothole dodging on dimly lit roads. I expected a similar experience here.

Go Astana!

Go Astana!

But no, not in President (18 years and counting) Nursultan Nazarbayev’s showcase capital, plopped down in the middle of the steppe, like some gaudy oasis. The roads were lit to near daylight levels, billboards along the road screamed about the wonders of Astana (the self-promotion was immediately suspect), and passing through the new part of town, the “Left Bank” (roll eyes here), was like getting a guided tour of bad 80s American architecture.

Astana, whose name — its third since 1961 — simply means “capital,” was a provincial town of limited importance up in northern Kazakhstan, the more undeveloped part of the country. But Nazarbayev decided back in the 1990s that he wanted to move the capital from Almaty, down south, up to the wind-swept plain.

Why on God’s green earth? Well, the government said it was because Almaty was seismically unstable, was too close to China (those marauding Reds could overtake the capital in two shakes) and Mr. N. wanted better transport connections with Russia, Kazakhstan’s past political and current cultural overlord. And What Mr. N. wants, Mr. N. gets.

So, in 1997, the capital up and moved, and Astana began its transformation. Maybe it’s comparable to Berlin, which underwent its own metamorphosis when the capital was moved back there after all those post-war decades. But at least the Germans had historical reasons for doing so, and a little more taste.

All that glitters...The telecommunications ministry looks like gold lighter, a 36-floor one. The finance ministry resembles a dollar sign, the national music academy a grand piano. Walking down toward this architectural conglomeration of (expensive) kitsch one day, I happened upon a building that’s a dead ringer for the Jupiter 2 from “Lost in Space.” It was the new circus, which features a fountain that would have been right at home on Mr. Jackson’s ranch.

Many of these confections in glass and steel are found on Nurzhol bulvar, an east-west axis that is meant to be Astana’s showcase mile. At one end is the sweeping edifice of KazMunayGas, the company exploiting the country’s rich oil, gas and mineral reserves and which has, to be fair, pulled it away from the economic abyss the rest of the ‘stans are teetering on.

Through its grand arch, one sees the new pleasure palace being built called Khan Shatyr, shaped like a oversized tent, or maybe Kazakh yurt, under whose canopy Astanites will be able to enjoy summer temps even while its -30 out. Down the grand axis past raised flower beds, fountains and walkways already kind of falling apart, one marvels at huge towers rising and whose style might be described as Islamo-Western-Soviet-Logan’s Run-Gothic.

A strong hand

A strong hand

At the other end is the gargantuan Presidential Palace, and behind it, a large glass pyramid, sporting the understated name of the Palace of Peace and Harmony.  Oh, lest I forget, in the middle rises the Bayterek, the symbol of Astana emblazoned upon just about everything in this city. It looks like an oversized lattice vase with a gold ball up top and reflects an old Kazakh legend about a bird that laid a magic egg high in a poplar tree. The egg contained all the secrets of happiness, but which were beyond human reach.

Not anymore. Under Mr. N., visitors can pay $2.50 and ride up to the egg, reflect on, I don’t know, the symbolism, and lay their palm in a golden handprint the president has left as you look out onto his residence. I thought it was creepy; many Kazakhs love it. It’s a must-have photo for newlyweds.

What is interesting is seeing how Astana ends as suddenly as it appears — beyond the gaudy glitz lies empty steppe as far as you can see.

All in all, Astana is an odd place. Several of the Kazakhs I’ve worked with this trip agree, saying because of its artificiality, it’s rather sterile and doesn’t have much character. They say the people can be brusque and have little sense of community because most of them are transplants, having come from other places for work. Of course, bad taste aside, my lack of initial warmth for the place itself was  compensated a great deal by the warmth of many of the people I met at the radio station.

KZ girl group belts one out about Astana

KZ girl group belts one out about Astana

My main problem with it is the feeling in the air of authoritarianism, which is definitely Nazarbayev’s style. (Journalists at this radio station are forced to put some kind of positive story about the president first in their newscasts. A similar good news story about the government has to come second. Only then are they free to write what they want, or what is actually news.

The president’s grand axis reminded me not of Paris’ own Axe historique, but the axis one sees in the mock-ups of the Nazi visions for post-war Berlin, the planned world capital of Germania. Not that Nazarbayev has much in common with Hitler, but there is a certain megalomania going on here, a sweeping sense of self-aggrandizement and the brooking of no dissent set in steel.

In fact, I just learned today that parliament (such as it is) voted in 2008 to rename Astana “Nursultan,” Nazarbayev’s first name. The prez humbly said that now was not the time, but did not reject the idea that some future generation might rechristen the city yet again.