Feature: Kazakhs struggle to warm to their chilly new capital

AFP, ASTANA

Tue, Apr 03, 2018 - Page 5

For Dina, a hairless Sphynx living in a newly opened cat cafe in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, this winter was a difficult one to bear.

Temperatures in the steppe city of more than 1 million people reached minus-40°C as Central Asia experienced its coldest winter in a decade, testing heating systems across the region.

During this time Dina took to sitting near the radiators of the Miki Piki cafe, which opened last year and houses cats of more than a dozen different breeds.

“You have to be ever so careful with them,” said cafe owner Aigul Kurmanaliyeva of the hairless Canadian Sphynx breed. “They often need to wear clothes outside. They are very prone to illness.”

Human residents of Astana, the world’s second-coldest capital city behind Mongolia’s Ulan Bator, can empathize.

Astana, the government’s showpiece project on the Ishim River in northern Kazakhstan, took over as the country’s capital 20 years ago, but many of its residents compare Astana unfavorably with the former capital, Almaty, a city of 1.5 million people that lies 1,000km south and where temperatures are notably warmer.

“The beginning of the long-awaited spring is felt!” popular local blogger Rinat Balgabayev joked on Facebook recently. “In Almaty, the apricot trees blossomed. In Astana, citizens put on their festive colored leg warmers!”

Despite a pantheon of lavish, futuristic architecture, many people who were forced to move to Astana for work or family reasons find the city an uncomfortable fit.

Adil Nurmakov, a former Almaty resident who moved for his wife’s job last year, said life in Astana can be a “shock,” especially for foreigners and former residents of the cosmopolitan former capital.

“The way the city is planned means that citizens principally live in isolation, travelling by car from home to work and back again,” he said. “There are few public spaces for people to congregate.”

Such criticism has been levelled against other planned capitals, notably Brasilia, but Astana’s harsh climate during the winter months presents an additional challenge.

“For a large part of the year, public life in the city practically freezes over,” Nurmakov said.

Authorities generally cite Almaty’s location in a seismologically active region as the reason for moving the capital north, as well as the opportunity to break with Soviet history.

However, many observers said the decision was made to strengthen control over a part of the country with strong cultural and political affiliations to Kazakhstan’s former master Russia.

Kazakhstan’s government is sensitive to any criticism of the capital and will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the switch from Almaty on July 6, which is a national holiday called Astana Day.

Astana officially became the capital in December 1997, but the summer holiday was designed to coincide with the birthday of long-ruling 77-year-old Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

At the beginning of the year, Kazakh Ambassador to Britain Erlan Idrissov, wrote a prickly letter to the Financial Times newspaper, denouncing an article that had referred to Astana as a “bizarre” and “hastily built” vanity project.

Kazakhs were “immensely proud of this extraordinary achievement, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev,” he wrote in a letter published by the newspaper.

One long-standing criticism of Astana that has faded over time is that there is nothing interesting to do in the city.

Recent times have seen a subtle shift in the cultural balance of power between the current and former capitals, mainly at the instigation of the state, which has invested heavily in the arts and moved the national ballet troupe up north. Astana has even acquired craft beer bars.

Symbat Karintayev, the co-owner of a bar in the city’s old town called “The Hop,” admitted he “took a risk” opening up.

“Craft beer is a new experience for the residents of Astana, but little by little these kinds of scenes are developing,” Karintayev said.

The owner of Miki Piki said the idea for a cat cafe came from a trip to South Korea.

“We knew there wasn’t anything like that here,” Kurmanaliyeva said.