National Geographic : 2012 Feb
• has pyramids," Zhunusov said. "Everyone was scared, because you have to be a great architect to build another pyramid." e job of building the Palace of Peace and Harmony ultimately went to Norman Foster, the British architect who is also responsible for the Khan Shatyr, or the "king's tent," a regal, translucent structure vaguely evocative of a yurt. Signature buildings aside, Nazarbayev re- mains deeply enmeshed in the minutiae of city planning, down to the choice of owers---tulips, delphiniums, irises---laid out in vivid patterns derived from Kazakh folklore. "He always has some comments," said Zhunusov. "He worries about something, then he changes his mind in a week because he thinks about it all the time." And he continues to think big. With the core of the capital near completion, Nazarbayev has or- dered his architects to explore the possibility of building another huge tent that would shelter a climate-controlled "indoor city" of 15,000 people. Perhaps the best place to appreciate the scope of Nazarbayev's ambition---and ego---is the ob- servation chamber atop the Baiterek. Amid the 360-degree views and a bar serving cold Turk- ish beer is a malachite pedestal capped by a 4.4-pound slab of solid gold, in the center of which is an imprint of the president's right hand. Visitors make a wish as they place a palm in the impression, which on special occasions triggers the playing of the national anthem, its lyrics said to have been written by the president. e city does have its whimsical side. Mesh sculptures covered with vines---swans, horses, gira es---seem closer in spirit to Disneyland than to Pyongyang. On a balmy evening in June, children blow soap bubbles in the plaza next to the Dancing Fountain, which is illuminated by colored lights as Russian hip-hop pulses from large outdoor speakers. Skateboarders in low- slung jeans perform tricks as police look on in- di erently. An outdoor café serves French wine at $17 (U.S.) a glass. e capital's boomtown ethos may nd its fullest expression in its shopping malls, of which the Khan Shatyr---the Foster-designed tent---is the most distinctive. Its top level is taken up by an indoor beach out tted with a wave pool and sand imported from the Maldives. One night the mall hosted a bikini party, charging $20 for admission. Men and women in skimpy bathing suits downed vodka and Red Bull as a deejay urged, in English, "Everybody get crazy! Ziss iz bikini party!" More than a dictator's vanity project or a town where rich people party, Astana is a magnet for strivers like Yernar Zharkeshov. And like Dar- khan Dossanov, an irrepressible 25-year-old with a lopsided smile who approached me on the street one evening to practice his English. ("I'm really glad to meet you. My English was almost disappeared from my head.") I ended up buying him dinner, which he de- voured so quickly that I wondered how much he had been eating lately. Only six days earlier, he had arrived in the capital with little more than a cell phone and a portable Sony PlayStation, having sold his digital camera to buy a train ticket from his home 500 miles to the east. He had landed a job as a busboy in a fancy Italian restaurant, where he slept on pushed-together chairs before he found lodging in a cramped three-bedroom apartment that he shared with ten others. When I saw Dossanov again a week or so later, he told me that he had lost his restaurant job because his poor eyesight had prevented him from noticing when tables needed to be cleared. e restaurant was refusing to pay him for eight days of work; he planned to sell his PlayStation to pay for food. Still, he had a line on another restaurant job and remained confident that he had made the right choice in coming to Astana. "I know that in the future I will be very With the core of the capital near completion, Nazarbayev has ordered his architects to explore the possibility of building a huge tent to shelter a climate-controlled "indoor city" of , people.