Monday, November 12, 2012


 I went out the other day, thinking to undertake what I did not realize would be a perilous journey of, while not quite epic proportions, at least of semi-epic proportions.  It involved a long walk down treacherous avenues and byways, navigating my way by the celestial bodies where human-crafted directional objects failed, and swimming through a sea of chaotic, motorized turmoil where necessary.  I was going grocery shopping.

Astana, as you know, is a growing city.  Proclaimed the capital (literally) of a new nation only 20 years ago, its people have been busy turning it from a modest little city into a world-renowned center of business, architecture, and culture.  Upon my first view of the city proper, my first response looking up was, “for this, only for this, it was worth coming half-way round the world.”  Everything glitters and sparkles and shines.  Beds bloom with bright blossoms amid stone-paved walks and fountains and monuments.  Astana is a celebration in itself. 

And truly, I mean that, even many months into my stay.  Astana is really a remarkable city.  Perhaps most remarkable for that fact that it was decided that it should be.  It glitters with and optimism and a naivet√© that no self-respecting American city could ever muster.  It’s clean and bright and shining new.  So new, in fact, that in some places (like the dormitory in which I lived my first month in Astana) there wasn’t even a sidewalk to get you there.  Or a paved road, for that matter.  This situation wouldn’t be quite so bad but for the fact that the dirt road that does run that way is obviously what those in the business would call a quick fix.  There are ways (they tell me) to make dirt roads quite stable and usable for long periods of time, even under heavy use by large construction-oriented vehicles.

This road is not one of those.  Riding in a vehicle of any nature down this road one feels rather like the great Vikings of yore, crashing through the waves on their fearsome long ships, swinging side-to-side with the rolling of the waves, and always knowing there was the possibility that the ship would complete its swing and come out (or not) on the other side, most likely with all hands lost.  The Vikings at least had the prospect of plunder and copious amounts of alcohol at the end of their journey.  Generally, we who lived in that dormitory had the prospect of work at the end of ours.

It was some weeks before I found my way to the old city.  As I said, Astana used to be a modest city in the middle of the steppe, frozen half the year.  It likely wouldn’t even be a city without the dubious help of the Russians, who once upon a time had grand notions of “civilizing” the people of the steppe, and it certainly reflects that in the industrial feel that radiates from old run-down apartment buildings, from the balconies that seem to hover on the sides of buildings held up through no fault of their own and no known laws of physics, and through the wrought-iron fences that surround every building. 

Over the years people have burrowed ways under, or widened gaps between bars, or found ways to climb over a weakened bit.  My first thought, upon seeing these disused relics of a past age was “why not tear them down?”  An American sentiment, I suppose, since we are of a mindset that any obstacle can, in fact should, be overcome, especially if it means tearing it down.  Many a forest has been cleared, or obstinate hill obliterated, in the name of progress and civilization.  Astana, meanwhile, expands gloriously outwards, while from the center the old city seems to rot away.  I wonder, sometimes, where it will end?  Is there a plan for this new emerald city?  I find myself looking up at the shiny toy-like buildings around me with bated breath, wondering always what will happen next.

It was with great trepidation and also with a giddy feeling of rebellion, that I climbed my first fence, crossed my first open lot, even walked boldly through a construction zone without consideration as to whether I’d better have a hardhat.  Writing home once to a dear friend of mine, I happened to mention this little triviality (or so it now seems to me), and this friend was quite astonished at my boldness.  “My dear friend, I exclaimed, “why, where was I to walk?  I needed to get to the store, and the sidewalk on that side of the road wasn’t to be built till tomorrow!” 

Looking back, it seems odd to me that this friend remarked so upon it; I suspect I am beginning to succumb to what’s known as “going native.”  Indeed I often find myself crowding forward with the press of people at bus stops and cashier lines, as if I had not been brought up in the stoic Northeast with a proper respect for the line and all the safety from chaos it represents.  Ah yes, now we are brought to the line again.  I know I have mentioned it previously, in relation to a somewhat more perilous situation, but you’ll forgive me if I once again make a promise to revisit it in another post, when space and time permit.

Going native, though—that is a topic worth discussing.  It is quite inevitable, to be truthful.  Survival (in the metaphysical sense) depends upon it.  The custom, for example, of servers in restaurants asking for your order almost immediately upon seating you, is quite unheard of here.  As also is the practice of encouraging diners to leave as soon as physically possible by bringing the check very nearly before the meal is served.  When one goes to a restaurant here, it’s almost best to pack a snack, because you are guaranteed not to be served until you’ve had at least your second drink, and for that you often have to shout just to get the server’s attention.  Meals can take hours, here, which can be quite excruciating for stout-hearted Americans used to eating on the go, as it were.  Visitors, take note: it is advisable to go to restaurants in the company of locals, lest you find yourself still sitting there when the next meal time comes round.
Which would be a shame, because then you would miss out on the feelings of wonder which Astana elicits every day.  It’s very much a different feeling than I’ve ever run across before leaving home.  New York, for example, has many remarkable buildings which were certainly so-designed to be remarkable, but there is such a feeling of inevitability that accompanies any sight-seeing trip to New York, as if the city couldn’t help but have become as it was.  Everyone wanted, and still wants, to go to New York.  For 200 years it has been a destination for all types of people, and though many have passed on and left little trace, the ones who stayed, or who made their mark before leaving, did so in grand style.  They remade the landscape, leaving no trace of what once had been.  Manhattan changed rapidly from one kind of wilderness to one of a completely different quality.  Astana is growing rapidly, but instead of an old canvas painted white and remade into a vastly different image, it is as if the painter has begun to fill in some of the blank spots, and changed focus from the center to what surrounds it, painting over with brighter, but no more verdant, colors.

Astana, though a new city by most standards, ever feels older than the old cities of America.  It is in the dust one walks upon every day, the air one breathes.  To the American eye, and spirit, change and newness are not native to this city.  Give us bold, give us new; we’ll even go so far as to remake an old building to exactly its specifications 200 years ago, just to have something new that looks old.  It is inevitable, it is planned, it is America.     

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