I’ve been back for almost a week now from a nearly two week trip to the snowy steppe of Kazakhstan. Starting in the capital city of Astana, I was deployed to Uralsk along with seventeen other short term observers volunteering for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe/Office for Democratic Institutions & Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) election observation mission. Four hundred of us in total blanketed the country with most having to traverse this massive country via plane.
Astana is a architectural Utopian city. That first day a bunch of us walked along the promenade that showcases many of the new buildings built with oil money and meant to house and serve as office space for a huge workforce. The question is, where are these people because very few were seen on this weekday. Most of the buildings are fanciful. They often are bright or unusual colors and frequently lack the cube or routine shapes of other buildings. Several times I saw high rises that I believed to be optical illusions of waves. But, upon closer inspection, the slant of exterior walls or undulating lines were not a trick of the eye but steel and glass artistry.
Uralsk on the other hand is a comfortable but typical Soviet era city, at least architecturally speaking. The photo to the left was taken on our way out of the country, not in Uralsk but a city 200km (125 miles) south of Astana. My troupe of short term observers were scheduled to be the last group to arrive back to the capital. Not only were we intended to arrive over a day later than most of the other teams, but we also were not going to be able to take part in the group debriefing nor partake in the post debrief “surprise” (which was leaked to be a traditional Kazakh musical performance) and hors d’œuvre booze-fest afterwards. But, when our plane was rerouted mid-flight to take us elsewhere, many of us missed out flights out of the country. Though relatively speaking close to Astana, the final leg involved a scramble to the train station and then a colorful four-hour cattle car trip on a train northward, arriving in the misty dawn hours and sent to the King Hotel to wait for further instructions.
It was a nice bookend, this juxtaposition of the sleek (although noticeably superficial as Astana is reportedly the “second coldest capital city” and as such, extremes of -50° C (-58° F) winters and +50° C (122° F) summers have already weathered man made structures upon closer inspection) and the familiar Soviet decayed simplicity.