Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Astana, Out of the Blue

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageWhen I first came to Kazakhstan in the spring of 1994, the newly independent country was in a pretty sorry state. Travelling from Nanjing in China, by train, I’d had to shift from a comfortable Chinese train, with bizarre but usually palatable food to a Russian (i.e. ex-Soviet) alternative, on the opposite side of the platform at the border. The delay involved took hours, and I had been warned by the Chinese that the Kazakh “customs” were extortionate, thieves — so I hid everything if any value deep in my luggage and instead left a BBC-branded pen lying on the table. The ruse worked. The Kazakh officials entered my single compartment and with glee seized on the BBC pen, grinning broadly, their mouths all white and gold, and they then made sure I got another single cabin on the post-Soviet replacement train (which had a wider gauge), to the fury of a down-graded British couple nearby who had not been quite so savvy. Of course, speaking fluent Chinese (then) and rusty Russian (learnt at school) helped. As the train then shuddered across Kazakhstan westwards to Uzbekistan (with a long layover in Almaty, for refuelling) I got the opportunity to experience not only warm, generous Kazakh hospitality but also the reality of their economic desperation. Babushkas, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh, lined the railway track, insistingly trying to sell sweet Soviet “champagne” at $1 a bottle or anything else they had to hand. It was exhilarating, but also tragic. I have been back since, but returning now, 21 years later, to Kazakhstan, the difference is stunning. It’s not just that the per capita GDP has shy-rocketed over the intervening period; Kazakhstan with its oil and gas and mineral riches not unrealistically is aiming to become one if the workd’s top 30 developed nation by 2050 — an extraordinary ambition for a nation of just 17 million people, yet living in a territory bigger than Western Europe. This is a member of the nest generation of BRICS — which is why so many Western countries are investing heavily here. Astutely, the Kazakhs have lifted visa requirements for nationals of potential FDI countries such as the UK. The capital, Astana, developed out of almost nothing since 1997, is thrusting with globally significant buildings by Norman Foster and others. I shan’t say this is paradise, which no country is, least of all in Cental Asia, cann be, but goodness me, it is a place to watch!

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