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In 1997, amid widespread public opposition, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev transferred the country's capital from Almaty to Astana. Critics did not find the land in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe with an unforgiving winter to be fit for the position. More than a decade later, the criticisms have all but gone silent, with Astana making the transformation into one of the most futuristic and prosperous capitals in the region.
Once a mere provincial city called Akmola, its population had ballooned to twice its size since the move - and is now more than 700,000. Today, it is a major political and cultural center, littered with government offices and European-quality hotels. And there is no question that the Kazakhs are fiercely proud of their new capital.
What perhaps most catches a visitor's attention in Astana is its wacky and futuristic skyline that draws inspiration from Western, Soviet, Islamic, and modern architecture. Since being Kazakhstan's capital, the city has consumed some eight percent of the national budget dedicated solely to modernizing and beautifying the city's infrastructure - which is growing more and more impressive by the year.
Astana's architectural direction is most epitomized by the Bayretek Tower that dominates its landscape. A popular landmark, it stands 105 meters tall and is said to represent an egg laid by a mythical bird in the braches of a poplar tree. Not to mention the so-called Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a moder-day pyramid built out of glass and steel by some of Asia's finest architects.
For all its modern feel and architectural marvels, Astana is often knocked for its seemingly aloof attitude and being too impersonal. True, it may be a little business-oriented, but those who know where to look can still find the city to be charming in its own way.
Going to shops, restaurants, theaters, as well as indulging in the buzzing nightlife are all the rage in Astana, which can satisfy perhaps even the most hardened revelers and hedonists. The city hasn't forgotten its roots though, and tourists can still visit its old center that serves as a reminder of its provincial past.
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