Learning about life in Kazakhstan reflections from a night out in Astana
Astana is not a cheap place to go out. According to the people I talked to, a night out in Astana will cost about 3000 Tenge ($20 USD) for cover and 1000 ($8 USD) per drink if you go to one of the cheaper clubs in the city. A pub like Guns and Roses is a little cheaper than a club and doesn’t have a cover, but a drink costs around 1500 Tenge ($10 USD).
During my night out in Astana, I spent a bit less than the average tourist. It began with a casual encounter with a couple of locals. As my friends and I were trying to take a picture in front of Baiterek Tower, throwing down power-kick poses like it was nobody’s business, we met a couple of locals who took a picture for us and then invited us to go out with them.
Not ones to turn down a friendly offer, my friends and I followed Almad and Gikan into the azure blue apartment complexes that looked more like office buildings than homes. The apartment itself was a stunning 2400 square meter apartment with two floors and a spectacular view of Astana lighting up the night sky.
In Kazakhstan, as in Russia, when you are invited out you are the guest and often the hosts offer you food and drink. It’s a nice gesture and one that requires nothing in return, although, it’s a good idea to sneak off and return the favour by buying something to share with your hosts (just make sure it’s not the cheap cheap stuff).
Our night out in the city didn’t take us far; in fact, we spent the entire evening chatting with our friends and learning how the locals feel about the country, city, and government. Our discussions often revolved around these issues and I learned a few things that are worth sharing.
As I mentioned in “Astana, Kazakhstan’s city of the future”, I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan going in although I did see Borat, which of course is an extreme misrepresentation of the people and culture. Not surprisingly one of the first things our new friends asked was if we were travelling in Kazakhstan because of “Borat”; we weren’t. The reasons we decided to visit the country were because not many people do, because it is off the beaten trail, and because it was on the way to Moscow, our final destination.
Our hosts worked in construction. With investment rapidly developing the new capital city of Astana, construction projects seemed to be everywhere and every building looked brand new. These construction projects, we were told, are often subsidized by the government and in fact our friend’s apartment was the same, each of them only paying USD$100 for a flat that in Toronto would cost twenty times that.
As the night drew late we began to discuss politics and learned that the leader had been in power for nearly two decades, during which time he moved the capital city from Almaty to Astana. Our hosts weren’t impressed with the way the country was being run and informed us that whatever Nursultan Nazarbayev (the president of Kazakhstan) wants, many people blindly agree with.
Our friends on the other hand seemed to appreciate that fact that, working in construction, they can make a lot of money which they were saving in hopes of leaving the country. Surprisingly, according to them, a change of power was due to happen over the next few years and they suggested that a civil revolt might occur during that time – but such things cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.
What is evident is the disparity between the rich and the poor in Kazakhstan (though according to the World Bank, Kazakhstan had a Gini coefficient of 29.0 in 2005, which is actually lower, and thus characterized by less income inequality, than most OECD countries). The breakneck pace of development is also evident: mining and oil projects have brought a lot of money into the country and Astana evidences this newfound wealth.
On the other hand, as you travel through Kazakhstan’s countryside it’s hard to miss the often decrepit-looking villages and hamlets that litter the vast landscape between the country’s major cities. Our friends were on the wealthier end of the spectrum, and were optimistic about their personal futures even if they were of their countries.
Visiting Astana brought about a sense of awe but for me the real Kazakhstan still needed to be uncovered. As I made my way to the old capital of Almaty I was hopeful that some new experiences would unlock a more holistic picture of a country whose location on the world map is still unknown to many.