Astana (meaning “capital” in Kazakh!) is, strangely enough, the capital of Kazakhstan. Before this it was a small town called Akmola, before that, Tselinograd and, before that, Akmolinsk.
Since the capital was moved here in 1997 from the largest city in the country, Almaty, the amount of money spent on transforming the little town on the banks of the river Ishim has been enormous. The city is expanding upwards and outwards rapidly. All over the city there are huge building sites or renovations taking place.
Our school is on the outskirts of the town and when we arrived here, 18 months ago, was basically located in the steppe, with wasteland all around. The road from the city to the school stopped at a junction and became dirt track. There were no lights and no traffic signals.
As the nearby complexes and villas have been completed, the infra-structure has started to take shape but at the cross roads it is still only possible to go straight on or left-right takes you to a fence. Recently, metal fencing has been erected around the wasteland and building has started, and in places already been completed, of new structures.
The new Kazakh national museum near our school is an impressive modern building, with its golden, horse fountain, which was up and running before the insides were even started upon. Every time I drive past these building sites, I just feel sorry for the workers! I see them pouring off the bus in the morning wrapped up, so sometimes even their faces aren’t showing and they work in temperatures ranging from +40°C in the summer to -40°C in the winter.
With all these news buildings and areas of the city, it is often difficult to discover the address of the new place. The areas are completed, but not given a name or street name immediately and even when they are locals have no idea where it is.
Many of the new, prestigious addresses have been named after countries and cities (the next one to open is the Milan Quarter) in Europe (though according to a taxi driver, the Arab quarter will be built in the future) and the new buildings given Kazakh names.
Every morning, we experience the same problem when trying to get to work. Our school is on a road with a name but no-one has heard of it, as it is so new. Few people seem to know what the district of the town is called either. We stop a car on the road (the so called gypsy cab) and I launch into a description of where our school is, based on famous landmarks near by. This is of course not the best explanation as often it is another five minutes or so by car into the, what is believed, by the locals, to be countryside. I often say it is near the “French Quarter” as I had seen a banner for the new set of appartments at the end of our street stating this (the English quarter is being built next door!)
The other morning, I said this to the driver who quoted £2 to get there! Rather happy with the low price (it normally costs £3!) we set off. When we were half way through the journey, I noticed he started to go the wrong way. I commented on this, asking again if he was sure he knew where the French Quarter was, yes he said. I looked at the sign. ‘Paris Quarter’. Realising the mistake I explained I wanted the French quarter not Paris. He said he knew where this was but pointed out that the locals call the complex ‘French Romance’! Very confusing.
We continued on to school, past French Romance with the journey eventually costing me the normal £3!