The Capital Soon after becoming President of the newly independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev made an announcement that shocked the nation. The fledgling nation's capital would no longer be Almaty, the country’s oldest and largest city but Akmola, a town almost 1,000 further north across the vast, semi-arid steppe. Nothing could have prepared the residents of the newly designated capital for the dizzying developments that lay ahead. When Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Akmola was a provincial settlement of no more than 300,000 inhabitants. Previously known as Telsinograd, the city had served as a conduit for heavy industry being moved further inland, away from the war-ravaged West of the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev launched the "Virgin Lands Campaign" intended to turn the region into another bread basket. Thousands of Russians were encouraged to move to Akmolinsk, as it had become known, to work the land and bind the region to far-off Moscow. These new arrivals joined tens of thousands of deportees who had been forcibly relocated here during the 1930s and 40s. The official reason for moving the capital was that it had better transport links to Russia and was less earthquake-prone than Almaty which lies at the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains and had been almost completely razed twice by earthquakes in the preceding 100 years. A more likely explanation is that Nazarbayev wanted to preempt any potential for secession by non-Kazakh groups in the thinly populated North, firmly binding it into the new nation. In 1998 Akmola was renamed Astana meaning simply "Capital" in Kazakh. Today, Astana rises incongruously from the steppe as a gleaming vision of steel and glass. Billions of dollars of oil and gas revenue have transformed the former outpost into a futuristic metropolis where the world's leading architects are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild. If Nazarbayev’s plan perplexed many at first it has since proved a success; thousands flock to the city every month from all over Kazakhstan and the city is fast approaching one million residents. Astana straddles the Ishim river with the right bank dominated by grey, soviet-era apartment buildings, remnants of Telsinograd. The left bank was empty steppe until 1997 when renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa laid plans for the new city, plans that respect and honour Kazakh reverence for open spaces. The city is now home to landmark buildings such as the Norman Foster designed Khan Shatyr, built in the shape of a traditional nomadic tent, and one of the President’s own designs, the Bayterak Tower, which features a viewing platform housing his handprint set in solid gold. Astana today is a condensed patchwork of contrasts. Bitterly cold winters change into scorching summers; poor migrants mingle with the super rich, and the tawdry, crumbling housing estates of the right bank are reflected in the glass towers of the left bank. The endless steppe pushes against the city from every side, an ever present reminder of the scale of the achievement, and the effort that will be needed to maintain it.