Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
If you were waiting on the edge of your seat for my next blog post (ha!) but found none the last couple of weeks, here is why: I have been in Kazakhstan, where my blogging platform is blocked.
Yes, really. Turkey blocks Wikipedia. China blocks Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube and Google. Kazakhstan blocks personal blogs.
Since 1990, when the USSR was coming apart, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the man in charge in Kazakhstan. In 1997, he moved the seat of government from the traditional center of Kazakh life, Almaty, to the former lonely outpost in the steppes, Astana. Upon his nominal resignation from the presidency in March of this year, the Kazakh government renamed Astana after him: Nursultan. I was hard-pressed, however, to find any Kazakh outside of the airport who referred to the city by that new name.
But perhaps Nazarbayev deserves to have this city named after him. After all, it is in large part his creation. By Nazarbayev’s invitation, world-renowned architects have been coming to this city to paint its previously sparse canvas with the most grandiose designs.
Much of the architecture, despite being contemporary, still channels the oppressiveness of Soviet styles and serves to dwarf the individual, to underscore the insignificance of mere human beings. Often it illustrates that observation that architecture is the most authoritarian of art forms.
And at least some projects must be white elephants. The complex built for the 2017 Expo features a magnificent glass globe, but the trickle of foot traffic post-expo cannot possibly justify its costs. My friend in neighboring Kyrgyzstan tells me that the complex was built with money that was meant to go to developing alternative energy solutions for Kazakhstan. The theme of the expo? Promoting alternative energy solutions, ironically.
Nazarbayev’s Astana made me think of that great Shelley poem, “Ozymandias”:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Not the desert, but the steppes surround Astana. And looking at it, one wonders whether one day it will fade back into its surroundings, a colossal wreck, boundless and bare. After all, the flaw of setting your capital in the middle of the steppes is obvious: by late September, it was already snowing in Astana, and winter temperatures are Siberian.
On the other hand, not that long ago I visited another famous white elephant built by another ruler who was in love with architecture: Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. King Ludwig II of Bavaria commissioned the structure that became the inspiration for Disney castles. The cost overruns were so great, and Ludwig so adamantly refused to listen to reason, that the Bavarian government claimed that he was insane and deposed him from the throne.
Today, though, Neuschwanstein is one of the great attractions in this part of Germany. The hordes of tourists surely bring in a healthy income for the local population. So can it be that Ludwig was right (even if he couldn’t have known it) to spend all his country’s funds on a pleasure palace for himself?
By the same token, can it be that one day it will turn out that Nazarbayev has been right to commission all these grand buildings? Even if Astana recedes into the steppes, as a ghost town it may yet attract future “dark tourists” eager to take selfies before vast and trunkless legs of stone.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, after Gilgamesh is thwarted in his attempt to acquire immortality, the Mesopotamian hero returns to build Ur, the first city in the world. Architecture, the poem seems to be saying, is the next best thing to immortality. Or at least, it is what powerful men settle for when they can’t live forever, the idea being that grand halls and fabulous palaces can at least potentially survive for much longer than the limits of the human lifespan. In that hopeless striving against death and decrepitude, through architecture we may find a small measure of the dignity of tragedy. Does that dignity still remain in the face of tour buses and Instagram and guides waving little flags?
I don’t know. But I imagine that Ludwig would be horrified to learn that nowadays just anyone, as long as they can pay 20 Euros for a ticket, gets to trudge through his beloved home.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."