Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, the largest land-locked country in the world. Perhaps due to its odd geography, its turbulent history or some combination of the above, Kazakhstan is an unusual place. It was the last country to become independent after the collapse of USSR. In its modern history, it has had a single leader—the country’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It has also had two capitals since it became an independent country: first, Almaty (the nation’s largest city). And then, since 1997, the planned city of Astana.

Astana was founded in 1830 with the name of Akmoly, a settlement which served as a fortification in Cossack Siberia. After changing its name several times, it was finally renamed Astana—which imaginatively means “the capital” in Kazakh.

For several reasons, Astana was an odd choice for a capital city. While Almaty, the former capital, was located in the more temperate southern corner of the country, Astana occupies a spot on the freezing outer reaches of Siberia. Due to its position in the middle of steppe, the average temperature in winter is about -30 to -35 °C, reaching lows of -50. In fact, Astana is the second coldest capital in the world (just behind (or is it ahead?) of Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s chief city).

After being named the capital, Astana experienced an incredibly drastic period of development. This growth was a result of the President’s dream to build a shiny, super-modern city that would adequately celebrate Kazakh economic power. For example, The Green Boulevard, where most of the futuristic buildings are located, was designed by the Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Meanwhile, the Orwellian-sounding “Palace of Peace and Reconciliation” was built by the renowned British architect Norman Foster.

Yet alongside this drive for the future is a strong appreciation for the past. For example, the Kazakh people are fiercely proud of their connection to Genghis Khan’s empire. During public holidays, horse competitions are held to celebrate the ancient nomadic traditions of the country. And in even some of the most futuristic buildings, we find references to this past. For example, the newly built entertainment center “Khan Shatyr” literally means “Tent of the Khan.” At a glance, one can see how its shape recalls the renowned mobile dwellings of the Khans of past.

Kazakhstan is a huge country still unknown to the majority of people. However, its fast growth rate and the richness of its natural resources mean that the country will continue to loom on the international stage. The pinnacle of its recent drive towards glory will be the Astana 2017 International Expo. Befitting the country’s immense reserves of oil and natural gas, the theme will be “Future Energy.” It remains to be seen what the future holds for this still gleaming tundra dream.

—Eugenio Grosso, Alexander Strecker