The dog bowl, the napkins, and other buildings of Astana

The dog bowl, the napkins, and other buildings of Astana

Many travelers who visit Astana are struck by the feeling of a Dubai on the Steppe, where flashy buildings express the aspiration of a nation. That is probably oversimplified — I’ll reflect more on Astana soon — but I it’s true that Kazakhstan’s capital has undergone rapid changes. Once an administrative town, the city was transformed ten years ago when it was selected to be the new capital city of rapidly-developing Kazakhstan.

Where once there were marshes and potato patches…

While brittle at -40 C/F in the winter, as we approach summer, the river banks and broad boulevards in the new part of town are a favorite place for walking, among parks, fountains, ornate human-sized rings, and bronze statues of young men and women.

And while located in a colder climate, Astana has benefited, like Dubai, from a massive investment of oil revenues in building projects. As much as 8$bn to 13$bn has been spent on developing the city, and authorities are scrambling to provide housing for a doubling population. Most recently, it was announced in December that Astana had won the bid to host the World’s Fair in 2017 – the perfect opportunity for showing off the city and country on a large scale.

But most of all, newcomers tend to notice Astana’s elaborate buildings. Like the UAE, Kazakhstan has invested its oil revenues in building an all-new modern city. Below, I’ll share with you the seven buildings that make me smile whenever I see them — especially when I think of their local nicknames. If you visit Astana, ask for the newest building, and take a good look: a new nickname is likely not far behind.

1. The Dog Bowl

Right bank: the art institute

Students sit on the steps outside during the week, and exhibit opening are held on the weekends. The round blue Shabyt (“inspiration”) building is an art gallery, art university, and studio all in one, hosting some of Kazakhstan’s most modern artists.

2. The Lighter

Left bank: the transportation ministry

KazTransCom, or the Kazakh ministry of transportation and communications, is primarily known for being housed in a building that looks looking like a giant raspechka, or lighter. Legend says that at one point during construction it briefly caught fire, making the resemblance even stronger.

3. The Napkins

Left bank: apartments at northern lights

A local driver pointed this one out to me, saying that the Northern Lights, a swanky apartment building where many professional expats are housed, looks rather like a set of tall stacks of salfetki, or table napkins.

4. The Lollipop

Left bank: the city centerpiece, Bayterek

Bayterek (“White Poplar”) is a beautiful monument to Kazakh folklore and offers a golden-glazed view of the city. It’s also widely known as Chupa-Chups, for the giant lollipop of the same name.  I was a bit dismayed to read National Geographic last year, as a man began his front-cover travel article by asserting that the Bayterek tower was too unique for nicknames.

5. The Pyramid

Right bank: Pyramid of religious peace

A bit obvious, but the Palace of Peace and Harmony is also known as the Pyrameed. Designed by architect Norman Foster, the top floor hosts a conference room with large King-Arthur style round table, right beneath the glassy peak. As guests look out, they see white doves etched in the blue glass, soaring over the city skyline.

Doves of peace, etched into the pyramid


6. The – – – ?

Left bank: the Khan Shatyr shopping mall

The nickname that one salty old taxi driver provided for the Khan Shatyr (“King’s Tent”) is perhaps unkind, so I’ll refrain. But you can’t miss a pointed tent on the edge of the city’s skyline. This toasty-warm mall indoors hosts an arcade, expensive European clothing stores, and a beach with swimming pools on the top floor, overlooking the center. It’s one of the best placing for enjoying yourself in the -40C weather, so I’ll just leave the nicknames to your imagination…

7. The Upturned Jar

Right Bank: The Astana Music Hall. This one’s not by me; click through to photographer Olzhas Salmurzha’s portfolio.

Most recently, a Music Hall was built that seems a combination of Box and Giant Clay Jar. It’s my favorite for the time being, mostly because I’d pay a great deal to see the faces of ancient Scythian warriors if they could step into their homeland today, and see how a small clay pot has taken over an entire building!

And a P.S.: Cranes

Read on from librarian Liz, as she covers the cranes better than I ever could!

Cranes: what are they building next?


  1. Malavika

    I’ve also heard that the Napkins aka Northern Lights are often referred to by locals as the “drunken buildings” because they look like three drunks 🙂

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