Astana, Kazakhstan

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There being no direct flight from Istanbul to our next destination, Astana, Kazakhstan, we left late in the evening of October 11 for Almaty, where we would connect with a flight to Astana. After a two hour layover following the three hour flight from Istanbul, we arrived at the capital city of Astana. Astana has been the capital of Kazakhstan only since 1997. Like Brasilia replacing Rio de Janeiro in 1960 and Abuja replacing Lagos in 1991, Astana became the capital based on the premise that a new administrative center in a planned city with a more strategic location could better serve the needs of the government. As a result, we found ourselves in a very glitzy environment with modern gleaming buildings of glass and steel. Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh, replaced the name Akmola, the name given to the city in 1992 when the Soviet name Tselinograd was dropped.

Kazakhstan became an independent county in December 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Though it had been associated with the Soviet Republic since 1920, the territory had actually been a part of the Russian Empire since the middle of the nineteenth century. Subjugation to the rule of the Tsars in effect ended the historic nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakhs as they settled into a more conventional pattern of residential life. In 1936 Kazakhstan became a full Soviet republic, also called Kazakh SSR, and in fact was the largest Soviet republic except for Russia.

Today Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world geographically, but has a population of only nineteen million people. The area is roughly four times the size of Texas, but the population is only three times the urban population of the Dallas – Ft. Worth area. The population density is only 16 people per square mile, placing it in 226th place among the sovereign states of the world with regard to that statistic. Much of the country is a part of the great Eurasian steppe, an ecoregion of grasslands, savannas and shrub-lands.

Kazakhstan has the largest and strongest performing economy in Central Asia. Supported by rising oil output and prices, Kazakhstan’s economy grew at an average of 8% per year over the past decade. One indicator of its strong economy is the fact that Kazakhstan was the first former Soviet Republic to repay all of its debt to the International Monetary Fund, 7 years ahead of schedule. One indicator of the importance of the petroleum industry is that many students inquired as to whether or not we offered courses in petroleum engineering.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the communist era leader of Kazakhstan, became the country’s first president in 1991. He has subsequently triumphed in several elections, the last being in 2005. Afterwards, he declared himself president for life. To my question to a student as to whether Nazarbayev was a good president or not, he replied, “Yes, he is good.” However, I did notice him looking over his shoulder as he replied!

Because of the overnight flight from Istanbul and the three hour time difference, we did not arrive at our hotel, the Radisson, until about 11:30, only an hour or so before my first meeting. After an orientation briefing we set up for our first “fair” which lasted from 2:00 until 6:00 in the afternoon. Operating much like a trade fair, 21 different universities from the U.S. had tables set up, from which representatives provided information concerning their schools in an effort to persuade interested students to consider enrolling in available programs in which the students might be interested.

Under the auspices of the non-profit organization, EducationUSA, this first event on Sunday afternoon involved students from any school in the Astana area. Additionally, there were a number of people who already had a degree that were interested in graduate programs at the various institutions. I never saw a figure on the number of students attending the first event, but it was a baptism by fire for Denise and me. We were engaged almost the entire time with students bombarding us with questions about what we had to offer, and of course the most oft-asked question, “Do you have any scholarships and grants”? Though we had shipped a number of brochures and favors such as JSU key chains to be given to the students, we did a very poor job of conserving our resources at the beginning and they all seemed to evaporate. We did learn how to manage them better during the week.

On Monday we had “mini-fair” visits lasting 90 minutes at three different high schools in the city, and a visit to a fourth high school on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday morning, the tour organizers provided a two-hour tour of the city for us. We were impressed with all the new buildings and public spaces such as an art museum and new malls that have been developed in the last ten years or so.

About five o’clock we departed Astana for the second city on our tour, Karaganda. Bus transportation was provided for all the participants but if we had known all the facts, perhaps had a AAA report on road conditions, we might have opted to fly. Supposedly the trip would take about three hours. What we did not know is that approximately 1/3 of the distance would be on roads, described by the tour director, as “under construction.”

I grew up in a time and place in which we often traveled on dirt roads. The first couple of hours of this trip was by far the greatest distance I had traveled on unpaved roads in a long, long time. It was less than pleasant for a couple of hours, a lot of bumps and jostling, but once we got back to the highway that was in fairly good condition, the improved situation was so much better that we tended not to dwell on the earlier experience. The additional time did give us another late night, an 11:00 p.m. arrival with an 8:00 a.m. starting time on Wednesday. We need some serious reprogramming since we have been operating on a retired schedule for several years. We had forgotten how much fun it is to be tied to a rigid schedule with serious expectations about where we need to be and when!

Photos by Denise

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