Illustration of Astana by Luke Waller
© Luke Waller

Flying into Astana in central Kazakhstan is a wonderfully peaceful thing to do. I fell in love with the steppes years ago, when I first came across medieval texts describing the differences between the many tribes of nomads who held sway on the flatlands that spread from the northern lip of the Black Sea over the spine of Asia as far as Mongolia.

Three thousand years ago, the peoples of Central Asia knew how to live — as the astonishing grave goods from sites across the region show. Exquisite gold objects on display at the National Museum of Kazakhstan reveal not only a love of bling but also an eye for high-quality craftsmanship and an enjoyment of the finer things in life.

You could say that little has changed as you drive in from the sparkling Nazarbayev airport that serves the Kazakh capital, Astana. The city, as the country’s president likes to say, is younger than Google — which is really saying something. Almaty, a lovely city in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains in the south of the country, used to be its heart. But 20 years ago, it was decided that a location in the centre of Kazakhstan would be a better idea, so a new capital rose from the steppes.

Built on the back of the astonishing mineral wealth of a country that is blessed with oil, gas, uranium and more besides, Astana is a showcase for Modernist architecture. There is the Norman Foster-designed Khan Shatyr centre, a tent-shaped shopping mall and entertainment centre that puts London’s Westfields to shame — not least with its swimming pool on the top floors, complete with wave machines and beaches. Or the Golden Towers that frame the approach to the presidential palace, whose dome-shaped roof is adorned with the image of the sun and a steppe eagle.

I like the Bayterek tower, whose design is inspired by a local legend of a magical bird of happiness that laid an egg between the branches of a tree. At the top, you can place your hand in the mould of President Nursultan Nazarbayev — not to set in motion a Sword in the Stone-type chain of events (a shame, as mine was a perfect fit) but rather to make a wish. If your wish is to become leader of a Central Asian republic, you should not hold your breath that it will be granted any time soon.

New to the skyline is a giant globe designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, which was the centrepiece of Astana’s Expo 2017. It prompted a few sniggers, with one observer noting its resemblance to a popular science-fiction franchise under the headline “Kazakhstan Spent $5 Billion on a Death Star and It Doesn’t Even Shoot Lasers”. Of course, other people’s riches have always caused discomfort and prompted mockery. Better, though, to be nouveau riche than nouveau poor.

Kazakhstan still has a long way to go in terms of getting lots of things right, from press freedoms to human rights. But as many in the country note, while things may still not be perfect, it has come a long way since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Not only that, but it is at the heart of the new world taking shape around us. While the European Union teeters under the pressures of Brexit and incoming problems from Italy, Poland, Hungary and Catalonia, Central Asia faces a rather different future. Kazakhstan is one of a number of countries at the crossroads between east and west, and also between north and south. Having Russia as a neighbour can be a blessing and a curse, while China’s interests across the region present opportunities and challenges alike — as do relations with other Central Asian republics, which are not always plain sailing.

China is leading a charm offensive across the region that goes hand-in-hand with the Belt and Road Initiative — a massive programme of investment, mainly in the form of loans, that is the talk of the town not just in Astana but also in Tashkent, Tehran, Islamabad, and deep into Europe and Africa too.

This is the background to a big meeting held each year in Astana, gathering people from different backgrounds together to share ideas. The theme for 2018 was Global Challenges, ranging from artificial intelligence to geopolitics, climate change to automation. I was there to talk about Eurasia’s past, present and future, and to provide a historical perspective on the causes of political alignment and fragmentation in Asia over the last millennium.

It is slightly surreal to go from sharing a platform one minute with Romano Prodi as he talks about the future of the EU, to listening to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak talk about efficiency the next. As with the buildings, it is easy to be cynical. Conferences and forums are often too much hot air and not enough nitty-gritty. But what struck me most in Astana is the extent to which other parts of the world are open for business — keen to gather people together, to ask questions that matter and to hear what they think.

Suddenly, everyone seems to want to know about transcontinental trade links in the past, about the spread of religions and what history looked like not from the usual perspective of western Europe but seen from the heart of the world. Understanding the context of the Koran, knowing what Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia mean to Russia, and recognising how the golden age of Europe and the west looks from a different perspective does not just open pasts that had been forgotten — it is met with a clamour among those trying to make sense of why the world is changing and working out how to prepare for the future.

Today, history is at the forefront of mainstream political discussion in Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and China, just as it is across the Middle East. And the reason for this is not that these countries want to turn back to the past but because they are preparing for a future in which the importance of Asia is becoming increasingly clear. Economic and political power is shifting east in the 21st century, away from places that have led the world for the past three centuries. A new world is emerging — not only in the steppes of Central Asia. But those flat lands are a key part of it.

The first thing I did when I got back to Oxford was to attend a meeting of the historians who teach medieval history at the university. Appropriately enough, the subject was the future — and how to expose our students here to a wider and richer version of the past than they have been used to. A good welcome back to the day job.

Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Oxford university and author of ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ (Bloomsbury)

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