The city does have its whimsical side. Mesh sculptures covered with vines—swans, horses, giraffes—seem closer in spirit to Disneyland than to Pyongyang. On a balmy evening in June, children blow soap bubbles in the plaza next to the Dancing Fountain, which is illuminated by colored lights as Russian hip-hop pulses from large outdoor speakers. Skateboarders in low-slung jeans perform tricks as police look on indifferently. An outdoor café serves French wine at $17 (U.S.) a glass.
The capital's boomtown ethos may find its fullest expression in its shopping malls, of which the Khan Shatyr—the Foster-designed tent—is the most distinctive. Its top level is taken up by an indoor beach outfitted with a wave pool and sand imported from the Maldives. One night the mall hosted a bikini party, charging $20 for admission. Men and women in skimpy bathing suits downed vodka and Red Bull as a deejay urged, in English, "Everybody get crazy! Ziss iz bikini party!"
More than a dictator's vanity project or a town where rich people party, Astana is a magnet for strivers like Yernar Zharkeshov. And like Darkhan Dossanov, an irrepressible 25-year-old with a lopsided smile who approached me on the street one evening to practice his English. ("I'm really glad to meet you. My English was almost disappeared from my head.")
I ended up buying him dinner, which he devoured so quickly that I wondered how much he had been eating lately. Only six days earlier, he had arrived in the capital with little more than a cell phone and a portable Sony PlayStation, having sold his digital camera to buy a train ticket from his home 500 miles to the east. He had landed a job as a busboy in a fancy Italian restaurant, where he slept on pushed-together chairs before he found lodging in a cramped three-bedroom apartment that he shared with ten others.
When I saw Dossanov again a week or so later, he told me that he had lost his restaurant job because his poor eyesight had prevented him from noticing when tables needed to be cleared. The restaurant was refusing to pay him for eight days of work; he planned to sell his PlayStation to pay for food. Still, he had a line on another restaurant job and remained confident that he had made the right choice in coming to Astana. "I know that in the future I will be very wealthy," he said. "It's a really lucky place for me."
Indeed, creative and entrepreneurial energy seems to be stirring everywhere among Astana's young people. In a shabby theater on the Right Bank of the Esil River, four young dancers in their late teens and early 20s leaped and twirled through an avant-garde ballet routine under the critical gaze of Adyl Erkinbaev, a 32-year-old dancer and choreographer who wears his hair in a short ponytail.
Erkinbaev is from Kyrgyzstan, where he attended the national ballet school. He moved to Astana in 2002 as part of an initiative by the city government to stock the new capital with artists and performers. Last spring the ballet folded, but Erkinbaev had recruited four of its dancers for an independent production.
None of them seemed to mind that they were rehearsing without wages, at least until Erkinbaev could find a sponsor. "In a good way, he is some kind of mad," said one, Inna Oparina, a 21-year-old ethnic Russian who supports herself as an English teacher. When she first came to him three years ago, she recalled, "I was like a robot. I couldn't express anything." It was Erkinbaev, she said, who taught her that "emotions are more important than technique."
On another night I attended a meeting of young professionals, many educated abroad, who call themselves the Astana Alumni Association. They listened raptly as a guest speaker, 38-year-old Aidyn Rakhimbayev, described his rapid ascent from small-time coal trader to head of one of the country's largest construction firms.
Pressed by a listener for advice on how to turn an idea into a business, Rakhimbayev replied brusquely, "An idea is nothing. Do you have skills? What is your business plan?" He urged them to read books by management gurus such as Tom Peters, while admitting he came late to such pursuits—he was too busy making money. "I made my first million at 29," he says. "In dollars. I made my first ten million at 32. Then I decided it was time to start reading books."
Everyone was looking for an angle. Before my visit ended, I got a call from Yernar Zharkeshov, the newly minted government economist, who asked me to meet him for coffee. We made small talk before he got to the point: His father was trying to set himself up as a consultant to foreign investors and wondered if I could pass along the names of potential clients. Zharkeshov then excused himself to take his nieces and nephews to a showing of Cars 2, the Pixar film that had recently opened in Astana to much excitement, in part because it was the first Western movie to be dubbed in Kazakh instead of Russian.
For all its self-conscious grandeur, there is a tenuous, even temporary, quality to the new capital that came home to me every time it rained, when water poured through the ceiling of the shopping arcade on the first floor of the brand-new apartment tower where I had arranged a short-term rental.
One Saturday afternoon I attended a picnic in a park, thrown by local members of Toastmasters International. A young, American-educated banker approached me, unbidden, to suggest that I should not be too impressed by Astana. "The whole place is like a dream," he said with a wan smile. "It does not sustain itself. It depends on the price of oil, frankly." He paused and shrugged. "We have so many resources we can afford to be stupid at this point."
But that was surely a minority view among his fellow picnickers, who spread a blanket in the shade of a poplar tree and heaped their paper plates with beets, oranges, and meat-filled dumplings called manti. Someone circulated a bottle of koumiss; a few people began tossing around a Frisbee. "Everyone who loves their job raise your hand," commanded Zhanna Kunasheva, a 33-year-old woman who works for the local office of Shell Oil. Most raised their hands. Kunasheva then handed out copies of lyrics to songs by Frank Sinatra and Russian pop stars, leading the group in an impromptu sing-along.
After a few hours the party broke up, as some of the picnickers announced that they had to go to a Latin dance class. The wind sighed in the poplar trees, and the skyline of the new capital, like the evening, seemed to beckon with a bright and thrilling promise.