Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Teacher's Field Trip, Part 1: Beyterek Tower - Friday, 6 November 2009

"You can thank me," Valerie said after we'd heard the announcement that we wouldn't be required to report to school during break. She had turned in her resignation, with a list of complaints, among them the fact that the teachers didn't get a break during the holiday. Luckily, instead of just dismissing her as a complaining American, the administrators appeared to listen.

On Thursday we had no school--I stayed home and had my windows fixed. On Friday we were to meet at the school between 10 and 10:30 am for a field trip. Sophia and Bert (Valerie's fiance) were invited too.

We took the schoolbus--a van, really, that seats about 15 people, which is about how many people there were--the principal, the vice principal, two Turkish teachers, the 5 Filipino teachers, Christie, Valerie and her fiance, and Sophia and me. (The principal and v.p. are Turkish too.)

First stop: Independence Place, a large, blue building that's across from the pyramid. We went inside, it was large, spacious, and very tidy, where we were informed that another group was coming for a tour; could we return in the afternoon? Sophia had to use the restroom, so I got to see the restrooms--very, very neat and modern, the exact opposite of the squatters we'd used a week ago.

Then we walked to the monument-tower that's in front of Independence Place. It is a tall pillar, on top of which is an eagle (symbol of Kazakhstan). The monument was a gift to the president for his birthday, and at the bottom was an engraving of--who else?--the president.

"Kazakhstan is a new country," the v.p. told me. "They are very proud of their independence."

Kazakhstan has been an independent country since 1991, and has had the same--democratically elected--president the entire time.

Then we piled back into the van and went to Beyterek, the tall tower that really is a symbol of Astana, much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Beyterek is located in the "new" section of Astana, south of the river, where all the new government buildings and fancy architectural structures are being built. Astana (which means "capital" in Kazakh) has only been the capital for about 10 years. The school, although located north of the river, is much closer to the new part of town than the old; the pyramid and Independence Place are also north of the river (really, at this point it's east of the river; the river bends).

On our way to Beyterek we passed by the "White House." No, it is not white; it is the presidential palace. We also passed by the section of town I call Chinatown, due to the Chinese buildings and Chinese restaurant. Astana does not have much of a Chinatown.

When we exited the van, we were next to a building whose shape can only be described as "chicken egg." I believe this is the National Library.

We took pictures as we walked to Beyterek. 'Beyterek,' I have learned from wikipedia, is Kazakh for "tall poplar tree," and the Beyterek Tower comes from a folktale about a magic bird of happiness that laid an egg between two poplar trees. At the top of the tower is a large golden sphere--the egg.

We went in and then up the elevator so that we could wander around the inside of the multi-leveled egg. We saw a plan--the city in miniature--of what Astana will look like in 2012.

I enjoyed the views of the city. We could see the many amazing, new buildings--two tall gold buildings that flank the "White House," the pyramid, the strange egg building, the circular blue building that is not far from the school. We could see the new part of the city, and the old part of the city, across the river. In between the two parts are small, one-story houses--truly, a part of the old Astana, before it was a capital.

My favorite sight was beyond the old city--the flat, desolate steppes, wasteland. The old part of the city had enough buildings and spanned far enough that we could not see the steppes beyond.

Astana is so flat, and so cold, and so impractical. Yet Valerie brought up one positive point about building a city in the middle of nowhere--you have plenty of room to expand. Very few people live in the wilderness beyond the city, and expanding won't be much of a problem. However, people are still being displaced. Her boyfriend has a cousin who lived in Astana and was forced to move due to construction of government buildings.

Then we went up a bit more, still inside the golden sphere. Here there was a plaque with the president's handprint. You can put your hand in his handprint, and supposedly whatever you wish will come true. I had my picture taken with my hand there. Hey, why not? In Paris I turned around in a circle on the special stone, that supposedly if you did so that meant you would return. I might as well place my hand in the president's handprint. (They really do like their president, don't they? Or does he just like himself?)

We then saw a peace-globe, around it were plaques with the signatures of representatives from all the major world religions. I should have taken a picture--the vast majority of these religions weren't Christian.

The guide there explained in English how the signatures represented different countries, and she went around the signatures, stating the country represented. "Italy," she said for the Roman Catholic Church.

So, my religion is confined to just one country?

The signature was not the pope's. The conference at which the signatures had been made was in 2003; Pope John Paul II visited Astana in 2001. It was a Cardinal's, and I can't make out his name from his signature.

We left Beyterek and Sophia happily walked with the principal. The two of them were becoming fast friends.

Onto more sightseeing...

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