D280. June 8. Istanbul, un pont entre deux rives

Je tourne le dos à l’Asie Centrale et rejoins Istanbul pour une courte journée de transition entre les continents…

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Une légère brise souffle sur la Place Taksim, entrée dans la légende à l’aune du Printemps Arabe. Nous ne sommes qu’en début d’après-midi et pourtant la lumière imite les vibrations d’un coucher de soleil. L’air est jaune orangé et l’atmosphère paisible.
Au fil de la journée, la foule remplit la place. Flan Ouest on prend la direction des boutiques d’İstiklâl Caddesi, alors qu’à l’Est des marchands ambulants préparent salep, thé noir ou vert, kebabs et pains ronds, pour ceux qui, comme moi, n’ont rien d’autre à faire que de déambuler entre les passants. Salam aleykoum. Aleykoum salam.

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On a tout dit, tout écrit, sur la Byzance des Grecs, la Constantinople de l’Empire romain d’Orient et la capitale des sultans Ottomans. Istanbul. Et le Bosphore. Pont entre deux cultures. On a tout dit et pourtant on aimerait le redire. Cette ville prête au rêve, à la contemplation, et réveille l’âme du poète.

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Au sud de Taksim, le quartier de Sultanahmet. D’un côté l’église Sainte-Sophie dont le gigantesque dôme fait le bonheur des pigeons, et de l’autre la Mosquée Bleue. On touche du doigt l’oecuménisme dont on rêverait tant pour cette région du monde.

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On oublie trop souvent que la Turquie fût l’un des premiers pays laïcs du monde, comme semblent aussi l’oublier ses dirigeants actuels, qui par petites touches mettent à mal un Etat tantôt séculaire. Demain je m’envole pour Israël, ou les laïcs semblent eux aussi, souffrir d’un retour du religieux… (A Suivre).

My “Stan” Countries…

Kirghizistan (KI), Uzbekistan (UZ), Kazakhstan (KA). What are their common points ?

What about the language?
In KA, everyone speaks Russian, they have almost no knowledge of their original language.
In KI, everyone knows Russian, would speak it with you, but they would speak their own language when they are together.
In UZ, Russian comes as a second language, and some people don’t even speak it.

What about their English skills?
I’m not sure they know more than Russians but they are highly interested in talking to foreigners to practice their skills. In Tashkent for example, as I was taking the metro, two young students decided not to get out at their station but stayed with me until I reached my destination, so that we could chat together.

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What about religion?
In KA, you will find as many orthodox churches as mosques.
In KI, there is a mosque in every single village. Though, people don’t go everyday. Mainly on Fridays, and still, when they have time only. The adhan (prier call from the minaret) is even forbidden.
In UZ, it looks like they pray more often. Whenever they hear a prayer, they would freeze, open their hands like if they were holding an open Koran, and pray.  Around 85% of Uzbeks claim to be Muslim (nearly all are the Hanafi Sunni variety), although only around 5% to 15% are practicing.

What about women?
No veils. Scarfs for old women in KI, and one most of women outside of Tashkent in UZ. As a matter of fact, in Bishkek (KI) and Tashkent (UZ), the youth is completely westernized. In KA, Astana’s youth seems trendier than in Almaty. And you could even meet there some bimbos in a Russian style.
Though, Uzbek women struggle for equality. Considered second-class citizens in the workplace and in the home, women are not given the same rights as their Western counterparts, or their Kyrgyz and Kazakh neighbors. Domestic violence occurs in 40% of Uzbek homes, yet overall household control lies in the hands of the husband’s mother. Abuse, however, rarely leads to divorce, and there are occasional reports of suicide by self- immolation, a cultural trait that dates back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-14 à 22.34.30from left to right : Bishkek (KI), Astana (KA), Tashkent (UZ)

What about their knowledge of France ?
All of them know Mireille Mathieu, Piaf, Brel. My driver to the Isyk-Kol Lake in KI was able to sing some of their hits. And I remembered that when I was in Ekaterinburg, Russia, we saw posters featuring the next Patricia Kass concert. Several time, in bars, coffee shops, or on the radio, I heard French songs.

And of course, they all know about the Eiffel Tower. My driver to the Aral Sea has made it is anthem: He wants to see the Eiffel Tower.
More surprisingly, all of them heard about the gay marriage that was voted last year in France. This is the first thing the taxi driver who picked me up at the Bishkek Airport asked me : “Are there many gays in France ?”. He knew everything about the debate and didn’t seem judgmental, just very curious. The son of Dilbar, in Almaty, asked me completely out of the blue : “Is Hollande gay ?”. Unbelievable. He don’t hear a single thing about those countries and they know everything about mine…

What about their vision of USSR ?
Overall, all the people I talked to miss USSR and their independence in 1991 was a chock. “Before, we wouldn’t have to worry about our future”, said my Tashkent (UZ) taxi driver. “We used to have social services, and we miss that”. “Poor people are more poor and rich people are richer”, said the woman I had met on my flight to Bishkek (KI). “All of the sudden we had to reflect on what we should do to make a living”, said my mountains guide in Almaty (KA).

8042856025_33a66ef779_z(Lenin at the Historical State Museum, Bishkek, KI)

What about their vision of Putin ?
“He did a lot for his country”. This is what I heard everywhere. They have a great admiration for him, and wish they could have such a leader in their own country. A rich country, recognized as a serious power by the entire world.
I was there right in the middle of the crisis with Ukraine but none of them mentioned any fear of being annexed by Russia. In my opinion, may be some of them even wish they would…


What about their democratic transition after independence ?

In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev became first secretary in 1989 and has ruled Kazakhstan ever since. Kazakhstan’s first multiparty elections, in 1994, returned a parliament favorable to Nazarbaev, He dissolved parliament in 1995 to get more favorable deputies and afterwards won an overwhelming referendum majority to extend his presidential term until 2000. Nazarbaev continues to rule Kazakhstan with an iron hand, but enjoys broad popularity as the country posts 10% economic growth year after year and maintains broad ethnic harmony. He won another seven-year presidential term with over 90% of the vote in the 2005 elections. Nazarbaev’s political rivals and critics are frequently sacked, jailed and even, in two cases in 2005 and 2006, found shot dead.

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Uzbekistan’s first serious noncommunist popular movement, Birlik, was formed by intellectuals in 1989. Despite popular support, it was barred from contesting the election in February 1990 for the Uzbek Supreme Soviet by the Communist Party. The resulting communist-dominated body elected Islam Karimov, the first secretary of the Communist Party, to the new post of executive president.
Following the abortive coup in Moscow in August 1991, Karimov declared Uzbekistan independent and held the first direct presidential elections, which Karimov won with 86% of the vote. His only rival was a poet who got 12% and was soon driven into exile (where he remains to this day). The real opposition groups, Birlik and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), and all other parties with a religious platform, had been forbidden to take part. A new constitution unveiled in 1992 declared Uzbekistan ‘a secular, democratic presidential republic’. The years after independence saw Karimov consolidate his grip on power. Karimov won a third consecutive term in January 2000, garnering 92% of the votes. Foreign observers deemed the election a farce and international condemnation was wide- spread. But the 9/11 attacks on the United States gave Karimov a reprieve. Karimov sought another term in 2007, which he won on a turnout rate that was placed at 90.6%…

Kirghizstan knows alternance, but change comes every time from street insurrections denouncing corruption, nepotism and civil unrest.

What about Jews in those countries ?
Oh, that. Well, all of them were very happy and nobody understands why they all left Central Asia in 1991 when USSR collapsed…Capture d’écran 2014-06-16 à 08.10.13

So, I’m gonna check in Israel what’s going on. Next time I’ll report from there, after a one-day stop in Istanbul, this city in between two worlds…

D278. June 6. Astana, some other creative buildings…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.25.40From South to North, From the new official boulevard to the old North Bank Center, snapshots of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen. Others will come soon, as the city is still being erected…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.24.48At the end of the governmental avenue (see yesterday’s post), this concave ring called “Shabyt” shelters a Fine Arts University.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.24.53One the other side, the Independence Palace, including a ethnographic room and a model of how Astana should like like in 2030. But after my walk from the other side of the avenue, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk more !

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.24.40No clue. Next to the Independence Palace.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.21.21Not far from the Presidential Palace : the National Auditorium, designed by the Italian Sutdio Nicoletti, inspired from flowers.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.21.52Next to it, the Nazarbayev Center. It  was established by a Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2012 as a multifunctional research and educational public institution…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.21.59Habitation building on the river bank.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.22.37No clue. But still, gold and blue like the others…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.23.54?

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.19.14The National Archives

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.18.59Three buildings called “The Northern Lights” (Aurores Boreales). My guesthouse was on the 22sd floor of one of them.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.18.48On the right, the Emerad tower, looking loke an open book.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.14.17A sober but Creative habitation building.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.14.01A less sober habitation building… Gotham City ???

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.14.40This UFO is called the Duman, an oceanorium.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.14.54Then you cross the river and reach the North Bank.

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.16.14 A park. With a view on flamme-like twin buildings.Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.16.22 The President museum. Featuring : Presents to the President, meetings of the President with other Presidents of the World, Youth Clothes of the President, Phones of the President, Books of the President… What else ? Pictures of the President ! Amazing visit…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.19.43Many people are visiting Astana. Those three above are trying to find their way.


Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.28.21 Grandmothers come here with their grandchildren. What a chock it must be after a life spent with nothing…

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.20.08Many people take photographs around the Egg-like tower. Guess who I met there ? My alcoholic grown-up and his mother from the train !

Capture d’écran 2014-06-11 à 13.17.34Those two locals don’t seem to bother. They have a situation They need to debrief.

D277. June 5. Nurzhol Bulvar, The Astana Champs Elysées

Primarily, the economic center of Astana was on the North Bank. Now, on the South side, has been built from scratch a prestigious avenue, Nurzhol Bulvar, designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa. A West-East axis that gathers political institutions and companies headquarters.

astana 0It starts on the West end with Khan Shatyr, a shopping mall imagined by Norman Foster, which shape reminds of a yurt, using a heat-absorbing material so that temperatures do not exceed 30° in the summer time.astana 2 We are far from the original internal organization of yurts, were all pieces of furnitures were set according to celestial powers…astana 1Exiting the shopping mall, you get to see a circular plaza surrounded with arcade buildings that remind of Ricardo Bofil somehow, a mix of neoclassical elements and totalitarism proportions.astana 3A line of central gardens and plazas leads to the 97m Bayterek monument, a white latticed tower crowned by a large golden orb. astana 4The Bayterek embodies a Kazakh legend in which the mythical bird Samruk lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human desires and happiness in a tall poplar tree, beyond human reach.astana 5The top level features a gilded hand print of the right hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first President of the independent republic of Kazakhstan, mounted in an ornate pedestal. A plaque invites visitors to place a hand in the imprint and make a wish…astana 4 bis Next to the tower, the ovoid building you see shelters the national archives. astana 6 As you keep moving East, you pass by gardens and fountains that lead to the presidential palace.astana 7 Those two golden towers reflecting he sky are two business centers. The left one is occupied by Samruk-Kazyna, a holding controlling most of the country public companies.astana 8 On the left side, the senate.astana 9 And the “Ministries House”.astana 10 On the right side, the supreme court.astana 11Then comes the Akorda, which means “the white horde”, in others words the presidential palace.It includes a blue and gold dome topped with a spire. This golden statue atop the dome includes a sun with 32 rays at its apex, and also includes a steppe eagle flying beneath the sun.astana 12 Then, you keep waking under the sun, choosing either a bridge on the left or on the right side of the avenue, symmetrical and identical constructions… astana 13 When you decide to walk through it seems a never-ending bridge but you get a beautiful view on the river, and you can admire the construction trucks ballet, as the city is still a work in progress.astana 14 And then, as you reach the end of the gate, you get to see an unexpected building shape : a pyramid. And a circular weird thing. And a Napoleon-like column. It is starting to remind me of Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy ! I just couldn’t believe it !astana 15 To reach the pyramid, I’ll have to go through a several hectares park, trees and lawn mainly, giving a welcomed breathe to the city.astana 16 Called “Palace of Peace & Harmony”, this glass and steal pyramid was designed by Norman Foster to host in 2006 the “triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions”… astana 18 As you cross the 2×6 lanes street behind the pyramid, you get to reach an arcade and two contemporary blue buildings, dominated by this column.astana 17The base of the column shelters a 5mm height bronze statue of the President. 91 meters higher you get to see a golden eagle.astana 19 You keep walking. Behind the arcade you get to see a bronze sculpture named “Kazak Yeli”, meaning “Kazakh country”. The selection of the figures as symbols in the monument illustrates how Kazakh leaders incorporated traditional Kazakh cultural symbols from their nomadic history as well as icons from their recent Soviet history. astana 20For now on, this is the end of the avenue. Is freedom ahead ?

Astana by night, a Blade Runner experience

Astana was built from scratch – Or, should I say, is being built from scratch, as construction is still going on. When having a look at my 22th floor hotel room, I got the impression to be watching a science fiction movie on TV…

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Just a medium-sized provincial city known for its bitter winters when President Nazarbaev named it out of the blue in 1994 as the country’s future capital, Astana replaced Almaty in 1997. Since then its skyline has grown more fantastical by the year as a reported 8% of the national budget is lavished on transforming vast acreage south of the Ishim River into a new governmental-administrative zone, with daring buildings combining Islamic, Soviet, Western and wacky futuristic influences.

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When you pay closer attention to the view, you can identify a large round square, surrounded with arcade buildings. And behind, a blue ship, in fact a contemporary vision of a yurt by Norman Foster… This yurt is the beginning of a ten kilometers East-West avenue that ends with another Norman Foster piece of work, a pyramid…
In the coming days, I’ll share an image gallery of the most spectacular buildings I got to see in this fantasy city.

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Why did Nazarbaev (the President, already leading the country in USSR times…) moved Kazakhstan’s capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997 ? First of all, Astana is a more central location and has greater proximity to Russia. But in addition, he may also have wanted to mollify Kazakhstan’s restive Russian population, concentrated in the north of the country. Despite incredulity at first, the new capital is there to stay and Astana is being transformed at great cost with impressive, sometimes spectacular, new buildings…