Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kazakhstan, Nov30-Dec 1

Pretty lousy picture of Astana I'm afraid, but this is about all I've seen of it. We arrived late last night from Washington after a 17-hour flight, and emerged into a pretty frigid winter night on the Kazakh steppe.

The country -- dripping with oil profits, and not many people -- is on a Chinese-style building spree, and driving into the new capital (only 10 years old at this point) has a sort of "arriving in Las Vegas" feel to it: lots of big, oddly shaped towers, lots of neon, and LOTS of Christmas decorations. Lit Christmas trees, Santa statues, blinking snowflakes -- they're everywhere, and it all feels a little weird for a Muslim country.

Astana itself doesn't seem to have much going for it besides its questionable architecture. A lot of the things mentioned on the tourist map aren't even built yet, and the brutal climate (40 degrees below zero Celsius in the winter, 40 degrees above Celsius in the summer) makes it look like "street life" is never going to one of Astana's strong suits.

We're here for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit and it looks like most of the city's hotels are full of official delegations. We've landed at the "Akku Hotel", which from the outside looks like the Federal Reserve (all Greek columns and impressive staircase) and on the inside is heated to about 100 degrees.

But after 17 hours on a plane, any bed, is welcome and I managed to sleep pretty well after two bowls of lentil soup in the restaurant, where waiters and hangers-on outnumbered the paying guests by about five to one.

We spent the day at the OSCE summit site -- another brand new, weirdly-shaped building -- and after what seemed like an eternity finally made it back to the hotel for what looks like another dinner of lentil soup.

The story has been sort of fun, because Clinton has had to spend a lot of time placating foreign leaders about the Wikileaks release of embassy cables. Nobody seems seriously put out by them -- I guess all officials at that level of government would understand that there are some things you just don't want to make public.

Tomorrow it is on to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and then Bahrain.