Inside the eerily quiet streets of Kazakhstan’s 20-year-old capital city, where futuristic skyscrapers tower over the grasslands of a former prison camp

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Tomer Ifrah

  • Astana was named the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, and has undergone a massive transformation since then.
  • The city is filled with futuristic skyscrapers that resemble a science-fiction movie.
  • But Astana’s streets are suspiciously clean and quiet, leading some to comment on its eerie atmosphere.

Twenty years ago, Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev made a radical move by moving his country’s capital to a little-known town in the middle of barren grassland.

He renamed the town “Astana,” meaning “capital,” and hired a world-famous Japanese architect to plan every aspect of the city, from its eye-popping skyline to its grandiose government buildings. Today, the city is compared to other planned capitals like Canberra, Brasilia, and Washington, DC.

Yet between Astana’s architectural marvels are streets that are perfectly manicured and eerily quiet, contributing to a surreal atmosphere that permeates the city. CNN called Astana “the world’s weirdest capital city,” while the Guardian called it “the space station in the steppes.”

Israeli photographer Tomer Ifrah recently documented life in Astana, from its nearly empty and suspiciously clean streets to its futuristic skyscrapers that look like something out of a science fiction movie.

Read on to see what life is like in Astana, a planned city like no other.


Astana was declared Kazakhstan’s capital city in 1997. Before that, it was a small provincial town named Aqmola, best known for being a former gulag prison camp for wives and children of enemies of the Soviet government.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: CNN, Dark Tourism


“Astana” simply means “capital” in the Kazakh language. President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital there from Almaty to breathe life into northern Kazakhstan and move the heart of the country farther away from China.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Science Direct


Astana’s master plan was designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, who detailed the construction of skyscrapers, roads, housing units, government buildings, and man-made forests.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Kisho


Nothing surrounds Astana except for hundreds of miles of barren grassland.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: CNN


“You fly for an hour over a flat dry emptiness and then, suddenly, without any hint of outlying farms or suburbs, there it is,” wrote The Independent.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Independent


Since becoming the capital 20 years ago, Astana’s population has ballooned from around 275,000 people to almost 900,000.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Demoscope and KazInform


Astana is filled with flashy, grandiose buildings that embody many modern post-Soviet cities.

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Tomer Ifrah

But nothing compares to Astana’s architecture. The skyline looks like something out of a science-fiction movie.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: CNN


Astana is dominated by a sense of order. Its streets display a “controlled cleanliness,” as one journalist wrote.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Guardian


Although the city is overflowing with modern flair, signs of traditional Kazakh culture abound.

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Tomer Ifrah

You can see it in the city’s architecture, like in the design of the Astana Music Hall.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Nespi


Kazakhstan’s rich oil reserves have netted the country billions of dollars. “One look at Astana and you can see where much of the money has gone,” the Guardian wrote.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Guardian


Meanwhile, the average Kazakh person takes home about $450 a month, according to government data.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Trading Economics


One of Astana’s latest futuristic marvels is the Kazakhstan Pavilion, a 328-foot sphere of black glass. It was built as part of a world’s fair in 2017 that cost as much as $5 billion to put on.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Foreign Policy


Much of life in Astana takes place indoors: With temperatures dipping to minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, Astana is the second-coldest capital city in the world.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Washington Post


But in the summertime, the mercury shoots up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: CNN


Local architect Serik Rustambekov called Astana “a place where East meets West.”

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: CNN


Astana is a young city, both historically and demographically. According to The Guardian, “You don’t see many over-50s out on the streets.”

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Guardian


Hundreds of workers are tasked with cleaning and maintaining Astana’s well-manicured streets each day.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Astana.gov


With its bulging population, Astana is constantly building new housing developments and apartment blocks.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: Expat Arrivals


The lack of life on the streets contributes to the city’s eerie ambiance.

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Tomer Ifrah

Astana’s breathtaking scenery ends as soon as you approach the edge of the city, abruptly converting back to vast, empty wilderness.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Guardian


Writer Giles Frasier captured the surreal feeling of visiting the city: “Astana feels like some great existentialist parable, an attempt to overcome the terror of endless emptiness with the frantic distraction of human endeavour,” he said.

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Tomer Ifrah

Source: The Guardian

View more of Tomer Ifrah’s photography on his Instagram account.