Ignore the corporate feel, EXPO-2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, is worth a visit

>> If you’re in Astana this summer head to EXPO-2017 to see what all the fuss has been about. The locals are enjoying themselves and some of the pavilions are weird and wonderful, writes James Kilner


ASTANA, June 19 (The Bulletin) — After a build-up lasting five years, Kazakhstan has finally opened EXPO-2017. If you’re in Astana between now and mid-September when it closes, you should go. It feels excessively corporate and you’ll probably come out of the EXPO-2017 site none-the-wiser on what exactly its Orwellian-tinged ‘Future Energy’ means, but don’t dwell on this — it’s not the real point of the exposition.

EXPO-2017 is a source of national pride and a must-do event for most ordinary Kazakhs this summer, at least for the ones who live in and around Astana.

And this pride and sense of fun is evident throughout EXPO-2017. The dozens and dozens of uniformed guides are courteous, speak excellent English and are genuinely helpful. The student volunteers beam with joy and are relishing the internationalism of the whole event.

As for the visitors, when I was there it must have been 95% Kazakh. These were groups of families and friends touring the pavilion, drinking in each country’s take on EXPO-2017. This ranges from Britain’s glowing yurt to Iran’s focus on promoting its carpets.

The visiting Kazakhs, armed with selfie sticks and aging smartphones, weren’t the super rich who travel effortlessly around the world, these were Kazakhs who may never have left Central Asia, or been on a solitary trip to Europe. EXPO-2017 feels as if it has returned the international exposition series to its original mid-19th century Victorian era roots of bringing the world to a particular city.

The human rights lobby draws visitors’ attention to Kazakhstan’s poor record for tolerating dissent and media freedom, and there have been widely documented corruption issues around EXPO-2017, but push this aside for now and enjoy the spectacle.

And make sure you don’t miss out on the Caribbean pavilion, the least scripted section. The women from Belize, Haiti and Dominica will tell you how they are coping with four months in Kazakhstan, a country they hadn’t heard of until earlier this year.

>> This article was first published as a comment piece in issue 333 of the weekly Central Asia & South Caucasus Bulletin on June 19 2017

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