An undistinguished agricultural center for most of its history, Astana, 680 mi/1,100 km north of Almaty, became the capital of Kazakhstan in December 1997. The move was originally unpopular. Astana, founded as a Russian frontier fortress in 1824, has a severe climate with brutally cold winters and hot summers plagued by mosquitoes. The city's old name, Akmola, means "white grave" (Astana means "capital"). Nonetheless, Astana's status meant progress. Hotels were built, and plans to create a series of urban parks and gardens by widening the Yesil River, or Green River, which cuts through town, are currently underway.
Astana has grown up in style, with a slew of futuristic skyscrapers and high-rise office buildings now gracing its cityscape. The 318-ft/97-m tall Baiterek observation tower, a tree-shaped structure holding a giant golden ball, stands in the center of the city. From the top, visitors can see the city's cutting-edge architectural landmarks and continuous fast-paced urban development in progress. Other places of touristic interest include the Palace of Peace and Concord, an innovative glass pyramid designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster; the marbled Presidential Palace with a blue yurt-shaped dome and the white-and-gold Nur Astana Mosque, the country's largest house of worship.
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