ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN // The toned beachgoers and muscular gym instructors perch on sun-loungers on the sand in the red livery of the Rixos Hotel's spa. Across the other side of the lagoon, three bronzed bathers shower under a thatched hut.
In the evening, there are plans for a beach party. But this is Astana, the capital of landlocked Kazakhstan, deep in the Central Asian steppes, and outside, beyond the protection of two layers of plastic sheathing, temperatures fall to -40 degrees in winter. Aqua Zone is the most bizarre of the many entertainments in Khan Shatyr - the world's tallest tent and the most lavish present the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, gave the people of his capital on his birthday yesterday.
From this week, the city's 700,000-strong population will be able to use the beach, which surrounds a lagoon-shaped pool, frolic in the waves thrown up by a wave machine, whizz down waterslides, or sip a cappuccino on the sand in temperatures of up to 24°C throughout the year. Khan Shatyr is a US$260-million (Dh955m), 13,000 sq m tour de force. It combines the ethylene tetrafluoroethylene plastic coating of the UK's Eden Project, the cable net structure of the Millennium Dome and a huge tripod frame. Foster and Partners, the British architecture firm, came up with the design in collaboration with Buro Happold, the structural engineers who designed the London Dome.
It is large enough for 10,000 people and has a monorail, a running track that circles the upper layers, and the Cosmodrome amusement park with dodgems, human pinball, a log flume ride, and a death-defying 37m drop tower. The lower layers are a huge meandering sea of shops and boutiques. David Nelson, the head of design at Foster, who oversaw the work, yesterday saw the completed Khan Shatyr for the first time.
"The quality of light is quite incredible in there. It's like being outside, and that was quite a surprise for us. You feel like you're going from inside to outside inside the building," he said. Khan Shatyr is the culmination of 12 years of effort by Mr Nazarbayev to forge Astana, a small agricultural town when he decreed it his capital, into a city his young nation can be proud of. The opening coincided with a packed programme of concerts, ballet, folk culture, fireworks, and cultural events, which the organisers say has cost well over $10m, as well as an international economic forum, and a meeting of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, which Kazakhstan is chairing this year.
Kazakhstans' officials were forced to move to Astana in 1998 from the much milder and more culturally sophisticated Almaty in the south. From the start Astana was the subject of ridicule, the crackpot project of a strongman ruler. At the inauguration on June 6, 1998, international journalists noticed that many of the buildings were little more than facades. The first buildings, the Ak Orda presidential palace and the Baiterek tower, retained a heavy post-Soviet design element.
But the worst thing was the geography: bitingly cold temperatures, winds from the steppes, and a huge distance to other population centres. A few years ago, however, things began to change. Frank Pannier, the chief executive of the steel giant Arcelormittal in Kazakhstan, lived in nearby Temirtau when the city became the capital and returned a decade later. "Astana is a little bit like Dubai today, isn't it? It's a great place," he said. "At that time it was a humble village."
The shift happened around 2006, when the city inauguarated its Pyrmaid of Peace and Reconciliation, also designed by Foster. Since then there has been a mania for hiring top architects such as Lord Foster, Paul Robrecht, Manfredi Nicoletti, Bjarke Ingels Group and HOK. Aytekin Gultekin, the president of Turkish construction firm Sembol, which has built most of the city's landmarks, said: "If this continues, in 50 years' time Astana will be an open exhibition of all the good products of architecture. In Chicago, there was a similar situation and now architects who come to the US, they visit Chicago to see the masterpieces."
But given how rushed many of the buildings have been, with cracks often visible even before completion, they may not last long into posterity. Locals say the city has a long way to go. "We really need some public places to relax," said Daniar Duisemnov, a bureaucrat, as he strolled with his two children through the square around the Baiterek monument. "Very often friends come and visit from Kyrgyzstan, and we have nothing to show them. There are only two or three places where I can take them."
Mr Duisemnov said there was more today than when he arrived three years ago. "It's getting better, and the government is taking steps and building new places, but at the same time they could have done more for young people." Khan Shatyr brings another line to the entertainment, but using the beach will cost $50 a day, which in a country where the average salary is still below $500 a month, means it is beyond the budget of a humble bureaucrat like him.