MOSCOW – Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, which is hosting Syria peace talks, is a relatively new name on the map.
Founded in the early 19th century as a Russian empire outpost, Akmolinsk was a backwater in the wind-swept steppe. That changed in 1994 when Kazakhstan's first president decided to move the capital from the commercial center Almaty, and Akmolinsk was renamed Astana.
Since then the city's population soared from about 200,000 to 880,000 last year. Primarily developed in post-war years with typical provincial two-story buildings, Astana received a radical makeover in the 1990s to be dominated by skyscrapers and steel-and-glass modern buildings which house government agencies and major companies.
Locals joke about how fast Astana was developed. In one anecdote, a passenger asks the taxi driver about a skyscraper they pass. "I don't know. It wasn't there yesterday," the driver replies.
Weather in Astana is so brutal that the area was chosen in the 1930s as a location for Stalin's prison camps. A special camp for the wives of "traitors of the people," a common charge that party officials and Red Army officers faced in the 1930s, was set up in the steppes in 1938.
Before it was closed in 1950, thousands of female prisoners were sent to the camp, simply for their association with their husbands. Survivors of the wives' camp recall working in deadly winter with the freezing winds sweeping through the steppes and suffering from heat when dust storms rolled in.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Astana is -52 degrees Centigrade (-61 degrees Fahrenheit) and the highest is +43 degrees (109 degrees Fahrenheit). Snow can be seen on the streets in Astana in April and snowfalls are not unheard of in May.