7 March 2013

Coping with Snow and Cold in Astana

Coping with snow is big business in Astana as the city lives at temperatures below freezing from November through to March.  Of course the cold brings some advantages because other than the very start and end of winter when the temperature can get warm enough to bring some melt water to the streets we do not have problems with freeze-thaw.  Astana is typically very dry so we do not get too much snow, this year we have had much more than usual making the job of clearing much more difficult but the city has kept functioning. 

Astana in Winter
Astana is beautiful in the winter
All that said the snow, even heavy snow, really does not affect daily life at all.  When we were living in the UK a single fall of was usually enough to keep everybody indoors.  Having grown up in Norway it tends not to faze me but our neighbours would marvel that I was ‘brave’ enough to drive to town following a 5cm snowfall.  Here life goes on, even in the extreme cold or after a very heavy, sudden snowfall. 

The reason life is able to go on so well here is that  Astana has a huge team responsible for clearing the roads and some wonderful pieces of machinery to help them along (794 specialist units and 227 units for courtyard clearance and snow removal according to the city authorities).  The snowploughs go out in convoys of about 7 or 8 staggered one behind the other to make sure that a whole road of multiple lanes can be cleared in one go.  They drive around the city on a continuous cycle.  The snow that has been pushed to the side of the road is then collected either by a combination of an excavator and snow truck or with one of the amazing snow elevators that shovels the snow up onto a conveyor belt and into a snow truck.  

Clearing Snow in Astana
Snow Conveyors waiting for the snow trucks to start loading

Excavating Snow in Astana
Keeping the Park Paths Clear of Snow
It is a very well run operation and quite a pleasure to watch, particularly the conveyors which have moving 'mandibles' at the front to push the snow onto the conveyor belt.  The car park for the park opposite our house is used as a rest stop for the ploughs and snow trucks over the winter so we can watch them come and go.

Winter in Astana
Snow builds up on the sides of the roads
Clearing snow from roads in Astana
Which is then collected by specialist equipment and sent to landfill
All the roads are kept open although to what extent depends on the part of the city – our children’s school is out in a newly developing area.  It is serviced by broad avenues but as there is still very little accommodation out there the ploughs clear only 2 of the 4 lanes of the road, enough to keep the roads open.  We did have one morning, following a very heavy snowfall, where we drove in before the ploughs had been through but they came through about two hours later.   Even the airport is kept clear.  I have flown out of Astana despite heavy snowfall and low visibility that would shut many others.  It is not unknown for people to be grounded in Europe while the airport in Astana continues working safely in much worse conditions.  The biggest problem for the aircraft is the lack of hangar facilities.  Flights that land and then return don’t suffer because they spend very little time on the ground but flights that originate in Astana can be delayed in very cold weather because it takes so long to warm them. 

Astana Road in snow
Road out to school just before the ploughs clear the open lanes.
The lamp posts on the right show the right edge of the road
As well as having snow to deal with over the winter Astana suffers from very low temperatures - it is the second coldest capital in the world..  We have had a very warm winter - mostly above -20 but just before Christmas we had temperatures below -40 for some days. Last winter we had much colder weather for a much longer period of time.  The quid-pro-quo being that we had less snow.

When we first arrived in Astana it was the middle of summer and beautifully warm at +30.  I struggled to imagine how the city would cope over the winter.  From about October the fountains are drained and covered and the flower beds dug up.  The malls which have wide open doors in the warmer months start to change their entrances.  Most seem to have an 'airlock' system of sequential doors.  You go in one side, say the left and enter an outer hall, walk to the right and go in to the next hall, there can be up to 3 or 4 zigzags in some buildings depending on how cold it is. Once inside it is very warm and every mall, attraction and restaurant will have a fully staffed and efficient garderobe for outdoor clothes.

Underground parking is very popular in the winter because of the strain the cold places on the car battery and engine block.  Most cars have automatic starters which people activate before they start getting their outdoor clothes on so that the car warms up for them. If a car is not in a garage this has to be done every few hours to make sure that it stays healthy.  Our starter is broken so we try to park indoors as much as possible.  Entering and leaving the underground parking is done through a series of garage doors to retain the heat and I have noticed that hospital ambulance bays have a similar system.  

The last week or so the temperatures have been creeping up and there is an unmistakable feeling of spring in the air.  The snow is starting to look rotten and the other day I noticed the tiniest of buds on the trees, despite a temperature of -22.  The following day the thermometer was reading +1 and we had rain for the first time in months. Unfortunately this means that the pavements and roads have become very treacherous because the temperatures soon plummet again giving sheet ice with no traction at all. 

The Akimat – the city authorities have been making a concerted effort to clear away as much of the snow as possible before the melt sets in proper in order to minimise the effects of flooding.  Although snow is cleared from the parks and pavements and sent to landfill throughout the winter the process really steps up in March.  I read on the city website that over 4 million cubic meters has been removed from the city to landfill this winter.  We can now see hedgerows and benches in the parks that were hidden for the past months, another sign that winter is drawing to a close and Astana has started its annual metamorphosis from a snow city to a garden city.

Melting Ice in Astana
The thaw creates problems on the roads
As much snow and ice as possible is removed before the melt
Click on the picture for more posts on life in Kazakhstan.

Ersatz Expat


  1. I enjoyed reading this and found it very interesting, especially now that I'm sitting snowbound in the Eastern US ;) The snow situation in Armenia, where I lived for 6 years, was very different than what you describe, but then the winters were not as extreme. We had a name for snow removal: May. I heard it is a bit better these days but there used to be no equipment and the snow would melt and refreeze causing horrible dangerous walking conditions.

  2. Superb photos as always : a very thorough account of our winter xxxx
    I also love those mandibles scooping the snow.... simple yet effective.

  3. Thanks Diplomatic Dog. Miss Footloose I can only imagine how horrible that must have been to have a freeze and remelt all winter. I can cope with the deep winter and I love the summer but the start of winter and the end are horrible times.

  4. I wonder if the rail companies here in the UK would classify this as "the wrong type of snow"?

  5. Dear Hoptoad - all snow seems to be the wrong type in the UK. It is just not geared up to cope with snowfall.