By Nigel Cox
I first set my eyes on the wonderful country that is Kazakhstan in February 1999. After arriving at night, I stumbled out of my small hotel in Almaty, blinking into blinding sunlight. As I slowly adjusted my eyes, I realized that to my right was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. A long line of tall, craggy, pines and snow-covered mountains crouched above me and stretched far away below a backdrop of a deep blue sky. It was love at first sight.
Even though it is the ninth largest country in the world and even though one of the most historic events in the history of Mankind happened here i.e., Yuri Gagarin being blasted into space from the Baikonur Rocket launching site situated in the Kazakh steppe lands, I never even knew the country existed until I was over 40. Later I learned that apples eaten around the world have their origins here, as do tulips. Beautiful, gently coloured, little wild tulips can still be found on the lower mountain slopes surrounding Almaty. Further afield, wild apple trees can also be seen.
I think that even though the country is spectacularly beautiful, it is the people who keep me here. The two main ethnic groups are Kazakhs, who are the majority, and then Russians. However there are many other groups ranging from Germans to Koreans to Uighurs. Generally they live together harmoniously and show a friendly interest towards foreigners. This area is often called Eurasia and Eurasiansâ features can be very attractive especially when a pair of deep brown or green eyes graces their faces. The women are often strikingly beautiful and the men are mostly fit and sporty looking. The children are incredibly cute. Many people you see are mixtures of east and west. The Saki people who lived here in ancient times were quite fair and European looking. However when the horse soldiers of Genghis Khan surged out of Mongolia from the immediate East of the country, all that changed. Even today many Kazakhs claim to be direct descendants of the unstoppable conqueror. I have found the majority of the people to be friendly, kind, welcoming and generous, no matter what their ethnicity.
Kazakhstan has no state religion but the main faiths followed are Islam and Christianity. Both beautiful mosques and churches can be found throughout the country. In Almaty there is a park named after Mahatma Gandhi with a statue of the holy man in the centre of it. Due to their great mineral resources, the country has become quite rich since the dissolution of the USSR. The two main cities, Astana, the capital, and Almaty, the business centre of Central Asia, are both modern, fast-developing cities. I am glad to say that despite lots of new development projects Almaty has retained much of its charm and beauty due to itâs close proximity to the mountains, tree lined streets and interesting classical Russian style architecture. The city roads in Almaty are replete with expensive luxury cars and jeeps while the pavements are full of well-dressed residents walking to their work or studies checking their smart phones or laughing and chatting with their companions. The two main languages are Russian and Kazakh but many people speak very good English.
Kazakhstan is as big as Western Europe and shares borders with various countries. Border cities often take their character from the nearby country. Pavlodar in the North has a distinctive Russian feel, Chimkent and the beautiful old historic Turkestan, in the South are influenced by Uzbekistan, whilst Zharkent on the Chinese border even has a beautiful Chinese Pagoda in the middle of it. The newly created capital is situated in the centre of the country and is full of shining new modern buildings. It has been called the Dubai of the Steppe. Unlike Dubai, in the winter, the temperature regularly drops to around 40 degrees below zero. The country has a continental climate but it is so vast it varies from area to area especially north to south.
A philosophical view of life.
Due to their chequered history, the people here have a somewhat down to earth view of life. Currently there is prosperity, especially in the big cities. If things got worse tomorrow, most people would recognize it as part of the inevitable ups and downs of life. Over the last 100 years they have endured world wars, revolution, famine, Stalinist repressions, gulag prison camps, nuclear weapons testing and now independence and prosperity. Despite their thriving new cityscapes and large luxury cars, the older people still remember the dark days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It wasnât that long ago when the main cars on the streets were beaten up old Ladas and there were daily power cuts.
What upsets one the most?
As with much fast paced growth, anywhere in the world, progress has meant the destruction of many of the old quarters of the cities, and subsequently their character. Previously Almaty was called the Father of Apples and the greenest city in the USSR. Unfortunately due to road widening and general development many trees and orchards have been lost but there are still enough to give the central area a green, natural feel to many of the streets in spring and summer. Even though the mountains are still visible from most parts of the city many tall buildings have been built that have diminished the spectacular views somewhat. There are now a lot of skiing and hotel development happening in the mountains and many houses stand in places that were until recently pristine beauty spots. Rubbish is often strewn everywhere in the picnic areas. Bureaucracy and corruption can be a problem and many laws are constantly changing. There is great inequality between the city and village dwellers. Many mountain areas are being developed and fenced off. Car crashes are to be seen every day especially on crossroads due to people driving at unnecessarily excessive speed.
The people of Kazakhstan love eating meat, including horse meat. It said that ethnic Kazakhs are second only to wolves in the consumption of meat. Their favourite meal is called Beshparmak and consists of boiled horse meat and strips of pasta. In Almaty and Astana there are restaurants that offer cuisines from all the main ethnic groups and now also American style fast food joints are popping up âlike mushrooms after the rainâ as they say here. Obviously, Russian food is widely eaten here as is Korean, Chinese, Uygur, Italian and many more cuisinesâ¦
The nature in Kazakhstan in many places can only be described as awesome. Mountains, steppe, deserts, huge meandering rivers and raging mountain torrents, canyons, beautiful lakes large and small are all waiting to be seen here. In the south of the country and on Almatyâs doorstep you find the Tien Shan Mountains (Mountains of Heaven in Chinese). Just 300 kilometres from Almaty on the road to China you find Charyn Canyon, which is on a similar scale to the Grand Canyon in the USA. A short drive up in to the mountains from Charyn brings you to the trio of Kolsay lakes. These are a few of the known beauty spots but there are thousands such natural gems, of all kinds, sprinkled throughout the country. Near Oskemen in the northeast you find, bordering Russia, the vast unspoilt beauty of the Altai mountains. Close to the capital is the rugged rocky lake and forest area of Burabay (Borovoyoe) also known as the Kazakh Switzerland. The weather Kazakhstan somersaults through the whole gamut of weather possibilities ranging from 40 degrees below to 40 degrees above Celsius. In Almaty, winter sports can be practised at Chimbuluk and in the Summer you can relax at the Kapshagay lake resorts, the aka Almaty Riveria.
What do I do in the evenings?
These days, in the big cities of Kazakhstan there is a huge array of bars, night clubs, cafes, shopping malls, karaoke bars, restaurants, cinemas, fitness centres etc. The theatre, opera and ballet are also very popular and quite cheap compared to many other places in the World.
What makes me happy?
So many things bring me joy here. The friendly people, the feeling of being close to nature even though you are in a city and, for me, a feeling of adventure even in my every day life. My life here is sometimes difficult but never boring.
This short piece cannot do any kind of justice to the amazing country that is Kazakhstan. If you want to come for a holiday it has many possibilities and if you are considering employment here, depending on your area of expertise, there can be many very lucrative opportunities.