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September 18, 2014 / oneworld82

Kazakhstan: Some Thoughts

kazakhstan

Kazakhstan, a country on the rise. Kazakhstan, a multi-ethnic nation. Kazakhstan, land of nomads. Kazakhstan, all this and more.

Before getting into the details of my journey, I figured I’d give a short introduction on this behemoth country that, unfortunately, many people only associate with Borat. Kazakhstan is not on the radar of tourists as much as Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan are. After all, there are not many significant historic remains (Turkistan being the notable exception), the mountains in the South-East of the country are great but not as easily accessible as the ones in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikstan, and the steppe is (unfairly) not considered prime tourist material. But the land is rich and interesting, and the adventurous traveler will certainly find plenty of opportunities to keep himself or herself busy. For instance, the Caspian Sea resort city of Aktau is fast becoming a prime resort city.

Aktau

Aktau

But Kazakhstan is extremely interesting. First of all, the land of the Kazakhs is huge – almost the size of 1/3 of the United States but with only 16 million people inhabiting it (in fact, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the World, the largest landlocked one). It’s an interesting mix of Kazakhs – nomadic people of Turkic origin – Russians, and Koreans – forcibly moved here after the end of the Second World War from the Far East of the USSR (as they were thought to be spies colluding with the pro-Western Korean government). The result is a population as varied as it gets, with traits and features unique of this land.

Astana

Astana

Big Almaty Lake

Big Almaty Lake

Almaty

Almaty

Turkistan

Turkistan

Kazakh means “free rider”; Kazakhs are people of the steppe, nomads at heart. They were one people with the Uzbeks, but eventually split (the Uzbeks became sedentary). More than 20% of the population of Kazakhstan is, still today, ethnic Russian. Kazakh and Russian are co-existing, interchangeable languages, and the links of the country to Russia run, for better or worse, deep.

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Kazakhstan. Big uh?

Kazakhstan. Big uh?

Kazakhstan is a land that suffered a lot under the former Soviet Union. Here the central politburo created many gulag for prisoners of all sort, and here the central government decided to conduct a good number of nuclear experiments. Oil, gas, and other natural resources assured that the land were exploited as much as humanly possible. The exploitation of the Syr and Amur Darya rivers for agricultural purposes caused one of the great eco disasters of the XX century: the shrinking of the Aral Sea to about 1/10 of its original size.

Where once there was water, now there is sand

Where once there was water, now there is sand

Today’s Kazakhstan is, in a way, a creation of the first (and, so far, only) President of the independent country: Nursultan Nazarbayev. He may be tough (rigging election and harassing political foes are just two of the accusations that his critics move against him), and the country can’t certainly be considered a democracy in the Western sense of the word. But Kazakhs are nomads, used to leaders like Cinggis Khan, strongmen that give meaning and direction. To Nazarbayev’s credit, the country is living a real economic boom, and the benefits of this boom are trickling down to every level of society. Almaty feels like a wealthy European town (although it lacks the charm of a Milan or Munich, still), infrastructure projects are going on all around the country, incomes are on the raise. Kazakhstani cannot complain too much for now.

Almaty

Almaty

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I feel that in witnessing all this lies the charm of a trip to Kazakhstan. Past traditions and modern pace co-exist in a frontier country that has the potential to become an important player in the geo-politics of the World. Oh, and the food. From the excellent beshbermak to the unique kymys, the culinary tradition of the steppe is alive and well still today. If you are looking for an adventure that will take you off-the-beaten path (especially if you do not speak neither Kazakh nor Russian!), Kazakhstan will challenge and charm you.

Fast Facts

Fast Facts

 

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