Salem from Almaty, Kazakhstan,
We Australians know how ill-informed stereotypes fall short of the reality. “You Australians have kangaroos hopping down the main street.” “In Australia, there are spiders and snakes everywhere.” And so on. Here in Kazakhstan, they suffered from a cruel representation by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat”, in which Kazakhs were portrayed as backward agrarian plodders. They are nothing of the sort.
Almaty is a modern, sophisticated city. It rests at the foot of magnificent snow-laden mountains. Once it was a vital link on the old Silk Road and is now playing its part on the new version.
Almaty is no longer the capital. A sparkling new administrative capital (Astana) has sprung up from the steppe a couple of hundred kilometres north. (In Kazakh language, ‘Astana’ means ‘capital’.)
In fact, Kazakhstan was never an agrarian society. These people were hunters. They are the second biggest per capita meat eaters in the world. “First is the wolf,” says Nazym. Agriculture was only added courtesy of the command economy of the Soviet era when rivers were dammed for irrigation and large tracts of land were set aside for orchards and cropping. In any case, they are definitely not backward.
The mountains immediately to the south of Almaty are known as the Black and White Mountains because of the permanent snow. There’s a brilliant complex called Shymbulak which allows snow skiing during winter and hiking during summer. We caught the cable car up to 3200 metres and walked on. Linda is gingerly crouching on the edge of a precipice in the photograph.
We had a chi in a yurt way up at that height. (By the way, Linda, the tea connoisseur who bemoaned England’s tea culture, where tea bags have become the norm, has announced that she has finally found a culture which does tea properly. It’s here in Kazakhstan, where it is the custom to ruminate after the working day over several bowls of tea – made with milk.)
The Metro stations in Almaty are decorated in themes: one for the Silk Road; one for rocket launch pads; one for drama/theatre etc. After seeing Moscow’s Metro, we would have thought it would be hard to do better but Almaty’s have been described as the most handsomely decorated in the world.
horse meat on the menu
Horse meat is openly offered on restaurant menus. “See those horses there? That’s my lunch,” joked Ramazan. Camels’ milk is popular. On both sides of the Chinese border, the Uyghur people serve up Lagman which is a type of noodle meat soup, eaten with chop sticks. Compot is a delicious drink made with fruit but without any pulp. At our home stay last evening, we had a meal called Kuyrdak, with local lamb and vegetables. The same meal at a restaurant in Almaty included “sirloin horse meat, beef and mutton”. Linda has been bracing for the possibility that she has unwittingly devoured le cheval at some stage. So far, the conscience is clean.
There is plenty to see here. Yesterday, we ventured into Charyn Canyon, said to be the second largest in the world. It was extremely impressive from all angles and the magnificent green river at the bottom was very inviting. Today, we were high in the mountains again, walking to Lake Kolsai and Kaindy Lake. Both are beautiful and nearly untouched.
Kaindy Lake has a grove of dead birch trees standing in pristine snow melt. They are there because an earth quake a century ago caused a mountain to physically move, damming the river and drowning the trees. During the winter, when the lake freezes over, ice skaters practise their slalom between the dead trees.
This country is a great tourism destination. Everything works well. There’s a lot to see and do. Accommodation options are wide. The people are friendly and helpful – and very proud of their country. It’s very easy to get around. I recommend Kazakhstan to anyone. It’s been a genuine revelation for us. Aydyn – a local tour guide – opined that Borat was “stupid” and “completely untrue”. We now can agree on that.
Sau Bol from Kazakhstan