Friday, October 14, 2016

A visit to Kazakhstan

Over this year's Chinese National Day Holiday, while most of my friends from Beijing spent their predictable vacations in Thailand and Bali, I decided to fulfil my old plan of travelling to Central Asia.

The "Stans" of Central Asia remain a blank spot on the map for most people. While the world became aware of the existence of places like Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan when they suddenly appeared on the map as independent countries in the early nineties, few people have been there or have much idea what they might be like. This is, of course, part of what attracted me about the idea of going there.

I began my journey in the new capital of Kazakhstan, the biggest and most influential country in the region. Kazakhstan is a huge place, about the size of Western Europe. It is also extremely scarcely inhabited, with a population of only 17 million people, which might explain why it gathers so little attention outside of its borders. Astana, my first port of call, is a city in the North of the country which was turned into the capital by decree in 1997. Before that date, it was just an unimportant provincial town. In the years since, Astana has been transformed into a showcase of president Nazarbayev's ambitions for his country.

While Kazakhstan may have gained some dubious notoriety through the film Borat, it is actually the country in Central Asia least deserving of such stereotypes. Thanks mostly to its huge oil reserves, Kazakhstan is a relatively prosperous country. In fact, its economy was growing at almost Chinese rhythms until a slowdown occurred a couple of years ago. Some of the oil revenues are being used to turn Astana into a sleek modern capital, replete with skyscrapers and shopping malls. The city boasts a number of fancy new buildings, including a huge shopping mall built in the shape of a traditional Kazakh tent, designed by British architect Norman Foster.

The view from my window in Astana

The neighbourhood where I stayed
Central Astana

I stayed in a flat I booked through Airbnb, and my host came to pick me up at the airport. Like many Kazakhs, his features would not have been out of place in China or Mongolia. As we drove into Astana, my first impression was that the city would not have been out of place in China either. It looked to me like a Chinese county capital where the local government has decided to go on a building spree. The outskirts were full of blocks of flats and big half-finished buildings, and the cold and flat landscape also reminded me of Northern China.

Northern Kazakhstan is geographically almost in Siberia, and even though it was early October temperatures were already pretty frigid. Culturally the region is also closer to Russia than Central Asia, and in Astana almost everyone simply speaks Russian, regardless of whether they are ethnically Russian or Kazakh. The flat I stayed in was located in a new apartment complex within walking distance of the city centre. As I walked around the city seemed clean and safe. The central business district sported some sparkling new skyscrapers. After eating in a fancy shopping mall I stumbled upon Bayterek, an emblematic monument placed right in the middle of the city. The monument is supposed to embody a Kazakh legend in which the mythical bird Samruk lays a golden egg containing the secrets of human happiness in a tall poplar tree, beyond human reach. Although the top of the building does look like a golden egg, one has to use some imagination to see the bottom as a poplar tree.

The monument is 105 meters tall, and after buying a symbolically-priced ticket you can enter and take a lift to the top, inside the golden egg, where you get an excellent view of the city. Right at the top there is a print of the palm of president Nazarbayev. Visitors can have their photo taken while placing their hand in the print of his palm (which must be very big, since everyone's hand seems to fit inside it) and looking eastward towards the presidential palace, which is clearly visible in the distance.

The majority of visitors appeared to be Kazakhs from the provinces, some of them wearing traditional headgear and Muslim veils. They rather reminded me of the provincial Chinese tourists you find in Tiananmen Square. They were all very happy to have their photo taken while placing their hand in the palm of their glorious leader. Even some newlywed couples were there to have their wedding photos taken.

The Bayterek Monument

A view of the presidential palace from the top

A lady puts her hand into the print of the President's palm

So does this child

Kazakh family pose for a photo inside Bayterek

A view of Astana's business district from the top of the monument

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the object of this glorification, has been the president of Kazakhstan ever since it became independent in 1991. Even before that he was the head of the Kazakh branch of the Communist Party. Although he is an elected leader, he has received over 90% of the votes in every single election that has ever been organized. Needless to say, none of these elections were considered free and fair by outside observers. The country is run in an authoritarian fashion, and opposition is stifled. Having said that, Nazarbayev enjoys some genuine popularity due to the country's relative success and stability. And in spite of everything, Kazakhstan is not nearly as repressive as some of its neighbours, like Uzbekistan or the totalitarian black hole of Turkmenistan.

It is a story I recognise from China: a strong leader or party govern in an authoritarian fashion, they help the economy to grow and enforce the peace while they stifle dissent, but they make sure that most people are left in peace as long as they don't get involved in politics. Most of the population is happy enough with the situation, and the few opposition leaders languishing in jail or the lack of genuine legally guaranteed rights for the average citizen don't appear to bother them.

That evening I wanted to go to a restaurant recommended by my guide book, but it was too far to walk and the weather was rainy and frigid. I suddenly realised that there were very few taxis around, and that local people get around by just flagging down a private car on the street and hitching a ride in exchange for some cash. I couldn't work up the courage to do the same, partly due to my lack of Russian skills and the fact that it was nighttime, so in the end I just ate in a random cafe' and then went back to my flat.

The next day I found a travel agent inside a shopping mall and managed to book a train ticket to Almaty through a lady who spoke not a single word of English or any other language I know. I then found the courage to flag down a private car and take it back to the flat. I managed to negotiate a price in Russian with the friendly middle-aged driver. It struck me that a country where people are ready to get into the car of a random stranger cannot be an especially dangerous one, or at least levels of social trust must be relatively high.

That afternoon I went to the Khan Shatyr, the already mentioned shopping mall designed by Norman Fosters in the shape of a Kazakh tent. Although the building was definitely impressive and the shopping mall was quite fancy, it must be said that it is hard to impress someone who lives in China with fancy shopping malls designed by foreign architects. Beijing has more of those than Astana ever will. The tent-like design follows a general pattern I noticed in Kazakhstan, where the government seems to be doing its best to forge a national identity by making use of the symbols of the Kazakhs' nomadic past, particularly tents and horses. This is in spite of the fact that no actual nomadism survives in the country.

The Khan Shatyr Mall

Inside the mall

The view of Astana from the mall

In fact, during the 70 years of being part of the USSR, traditional Kazakh culture in many ways disappeared, and the region was filled up with Russians and people of other ethnicities who either went their voluntarily or were deported there by Stalin. Ethnic Kazakhs now make up 66% of the country's population, which is already a big upswing compared to when the Soviet Union collapsed, at which point Kazakhstan was only 40% Kazakh. The Kazakh language is also being promoted, and most official signs are written in both languages, with Kazakh coming first (it is also written in the Cyrillic alphabet, but it is easy to tell apart from Russian due to the additional letters used to represent Kazakh sounds). Although travelling in the big cities one hears mostly Russian, apparently in rural areas of Southern Kazakhstan people speak almost only in Kazakh.

That evening I went to Astana's train station and took the overnight train to Almaty, Kazakhstan's other big city. The train was fast and modern, and the journey took about 12 hours in total (the ticket cost 15000 tenge, or about 40 euros). When the sun rose I got to observe a scenery of endless empty steppes, interspersed with some very rare villages or factories. I wouldn't describe the scenery as beautiful, but its emptiness and uniformity had a soothing quality. After arriving in Almaty I took a cab to the youth hostel that I had booked. Almaty is Kazakhstan's former capital, and still its biggest city and cultural centre. In fact it is the biggest and most cosmopolitan urban centre in Central Asia. It even has a subway, although I had no chance to take it.

A view of the steppe from the train window

Almaty was founded by the Russians in the nineteenth century, and compared to Astana it looks much more like a traditional Russian city, with large boulevards and turn-of-the-century buildings. It felt quite like Eastern Europe, and yet the city is actually quite close to the border with China and closer to Afghanistan than to Russia. Due to my vaguely Russian looks people tended to assume I was a local. Thankfully, the weather was also a bit warmer than in Astana. I visited the city's well-known green market, which is full of stalls piled with local produce, and I tried a bowl of shubat, or fermented camel's milk, which is a Kazakh specialty. It tasted extremely strange, but I managed to finish most of the bowl before handing it back to the amused lady at the stall.

I then visited the Arasan baths, one of the finest bathhouses in the region, which was built during Soviet times. I paid a small sum to relax for an hour in the bathhouse, and I then strolled through Almaty's central Panfilov Park. I walked into the Zenkov Cathedral, one of the few surviving Tsarist-era buildings, which is built entirely of wood. During Soviet times it was used as a museum and theatre, but it has now been restored to the Orthodox church, and as I walked inside a service was taking place. Immediately outside the cathedral I stumbled upon an imposing war memorial, where an eternal flame honours the fallen in the civil war of 1917-1920, and the "Great Patriotic War" of 1941-1945. There's also a monument showing soldiers of the 15 Soviet Republics bursting out of a map of the USSR itself.

Zenkov Cathedral
After this casual stroll through the symbols of Russian history and faith in the middle of the Asian steppe, I returned to my youth hostel. That evening I went out with a couple of girls I know from Beijing who were also travelling in Almaty. One of them comes from Hong Kong and one from the US. We took the cable car to the hill of Kok-Tobe, from which you get excellent views of the city, and then we eat in a fancy restaurant at the top. On top of the hill there is also a slightly bizarre sculpture of the Beatles, with life-sized bronze statues of the fab four as they looked circa 1964. The meal was good, although of course all our dishes contained meat. Kazakhstan is certainly not a country for vegetarians, as is true of the whole of Central Asia.

The next day I booked an extortionately expensive tour with my hostel and went to see Lake Almaty, a famous lake set in a fantastic alpine scenery in the mountains outside the city. It only takes an hour to drive to the lake from the city, but by the time I got there I was high up in the mountains and the ground was covered in snow. The lake was indeed beautiful, and made for some good photos. There was a smattering of Kazakh tourists, although nothing like the crowds a similar place would receive in China. I was warned various times not to get too close to the lake, or I would be stopped by policemen who would try and extort a bribe out of me. This had happened to some other tourists the previous day.

Lake Almaty

The Tien Shan Mountains seen from a suburb of Almaty
My driver turned out to be a well-educated chap whose real work is as a psychiatrist in a state hospital, although he supplements his meagre income by driving tourists around. He spoke some English, and was very keen to chat with me. He claimed that president Nuzarbayev "is a gangster, but a good gangster. He makes a lot of money for himself and his family, but thanks to him Kazakhstan has no war, it is peaceful and ok to live in", or something along those lines.

All in all Kazakhstan struck me as far more prosperous and orderly than I was expecting. Of course, it must be said that I only visited the two largest cities of this vast country. All the same, the impression I got was of a relatively well-off and liveable place, and the people struck me as politer and friendlier than what I remember experiencing in Russia. Although the Kazakhs are supposed to be a Muslim people I definitely did not get any feeling of being in a pious Muslim country, in spite of Astana's impressive new mosque. Girls in veils were few and far between in Astana and Almaty, although there were more of them in the villages of Southern Kazakhstan which I saw from the bus window while travelling out of the country.

That evening I walked around the city centre until I stumbled upon Almaty's one and only expat pub, full of middle aged foreign businessmen drinking beer. Although it wasn't exactly my crowd I still drank a glass of Guinness, after which I caught a ride back to my hostel. The next day I would be heading off to Kyrgyzstan, and I figured that I had better get to bed early.

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