Central Asia has been on my radar for quite a while. Every year I think about the places I want to visit and I put the region on the list. Every year I fail to make it. Usually it’s just a matter of logistics – I run out of time or end up in a different part of the world.
But finally I made it. And it did not disappoint.
My first stop was Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. I had been invited by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation to speak at a conference and explore a bit of the region afterwards and thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. It is not how I would normally travel – it was clearly a quick trip covering a lot of ground – but it looked like the perfect introduction to Central Asia.
I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks about some of the things I saw and the places I visited, but I want to start today with my thoughts on Almaty and my first impressions of Kazakhstan.
First impressions of Kazakhstan
There’s one thing that most people think of when they hear the name ‘Kazakhstan’. I think you know what I’m about to say – it’s the B word. Borat.
I was actually reluctant to even mention it in this post because very quickly I realised it really has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. However, I think it’s worth bringing it up just to put the idea of the character out of your mind. I get the feeling that Sacha Baron Cohen invented a character and then randomly chose a nationality for him. It helped that the global audience really didn’t know anything about Kazakhstan.
While the Kazakh authorities initially banned the film, in the end it has been credited with bringing more attention to the country and, ultimately, a more accurate understanding of what it’s actually like.
For starters, Borat doesn’t even look right! About 70 per cent of the population are ethnic Kazakhs, which means they have Asian features and look more like their Chinese neighbours to the east than the Russians to the north. Only about 20 per cent of the population is ethnically Russian… but they still don’t look like Borat. I really don’t know where he should have been from. Turkey, maybe?
But, anyway, enough of this digression I didn’t even want to start, and back to the real Kazakhstan… which is a big country! It’s the ninth largest country in the world and about the same size as Argentina. But, with a population of only 17 million people, it’s one of the lowest densities in the world.
I noticed it when I left the city and started to travel through the countryside – emptiness everywhere. The roads are long and the horizon wide. What really captured my attention, though, were the landscapes. They are incredible. A journey through Kazakhstan is as much about what you see out the window along the way as it is the stops.
In my next post, I’ll show you some of these natural wonders. For now, though, I want to concentrate on Almaty.
Thoughts on Almaty
Kazakhstan is actually quite a rich country, most of its money coming from its vast oil reserves and minerals and metals. Considering it also has a lot of great agricultural land, there’s probably no surprise that it’s the largest economy in Central Asia (Kazakhstan’s GDP is about the same as Qatar’s). And much of that money ends up in Almaty.
I was surprised by how modern the city feels – albeit, in a Central Asian kind of way. It’s not that there are imposing skyscrapers like New York or massive malls like Bangkok. What strikes me is how clean and orderly it is… and how normal parts of it feel. Trendy restaurants on the corner; new apartment blocks; a metro line running underneath. It’s perfectly safe to walk the streets and get a sense of the place for yourself.
It certainly has its own unique characteristics, though – you don’t feel like you are just in another generic city. The grand public buildings along the wide boulevards show the influence from the Soviet era, concrete monoliths that impose as much as they inspire. The Hotel Kazakhstan is a great example of the architecture of the time. Built in the 1970s, there is something quite beautiful about the brutalist approach to the design.
One morning I joined a free walking tour, offered by a local company called Center Smart Tourism (you can find more details here). The young guide spoke English really well and took me through some of the central area of Almaty.
It felt as though the statues of local heroes were joining us on our walk, they appeared along the way so often. It was all so Soviet – even if most of the figures depicted are actually Kazakhs. That so many of the buildings here also have a sense of the Soviet about them is a constant reminder of the history.
Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 until 1997… and most of this period it was part of the Soviet Union. It explains much of what you see here – and, in many cases, what you do here. Everything from the transport system to the nightclubs are still influenced by those days. I’m sure the statistics of vodka consumption here would back up my point!
But Almaty has something else very special that you notice as soon as you arrive – the snow-capped mountains that surround it. Some of them are almost 4000 metres high and they create a constant dramatic backdrop.
One of the big selling points of this city (and something that I think should be promoted more to potential tourists) is how close it is to natural wonders, including great skiing in winter.
Kok Tobe, Almaty
Unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of time to get up into the snowy mountains but I did take the cable car up to Kok Tobe, which is the highest point of the city, about 1100 metres above sea level.
At the top is a recreation area, with a small zoo, rides for children, and a large ferris wheel. It’s the kind of place where families stroll around to entertain the kids, friends meet for a coffee, and restaurants get busy on weekends.
From here, I stopped at a viewpoint and looked across Almaty, stretching out in the valley beneath. You get an excellent sense of how the city fits within the natural environment – a dense population of 1.5 million surrounded by the emptiness of the country in each direction.
I thought about that… and about travels here. Almaty is vibrant and a fun place to spend some time, enjoying the Kazakh hospitality and seeing some of the sights. But it’s the big adventure beyond the city limits that really interests me. There’s a wilderness out there, filled with something. And that’s what visiting this country should be about.
More on that in my next post…