Travel to Kazakhstan
"A big place. You could put Texas or France in it five times over - or the whole of Western Europe. It seemed strange to know so little about somewhere so large."
In search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins
The newly independent state of Kazakhstan emerged in 1991 out of the former Soviet Union as the ninth-largest country on the planet. Long regarded as little more than a big blank space in the middle of Asia, Kazakhstan has made it onto the map thanks to the judicious use of its vast mineral resources in its two decades as a nation. It stretches from the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan and Altai mountains in the east, across great expanses of wormwood-scented steppe to the Caspian in the west.
It may have been the birthplace of the apple, and the tulip. Yuri Gagarin, the first human into space, started his journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the south of the country.
The most economically advanced of the ‘stans’, Kazakhstan has reinvented itself since the Soviet collapse as a uniquely prosperous and modern Eurasian nation. Rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan is a major supplier of oil and of a huge range of minerals.
It is fashioning a modern new capital, Astana, in the north, has been transformed into a 21st-century capital with a profusion of stunning futuristic architecture. Astana's monuments include a pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Harmony and a huge transparent tent which covers a beach, golf course and even gondola-filled canals. Both were designed by British architect Lord Foster. The commercial and social hub, Almaty, has an almost European feel with its boutiques, chic cafes and avant-garde arts and club scene.
The country’s southern fringe, on old silk routes and the edge of the Tian Shan, has always attracted a flow of Central Asia travellers. Today, with better transport and better facilities of every kind, it’s easier than ever before to soak up the soulful rhythms of the boundless steppe, to watch flamingos on salty inland lakes, or to discover mysterious underground mosques near the Caspian Sea.
The northern route of the Silk Road ran through the southern part of the country, nurturing important cities. In one, Turkestan, Kazakhstan's most magnificent building is to be found, the turquoise-domed mausoleum of the Sufist spiritual leader Khodja Ahmed Yassaui. The neighbouring city of Otrar, living on today as no more than an archaeological site, has a somewhat unfortunate claim to historical fame as the place in which the ill-considered actions of the city governor brought the predations of the Mongols of Genghis Khan onto central Asia.
A multi-ethnic country which straddles two continents, Kazakhstan is an expression of a Eurasian ideal. Much of Kazakhstan was controlled by a long succession of nomadic peoples and ethnic Kazakhs are very proud of their nomadic heritage. An invitation to a traditional Kazakh meal, which may even be held in a yurt, is not to be missed. When presented, as honoured guest, with a sheep's head for division among those around the table, the music of the dombra playing in the background, and your host solicitously enquiring as to whether you would prefer mare's or camel's milk, the exoticism of this fascinating land makes itself most clear. Kazakhstan offers the visitor a wide and rewarding range of travel experiences.
Travellers are still rare enough here for a foreign guest to be treated not as just another tourist but with real warmth and hospitality. Enjoy it while it lasts!