Destination: Almaty

  • Mission 1: Observe Kazakh culture and traditions in the former/old capital Almaty (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Perhaps my most controversial mission to date; visiting the Kazakh State Circus (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3: Seek out traces of a Soviet past and establish to what extent the people of Kazakhstan today remain under Soviet and Russian influence (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Compare the dazzling new capital Nursultan (Astana) to the former capital Almaty and find out if any authentic culture really exists there (DEFERRED);
  • Mission 5: Since it looks like the Baikonur Cosmodrome is off-limits except to the rich or Russian (unless the lease isn’t extended beyond 2050), the next best thing is visiting the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (DEFERRED);
  • Mission 6: Visit the eerie ship graveyard that was the former Aral Sea which is also close to the Uzbekistan border and Vozrozhdeniya Island biological weapons test site (DEFERRED).

Highlight: Catching a close-up glimpse of a golden eagle (Kazakhstan’s national animal) perched on a rock with the backdrop of Big Almaty Lake and the alpine mountains.

Lowlight: A couple of dodgy human encounters that left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Feat of Architecture: Nursultan wins the prize for having the most obscure modern architecture. The huge glass-exterior Nurly Tau Business Centre of Almaty would definitely look less out of place in the new capital.

Recce Fact: Despite being a landlocked country, Kazakhstan still have a navy whose interests lie mainly in the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan was my most anticipated mission to Central Asia. Why? Because of its sheer vastness. The common Mercator projection map does exaggerate its size but it is still larger in true area than all of Western Europe combined and each corner of the country constitutes a fascinating trail. Sadly, the territory was abused under Soviet control, used as a nuclear (and biochemical weapon) testing ground with a significant portion of it rendered nothing but a barren, toxic wasteland beyond the Silk Road. The old and brand new capital cities offer a stark contrast and I have been curious to visit both for entirely different reasons. What prompted this decision to change the capital from Almaty to Astana in 1997, expanding what was merely a small village (Akmola)? A new city may not have much in the way of authentic culture, but Kazakhs were able to shape their own capital from a clean slate entirely without Soviet influence, showcase their own independent nation in a geographic location that was more accessible (although I remain unconvinced about this, plus it must be a tad inconvenient that Nursultan plummets to at least -20° in Winter) and, most importantly, to unify the north and south to discourage any notions of separatism (Kazakhstan’s biggest threat along with extremism). Since it can take up to two days to get from one end of the country to the other, I decided to begin with the buzzing old capital, Almaty in the hope of discovering some authentic culture and Soviet history there.

First Impressions

As a tourist in Kazakhstan, one still won’t get very far these days without Russian (still the #1 language spoken in Almaty while Nursultan promotes the Kazakh language to a greater extent) or a Turkic language that is mutually intelligible, as I discovered when trying to check-in to my pit-stop hotel beside the airport in the middle of the night. It was decent for €20/night and, as consolation, they did serve the best rice pudding I have ever tasted, albeit a peculiar choice of breakfast offering. Any concerns about Kazakhstan adhering to strict Islamic principles were swiftly put to bed, as the mini fridge was well-stocked with alcohol and “supplies for his and her pleasure”. Definitely not the sort of night I was looking for, but a good indication of tolerance all the same.

The next day I woke early and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the taxi driver (a rather convivial chap) summoned by the hotel spoke just enough English that we could communicate by patching together our mutually abysmal efforts in our respective languages. When he dropped me off at the real McCoy hotel (Hotel Kazakhstan) in the centre of Almaty, he assured me that I could rely on him for anywhere I wanted to go. Splendid (or so I thought).

Hotel Kazakhstan is the grandest hotel in Almaty with its domineering architecture and opulent interior; the pride of the city since Soviet times having received multitudes of eminent guests and now, little old me. Thankfully the rooms have been spruced-up since the 70s and offer fabulous views over the city. It’s just a pity that at night, walking alone in the city even just outside the hotel proved not to be so safe. One evening a passer-by lunged at me as if to attack me and laughed hysterically when I jolted suddenly. “What sort of people are these Kazakhs?”,  I wondered to myself. Unfortunately my impressions didn’t improve throughout the course of the trip, but I shan’t let a few bad apples spoil the barrel; a choice analogy as it is believed that apples originate from Kazakhstan.

Escape from Big Almaty Lake

Escaping the built-up city to immerse in some of the natural landscapes was highest on the agenda and I was determined to get that postcard shot of Big Almaty Lake next to the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains.

Disappoint, the view did not, and the road trip was a complete comedy show as the taxi driver and I bantered about our mutually awful attempts to communicate, showed each other pictures of our families and I even spoke with his wife on the phone. Like a child, I pointed out the window intermittently at various objects asking how to say them in Russian, and took the opportunity to ask more general questions about the country too, e.g. “Do you have bears/earthquakes/freezing winters, etc.?”. As a bonus, I learned about the benefits of vehicle LPG conversion as well as the drawbacks of LPG uphill.

Finally, we arrived at the lake where many locals had congregated for family days out and the view was indeed spectacular. The snowy mountains were so tranquil behind the milky aquamarine lake and there was a majestic golden eagle tethered to a rock, creating the powerful photo opportunity I had been looking for. Content that I would be going home with this lasting image in the bank, I could now resign and take it easy.

Before heading back down the mountain road to Almaty, we stopped briefly by a roadside yurt where a nice young Kazakh lady served us fermented horse milk on ornate-patterned bowls carried on a tray. She seemed very humble and didn’t want to accept any tips.

There were a few warning flags that I should have seen in this taxi driver. First, when he saw that the yurt lady didn’t want the tip, he scooped it up and put it in his own pocket. Second, at the lake he kept asking passers-by to take photos of he-and-I together and insisted on putting his arm around me. I had read that Kazakhs are quite tactile people and don’t have the same spatial awareness/distancing concept that we have in the West; understandable when resources were once so scarce, so I thought nothing of it. But by the third flag, it was too late. Instead of heading back down the mountain, he proceeded to drive further up the mountain. Let’s just say he had a very different idea about how things were going to go and I commanded him to desist in no uncertain terms, using physical force that was entirely appropriate. I weighed-up my chances of cutting by anchor and running by heading back down to the lake and looking for another taxi or someone who spoke English but reckoned the chances were slim. So I instructed the bad apple to drive me directly back to Almaty and we would speak no more of it. Thankfully, he complied. I immediately blocked his number but decided not to report him. I didn’t want to make trouble for his family and had no assurances that the police or hotel would even take my side (as a foreign Western female in a reportedly corrupt and, not forgetting, an Islamic country), so I left it be and hope he learned his lesson. Note to self, beware of the camel’s nose.

Soviet Kazakhstan

My quest for Lenins has become a labour of love. As with other former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan’s collection of Lenin statues have either been destroyed or put out to pasture in obscure locations among the suburbs. I discovered a large Lenin hiding out in a family park off Altynsarin Avenue with his Bolshevik buddies Kalinin (after whom Kaliningrad was named) and Frunze (at least I think it was Frunze but could as easily have been Stalin’s taller twin).

Just around the corner from the statues in this Family Park, there are facilities where youth can play bowling, go-karting and frolic in a playground of disused military equipment. Yep, children were scrambling all over fighter aircraft and armoured vehicles like climbing frames, either oblivious or desensitised to the fact that they were once vessels of death and destruction.

The obligatory grandiose Great War memorial and eternal flame can be found in the Park of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen (named in honour of those who died from the Alma-Ata Infantry whilst delaying the German attack on Moscow). Nearby stands an Afghan War Monument depicting some unmistakably ethnic Kazakh soldiers. I must say it is one of the most impressive and well-maintained Soviet war memorials I have happened upon in my travels.

Beyond the memorials lie the steps to the House of Army of the Republic of Kazakhstan with its impressive gateway. Apparently there is a military museum inside but it was closed at the time I visited, as per my usual luck.

The park did have one surprise in store; a gun from a Kirov-class cruiser. Not just any cruiser of the class, but the first and lead vessel Kirov itself. Built in 1973, it is still around today under a different name, but sadly it has been docked for decades now and failed to be repaired after a reactor incident in 1990. The cost of decommissioning a nuclear powered ship (with not just one but two reactors) is probably why it has been berthed for so long.

More than 20% of Kazakhstan’s population today are ethnic Russians, but as a population are slowly in decline. It was closer to 50% during the height of the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Russians, grand, ornamental Russian Orthodox churches (including the style that puts me in mind of domed gingerbread houses) can be found throughout Almaty, with one of the most famous being the vibrant yellow Ascension Cathedral; the second tallest wooden building in the world, constructed from timber without nails in the early 1900s when Kazakhstan was still ruled by tsars. Impressive. I thought only the Japanese were talented at such carpentry. If only today’s generation possessed the skills and workmanship of our forefathers. I myself, despite my engineering PhD, can barely assemble a jigsaw puzzle let alone craft something remotely intricate.

Naturally, Russian and Soviet-built vehicles are still extremely popular throughout the country. The roads and weather conditions can be extreme and it takes the likes of a tough old GAZ truck to get from A to B. An old yellow Moskvich turned-street monument caught my eye while roaming around. At first I thought it was packed with pomegranates but on further inspection they resembled like giant apples. Apparently, scientists have been able to establish through DNA analysis that the first apples (malus sieversii) originated in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan. They can be considered a kind of grandfather to the modern apple and apparently still grow there. Next time I will be sure to seek them out.

Kazakh State Circus

Possibly being my most ethically controversial mission yet, I decided I had to see a Central Asian state circus performance for myself. It was difficult to recruit anyone to accompany me, as everyone I spoke with objected strongly to circuses in principle, but I was grateful to find a new friend and volunteer eventually. What could be so bad? Surely in this day and age no reputable circus could get away with treating animals poorly, but of course the main issue remains that any animal should be compelled to perform at all. Nevertheless, I had to see what it was all about since I had never and will never have the opportunity in Western Europe.

So off I went with a trumpety-trump. It was midweek, yet it was a hive of activity both inside and out with local families gathering to watch the show. Children took turns to ride one of the elephants around the ring and have their group photos taken while the elephants posed.

Soon after the audience promptly took their seats and the variety show commenced, I was relieved to see that humans were just as central to the performance as animals, with all sorts of dancers, a clown/comedian, trapeze artists and balancing acts. I noticed immediately that most of the performers looked like ethnic Russians, not Kazakhs, so it was likely a touring circus act.

Then came the animals; dogs, ponies, a porcupine, a crocodile, an alpaca, small monkeys, big cats including a lion and more. The star of the show was silver-haired stud called Andrey Dementiev-Kornilov, King of the Elephants.

Thankfully, there was no evidence of any of the animals being mistreated in the ring, nor did they look malnourished, even though the secret to getting wild animals to perform is well-documented (keeping them hungry). The little dogs were having an absolute ball, jumping around, dancing and hopping in and out of the clown’s car like something out of Wacky Races. It was obvious that they absolutely loved the attention and felt genuine affection for their trainers too. However, there were a few moments during the various acts that made me cringe with pure discomfort:

  • The little monkey really didn’t want to get onto the trapeze because he knew he would be hoisted all the way to the ceiling. He looked afraid but helpless but his trainer just kept setting him back in place until he reluctantly complied.
  • Watching elephants doing handstands. Elephants have absolutely no business doing handstands or balancing on tiny balls whatsoever.
  • The big cats were clearly very hungry as they begrudgingly cooperated with humiliating tasks like treading in a giant hamster wheel or jumping through fire in order to receive their rewards of raw meat on skewers.

In summary, I decided that although it is unfair that animals have no choice but to perform if they want to be fed and treated well, the controversy is relative to varying degrees. For example, it might be good fun for a dog, or even a monkey who isn’t afraid of heights, but for God’s mighty wild beasts like lions and elephants it is not dignified at all. I, for one, can enjoy the circus perfectly well without any animals featuring whatsoever.

Obscure Architecture

This segment shall remain short and sweet for now as Astana will be the real playground for unusual architecture. Almaty, in contrast, is the place to find older Soviet constructions, i.e. domineering government buildings such as Republic Palace, the Auezov Theatre and the Central State Museum.

Almaty is also where one can find a full catalogue of other concrete oddities and dilapidated Soviet residential blocks, e.g. Symbat Centre, Aul Residential Complex and the apartment blocks behind the monument of poet, Zhamabyl Zhabayev in the city centre.

Almaty Tower stands prominent at 371m high on the Kok Tobe slopes, although is not open to the public. It is said to be the tallest free-standing tubular steel structure in the world and I was able to snap some terrific shots of it with the mountainous backdrop by hanging unelegantly out of my hotel window.

Another notable mention is the Nurly Tau multifunctional complex. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such such a massive glass-facade building before. Oh, to be a window-cleaner.

As with the other Central Asian “-stans”, Kazakhstan likes to add cultural detailing in the form of ornate patterns to spruce up otherwise boring gables and building facades, as did the Soviets with their realism artwork.

Election Time Post-“Eternal” President

How fortunate it was that I missed the new presidential election by one week. Erstwhile president of almost 30 years and “benevolent dictator” Nursultan Nazarbayev had stepped-down in March 2019. Having named just about everything else worth naming in the country Nur-something-or-other in his honour, the decision was immediately taken to rename the capital city Astana, Nursultan. While many were genuinely shocked at the 78-year old’s “sudden” retirement, reckoning if he’d managed to stay that long he might as well just stay until the end, the power transition had been planned behind the scenes for quite some time.

It was no surprise to anyone that Nazarbayev’s primed candidate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won a snap election by a clear majority (also rumoured to be a Chinese puppet), one week after my visit. But this time, many took to the streets in defiant “illegal” protest, feeling that they never had any real choice and were sick-to-the-back-teeth of unfair elections. I watched the furore and hard crackdown on television when I came back home and was very grateful I missed out on all that action, with hundreds taken into custody.

Nazarbayev hasn’t quite disappeared into the woodwork yet. He still holds many indeterminate-sounding positions/titles in government including Chairman of the Security Council of Kazakhstan and is thought to remain as the real driving force behind the current government. He also managed to secure immunity to any legal/criminal prosecutions, privatise his assets and made it illegal to denounce him in any way. In spite of allegations of major embezzlement, nepotism and other dodgy deeds, his economic policies have helped the country grow from strength to strength and he is revered by many who look to their neighbours and realise they had been dealt a far better hand. Still, with all that alleged corruption, there was no way I was reporting any crimes in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh Cuisine

Most of Mission Kyrgyzstan‘s cuisine description also applies to Kazakhstan and it is equally horse/sheep/milk heavy, owed to their Turkic nomadic roots. I decided to skip the beshbarmak, kuurdak and did my best to avoid anything horse meat-centric this time (I think trying once was enough to get the gist), preferring more trusted options – laghman (national dish of the Uighurs) and plov.

After the circus, I enjoyed a fabulous plov, all the more because I had the privilege to watch it being made from scratch. In the company of my Uzbek acquaintance, I learned that the plov chef was actually Uzbek as well. Because Kazakhs didn’t traditionally have plov, it seems they usually adopt similar recipe.

I’d had sufficient fermented horse milk in Bishkek to last me a lifetime but couldn’t really avoid it in the yurt next to Big Almaty Lake when the young lady brought out her tray of kurt (salty hard cheese and whey), deep fried baursak and kumis in decorative bowls. So there sat I in the yurt like Little Miss Muffet.

Little Miss Muffet sat in a Kazakh yurt,

Eating her curds and whey.

Despite overdoing the praise,

For this fermented milk craze,

When no one was looking, she discreetly chucked it away.

On the other hand, one popular (dessert) dish I can never get enough of is chak-chak (a vastly improved version of Rice Krispie Squares). I do love a good dumpling, but Central Asian manti taste “too sheepy” for me. Mutton wouldn’t be my favourite meat at all.

The benefit of not having to cram as much national cuisine into my short trip since I’d tried much of it before was that I didn’t feel the need to eat out in restaurants all of the time. One afternoon I simply grabbed a large samsa pastry from a kiosk and on another occasion I brought one of those lovely round tokash loaves back to my room with some tvorog (cottage cheese) and a packet of Lay’s (shashlik flavour). The perfect Kazakh lunch, washed down with a bottle of Astana Champagne, because I could.

Sounds of Kazakhstan

Granted, it’s not a song but it is music to my ears; the Kazakh newsreader who circulated the internet for his tongue-twister speech warm-up on-air (compared to a diesel engine trying to start-up on a Kazakh winter’s day). And yes, I did source the original script and ask the first Central Asian I met to recite it, who happened to be Kyrgyz and didn’t do a bad job at all.

I discovered the Toi Duman (Той Думан) radio & YouTube channel for Kazakh pop and it really is the channel that just keeps on giving. Toi is an easy listening, catchy folk genre that is very popular at weddings.

Although not entirely unique to the country, I always associate the sound of the dombra (домбыра) lutewith Kazakhstan and I like how traditional instruments still maintain their place in popular music.

See Reconnaissance Jukebox for all my personal favourite Kazakh songs.

Mission Kazakhstan Summary

So far, having visited Almaty I am slightly underwhelmed by Kazakhstan, primarily because I did not feel safe with too many negative encounters within a short space of time for my liking and secondarily because I preferred what lower key capital, Bishkek had to offer. Yet as resume my bestime reading tonight of Soviet Kazakh defector Ken Alibek‘s accounts of the horror experiments he was working on as part of the USSR’s biochemical weapons programme, I am intrigued to return and travel to the extremities of the country that hold a darker history as well as Baikonur cosmodrome (once I become wealthy enough to buy my way in) and the shiny new capital Nursultan.

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and tell me your thoughts and feelings about Kazakhstan: