Lost in the Heart of Asia: Kazakhstan

When I started blogging for this trip, I thought I would need to change the name and description of this blog, because I was no longer in Turkey. But I have come to realize that because Turkey was the first foreign country where I spent a significant amount of time, Turkey has become my lens through which I analyze almost any country I visit. Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, which is also a Muslim, Turkic state, but one where the native people were for many years the lower class, not the overlords, and where Russian culture had a major influence instead of Greek or Arab. Even today, it is a diverse country torn between a Russian, pan-Turkic, Islamic, or ethnically Kazakh identity, and one with traces of every influences.

I entered Kazakhstan by bus from Urumqi, a 27-hour ride that could have been much worse. I was on a sleeper bus, which while it did not give me enough space to lay down flat or sit up straight and had a temperature that hovered in the mid-80s (Fahrenheit), still was reasonably comfortable. Luckily, the border crossing, which I had heard horror stories about from prior travelers along this route, went quite smoothly. The border itself, however, was remarkable, definitely showing the difference between the highly developed city on the Chinese side, with dozens of cranes still working to make it a key trade center of Central Asia, and the Kazakh side, which despite a few stabs at construction mostly consisted of a few houses and abandoned buildings, and marked a transition between the freeways of China to six or seven more hours on barely paved roads. The desolation of Eastern Kazakhstan was striking, with several hours passing between any sign of settlement, mostly small roadside cafes (in one of which our bus interrupted a Kazakh wedding) and farms – truly a suitable terrain for nomadic civilizations.

My stay was centered in the old capital, and largest city of Kazakhstan, Almaty. Perhaps for a guy from Appleton, there was an unconscious draw to the place, since Almaty roughly translates to Apple-town in English. Given that the parts of Kazakhstan I saw on the ride in looked like they had barely changed since the 19th century, I was very pleasantly surprised by Almaty. Almaty is an extremely green city, with every street (at least in the old center, where I stayed) lined with trees and the city is full of well-maintained parks. This, as well as the clean, simple, and neatly arranged (though occasionally monumental) buildings points to the critical role Russian and later Soviet domination had in building Almaty. Save for the appearance of the citizens, one could easily mistake Almaty for a Russian city, as mosques are mostly found on the outskirts and Russian signage is as common as Kazakh (though the flags and various propaganda posters do give some sign of an emerging Kazakh identity). Most of the major sights – cathedrals, statues, parks are originally Soviet, and while some museums are quite attractive (such as the Museum of Folk Instruments), there is a dearth of actual Kazakh artifacts and architecture as the result of nomadic history of the Kazakh people. Even after the capital moved to the northern city of Astana some 20 years ago (while Astana also has some impressive sights, it was far to distant to visit on this trip), Almaty retains a bustling, cosmopolitan feel, and it has continued to grow as a major business hub for Central Asia as Kazakhstan works to diversify from the oil and gas exports that make up most of its economy (the importance of foreign trade and investment to Almaty and Kazakhstan as a whole is shown by signs on every street displaying the exchange rates for the Kazakh tenge in major foreign currencies.



Almaty skyline and mountains

Despite its charms, Almaty does not offer enough for a week of exploration, and with the snow-capped Tien Shan forming a backdrop to the city, I was especially interested in getting out into the natural areas surrounding the city. Through my hostel, I was able to do so – a 3 day trip to Charyn Canyon, and the Kaindy, Kolsai, Issyk, and Big Almaty mountain lakes, with two other Chinese girls staying at the hostel and a Kazakh guide (the girls spoke OK English, but the guide spoke very little – making mealtime conversations – or the lack thereof – very strange). Due to the traffic and poor roads surrounding Almaty – and especially poor roads near these destinations, much of this trip was spent in the car, a ‘80s Chrysler that tried and barely managed to navigate dozens of miles of gravel roads (and without oil, no less – we ended up stopping for maintenance multiple times). Each of these sites was stunning, and worth the tour price by itself, and they all showcased the tremendous natural beauty of this enormous country – and because of their isolation they were all without the tour groups that would overrun such attractions in America. Most of these could be reached by road (though not comfortably, including driving through a river and up several steep and narrow mountain roads), though getting to the second Kolsai Lake (there are three, though to reach the third would require camping overnight or arriving at a very early hour of the morning, neither of which we did) entailed a 11 km hike over very rough terrain, at times in the rain. For the two nights of this tour, we stayed at the home of a Kazakh family in the village of Saty, near Kolsai and Kaindy Lakes. While my lack of Kazakh and their lack of English limited our interactions, I nonetheless appreciated the chance to eat traditional foods, drink plenty of chai, and experience what modern life is like in rural Kazakhstan (though I have never been more thankful for indoor plumbing than when having to rely on a standing outhouse without a lock on the door). For all my time in Kazakhstan, I was only able to touch a small corner of the country, as there is far more waiting to be discovered. But it is now time to move on to Irkutsk, Russia, gateway to Lake Baikal and the Trans-Siberian railroad.



Homestay house with guide (far right), tour companions (2nd from left, 2nd from right), host family (all others)


Kaindy Lake


Kaindy Lake


Yesterday’s Kazakhstan – gers near Kaindy Lake





Even nomads need somewhere to relieve themselves

Even nomads need somewhere to relieve themselves