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Kazakhstan, home to the real ‘Big Apple’

Many years from now, archaeologists digging near Almaty in Kazakhstan will find a field full of statues of Josef Stalin – all with their noses mysteriously lopped off.

Astana skyline

The one man who will be able to explain this bizarre find will probably be long gone. Alexander Yezhov saw the statues being buried in a field when he was a young boy. This was the 1950s after Khrushchev had come to power in the Soviet Union – and was busy trying to erase all memory of Uncle Joe.

Alexander asked one of the men involved why the statues all had no nose. “He told me it was to make sure people in the future will not use the statues again.” Khrushchev clearly wasn’t entirely confident that the Stalin cult was dead and buried, as it were.

Kazakhstan is full of hidden and sometime bizarre surprises. “We have Hitler’s telescope here,” Alexander says, as if this was the most natural thing in the world. “He sent it to Mussolini as a present, but on the way it was captured by Partizans in Yugoslavia. Now it is in Kazakhstan.”

Somehow these strange episodes fit the character of Kazakhstan, a country that mixes the bizarre with the beautiful. Forget Istanbul, Hong Kong or Dubai – this is really the place where East really meets West.

Traditional architecture in Almaty

Traditional architecture in Almaty

The largest city, Almaty, is just six hours by road (soon to be three when a new highway opens) from the Chinese border. Yet it has the feel of a city in Central Europe. The Kazakh people, who make up around 60% of the population, are largely Muslims, have Asiatic features, and speak a language closely related to Turkish.

But around a quarter of the population are Russian – and the rest are a mixture of Koreans, Germans, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tatars and various other nationalities – giving a grand total of 14 ethnic groups.

This is largely due to the man buried in the ground. Stalin saw remote Kazakhstan as a perfect dumping ground for the various nationalities viewed as potentially subversive. “It was not only Siberia where there were Gulags. They were in Kazakhstan also,” notes Alexander.

If you stand in the centre of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, and walk South you will almost immediately start climbing uphill. And if you look up the reason for this will become obvious – the snow-capped 5,000 metre high peaks of the Tien Shan range – Chinese for “heavenly mountains”.

If you walked North you would have roughly 1,500km of largely empty steppe – and eventually Russia.

Norman Foster woz here

Norman Foster woz here

The city itself has plenty to see, including a huge cathedral made entirely of wood and some oversize Soviet-style war monuments. The ethnic mix, meanwhile, can be seen at the Green Market, where there are Korean women selling salads, Uzbek selling various types of nuts, and just about everybody selling apples – something that Kazakhs are particularly proud off.

This is because Kazakhstan is the birthplace of the apple, before they spread around the rest of the world. Almaty’s original name, Alma-Ata means “father of apples”. So forget New York, Almaty is the real “Big Apple.”

Fruits in general seem to be a bit of a Kazakh specialty. As we wind up the mountains just outside Almaty, Alexander enthuses about the apricot trees that can be seen in abundance. “Apricot in Kazakhstan is the best in the world. You know why? Every tree, the apricot tastes different. In shop, all taste the same.”

The mountain road eventually takes up through forest and meadows to recently spruced-up Shymbulak, a ski resort which was the centre piece for the 2010 Asian Winter Games – and which Kazakhstan hopes will host the 2022 winter Olympics. The once creaking infrastructure has been replaced with state-of-the-art lift systems and is on a par with European Alpine resorts – and the improvements are still ongoing.

Also in the nearby mountains is the Issyk Lake – beautiful turquoise water surrounded by pine forests and snow cap peaks. The tranquil setting towards the border with Kyrgyzstan hides a somewhat gruesome history. This was the scene of a disaster in 1963 when the natural dam above the lake burst, flooding the valley below. Many people were killed, although how many is a mystery. “Was Soviet times,” Alexander points out.

Vegetables on sale at a Kazakh market

No trip to Kazakhstan is complete without a taste of the local delicacy – horse. Our lunch in the mountains consisted of horse meat, horse sausage and a mysterious white paste. I was just about to take a mouthful of the latter when I was informed that was horse fat. I decided to empty the spoon onto the side of my plate with as much decorum as possible in the circumstances.

Most of Kazakhstan is not mountain but steppe. And in the middle of that steppe is the new capital Astana – one of the most bizarre cities on earth.

If you’re an architect with a penchant for futuristic wacky designs then you should make your way to Astana. The city features a pyramid topped off by a high-level conference room that looks straight out of James Bond. A 97m high tower known by the knick name “Chupa Chups” due its lollipop-like design. Twin golden towers flanking the presidential palace. And ultra modernity everywhere – although somehow the architecture often seems to have a Soviet-era feel to it.

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital here from Almaty in 1997, and has set about turning it into space age city with the help of British architect Sir Norman Foster, who has clearly delighted in the futuristic brief he was given for a city that might well be named Fosterstan given his influence over it.

An example of Fosterstan's traditional architecture

Foster’s latest whizz is a shopping centre in the shape of a giant yurt – the traditional tent of the once-nomadic Kazakhs. Winter shoppers can forget about the outside temperatures that can drop to -40o centigrade in the balmy interior. After they’ve finished shopping they can take a swim in the artificial beaches that come with white sand, palm trees and sun loungers. Or take the family on one of the water slides or trains that circulate somewhat incongruously around the centre.

Astana also has a number of museums – one of the more unusual being the Museum of the 1st president of Kazakhstan. and, so far, only president. This eulogy to Nazarbayev tells his life story and recounts his rise from humble peasant to becoming his country’s leader. At the last election even some of the few opposition candidates apparently decided to vote for him.

Our enthusiastic guide showed us letters mounted on the wall from the British Government congratulating Kazakhstan on its efforts to clean up the nuclear mess left by the Soviets. One of our party pointed out to him it was good that the country was tidying up its nuclear test legacy. By the look on our guides face you’d think he’d been asked whether he’d ever slept with Nazarbayev’s daughter. We were latter told that after this incident he was convinced we were all spies.

Uniformed officials will still give the few foreigners that venture to Kazakhstan a quizzical look – and more if you point your camera at anything considered a state secret, which in my case included the ski jump in Almaty, the above-mentioned Yurt shopping centre and apples in the Green Market. But this is all part of the fun. Kazakhstan is an incredibly hospitable place, well off the tourist radar and with a unique flavour of its own. East and West go well together here.

* Kazakh flag carrier Air Astana serves a number of Asian and Europen destinations including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Vienna, Bangkok, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and Seoul.

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