The immigration officer at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport stares blankly at my boarding pass for several seconds, before passing it onto a colleague. She too stares at it for some considerable time, before shaking her head and returning it to him. He looks up at me.
“Where you go?”
“Where is… Almaty?”
He looks at me, looks down at my boarding pass again, laughs, and stamps my passport, before wishing me good luck, as if he thinks I’ll need it.
Such is Kazakhstan’s image problem. It hides in plain sight as the world’s ninth-biggest country, and one of its least known: indeed, had it not been for Sacha Baron-Cohen’s 2006 film Borat (not, it must be said, a particularly accurate portrayal of Kazakh life — the Kazakhstan scenes were filmed in Romania, and the character speaks Polish), it’s doubtful that many of us would have heard of it at all.
Even I, sitting on a mostly empty Air Astana flight to Almaty, had little idea of what awaited me when I arrived, other than thankfully inaccurate preconceptions about surly, possibly corrupt immigration officials, lashings of vodka and Ladas. Okay, I was right about the Ladas, but otherwise Kazakhstan surprised and delighted me by being completely different to what I expected.
So here are ten good reasons why you should cast aside all thoughts of moustachioed, mankini-wearing imbeciles, and jump on a flight to Kazakhstan.
You Can Fly Direct from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City
Yes, unlikely though it may seem, twice a week there’s a direct flight from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital (it was replaced by Astana in 1997). It’s a seven-hour flight, but with Kazakhstan being just one hour behind Vietnam, you won’t get jetlag. And if my experience is anything to go by, the flight will be mostly empty giving you plenty of room to stretch out.
You Can Visit Almaty
Kazakhstan’s former capital is a charming, compact city with a disorientatingly European feel — the tree-lined avenues, baroque architecture, and snowcapped mountains are more reminiscent of Vienna or Zurich than an Asian city. Almaty is booming, with luxury hotels, international restaurants and shopping malls springing up, yet it still retains a likeable small-town ambience.
As well as exploring the sights of the city itself — the bustling Green Bazaar, the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral, the impressive Central Mosque — you can also ski, hike and bike in the surrounding mountains. And as the country’s main transport hub, it’s the starting point for plane, train and bus journeys to more remote areas.
There Are No Tourists
I spent eight days in the south of the country and only on my last day did I encounter any other Western visitors. Kazakhstan apparently gets over 3 million tourists per year, but I have no idea when they come or where they go, as they were conspicuous by their absence. So while this means there is a lack of tourism infrastructure, which can make seeing the country difficult — no backpacker buses, no car and driver rental, and a scarcity of English-speaking service staff — it also means you’ll have most attractions to yourself, undisturbed by hawkers, buses and other travellers.
In fact, so rare are tourists that, when my group arrived in Mangystau, we were greeted by most of the local village, given a huge feast, and even photographed by the local newspapers.
The People Are Lovely
“Kazakhstan people never smile,” says the Kazakh student sitting next to me on the flight to Aktau. “But when they know you, they will take you to their hearts.”
You might initially be fooled into thinking the Kazakhs are a surly bunch, as they resolutely refuse to return your increasingly manic smiles. But then something wonderful happens — the scowling old babushka on the train reaches into her bag and shares her food with you, before inviting you to visit her family when you get to Shymkent. The grim-faced train conductor happily poses for pictures with you, and asks you to show your wife how handsome Kazakh men are. A random stranger presses a gift into your hand and then vanishes. A genuine, heartfelt welcome from people not even close to being jaded or corrupted by tourism.
The Landscapes are Stunning
Kazakhstan’s seismically turbulent geology has created a quite extraordinary landscape of towering mountains, huge canyons, epic deserts and bizarre rock formations. Charyn Canyon, for example, a three-hour drive from Almaty, could easily pass for the Grand Canyon’s slightly smaller brother, and it’s just one of several stunning gorges. And in Mangystau, a mostly deserted peninsula on the Caspian Sea, you’ll find the Bozzhyr Valley, the Karagiye Depression, and Kazakhstan’s own Uluru, Sherkala Mountain. All amazing sights which, anywhere else in the world, would be swarming with tourists. But here you’ll be alone, experiencing the rare sensation of gazing out on a landscape that hasn’t changed in millions of years.
The Great Outdoors
With few towns and cities and such beautiful landscapes, Kazakhstan is definitely an outdoor country. Without leaving the environs of Almaty you can ski at Shymbulak (in the running for the 2022 Winter Olympics), go biking in the Tien Shan mountains, or hike, horseride or quadbike through Charyn Canyon. The country’s low population density (one of the world’s lowest at a mere 6.5 people per km2) makes it a haven for wildlife, so birdwatchers and naturalists are in heaven. And that remarkable scenery, coupled with a dazzling purity of natural light, makes Kazakhstan a paradise for photographers.
The Food is Hearty
If you’re a vegetarian or a fussy eater, Kazakhstan isn’t for you. The country’s cuisine may suffer from a lack of variety, but it’s robust and hearty; perfect for anyone wanting to get in touch with the inner caveman. We’re talking huge metal skewers of grilled lamb; chunks of fatty horsemeat sausage; rounds of bread the size of car tyres; groaning plates of pilau rice; boiled sheep’s head; fermented camel’s milk. What it lacks in finesse it makes up for in quantity, and if my trip is anything to go by, hygiene standards are high. Which, given the unspeakable state of Kazakhstan’s toilets, is a very good thing.
It Has an Epic History
As befits a country that has been inhabited since Neolithic times, Kazakhstan is rich in historical and archaeological remnants, from the fossil-filled, 80-million-year-old spherical rocks of the Valley of Balls, via the Tamerlane-era mausoleums and fortifications of Turkestan, to the Soviet-era architecture of Almaty and Aktau. You’ll need a guide or a guidebook to learn about it, as what little signage that exists is in Kazakh and Russian, but the country has a fascinating history, whether you’re interested in 11th-century nomads or the Brezhnev era (old Leonid was General Secretary of the Kazakhstan SSR prior to becoming President).
It’s Mostly Untouched by Modern Life
Kazakhstan offers the rare sight of landscapes utterly untouched by human hands — no roads, houses, agriculture or electricity pylons. But it’s not just the landscape that is in a time warp. Camels graze by the roadside as old men ride by on donkeys; women in headscarves pray in centuries-old mosques; what few cars there are are often delayed while farmers on horseback herd cows along the road; and even in Almaty, the McStarbucks of the West are yet to make their presence felt. The driving force behind the country is a much-derided and now forgotten remnant of the 1980s — the Lada 1600. Cheap, economical and hard-wearing, it is to Kazakhstan what the Honda Dream is to Vietnam. The country wouldn’t run without it.
It’s the Perfect Place for a Detox
Kazakhstan’s simplicity and its lack of development make it the perfect destination to detox from modern life. Junk food is non-existent outside the big cities. All hotels offer Wi-Fi, but it never, ever works, and the country’s 3G reception is patchy at best. And with the country being 70 percent Muslim, you’re more likely to overdo it on tea than booze (though the local beer is very good, and vodka can be had for as little as VND20,000 a bottle or VND60,000 for the good stuff). Factor in all that healthy outdoor activity, and you’ll come back a new person.
I’m not going to pretend Kazakhstan is an easy trip. It’s hard going, travelling huge distances over bumpy roads or, in many areas, no roads at all; taking long overnight train journeys in cramped shared cabins; staying at basic hotels with little concept of guest service; eating the same meal every day; and generally surrendering the comforts of modern life. But as the saying goes, no pain no gain, and the gains in Kazakhstan — the people, the scenery, and the general sense of going where few people have gone before — are worth a bit (okay, a lot) of roughing it. As are the photographs and the memories with which you’ll return. And you see, I didn’t even mention Borat…
Tim Russell travelled to Kazakhstan as a guest of Turan Asia. For flight information to Almaty, click on airstana.com