My love affair with Kazakhstan began on the 6½-hour night flight from Bangkok to Almaty when beautiful Air Astana hostess Viktorija handed me a glass of dry French red wine with the sweetest Eurasian smile imaginable.
She assured me knowledgably that the Chateau Tour Prignac 2005 she was pouring came from the Haut-Medoc region of Bordeaux.
Borat was way wide of the mark. Kazakhs are not a bunch of incestuous racists who punch goats, buy wives for 15 litres of pesticide or drink horse urine. They do drink kumiss, a quite tasty drop of fermented mare’s milk and, if Viktorija was any guide, they know a thing or two about decent French wine.
Kazakhstan is about the size of Western Europe, the most advanced and sophisticated of all the ’stans and, since independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, has wallowed in the riches of fabulous oil, gas and mineral reserves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stylish southern city and former capital Almaty.
In this cultural and commercial hub, the likes of Versace, Armani and Dolce and Gabbana do a roaring trade, top drawer Range Rovers and luxury Hummers are all the rage among the cashed up, iPad-toting young executives and there’s a flush of chic new nightclubs and exotic restaurants.
It was 5ºC and raining in Almaty in the wee small hours as the minibus that collected me from the airport sped to the five-star Rixos Hotel in the central city past cute old wooden houses on the outskirts designed like square yurts and then kilometres of new car dealers, many sporting top European marques and flashy SUVs including an astonishing number of very expensive Hummers.
By sunrise, thin morning light was glistening on the snow-clad peaks of the Tien Shan Mountains that explode out of the Central Asian steppe, reach all the way to the Tibetan Plateau and form a breathtaking backdrop to Kazakhstan’s largest city. After a breakfast of kumiss, eggs and horsemeat sausage, I boarded another a minibus for a tour of the city highlights.
Battling around and through the peak hour gridlock choking the leafy streets and boulevards, I passed Republic Square and a line up of grand old architecture including the National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Abai Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre which opened in 1934 and is still the largest theatre in Eurasia.
Panfilov Park is in the city centre, a sprawling green space full of tall trees, lawns and gardens and the war memorial with its enormous warrior statue and an eternal flame, both of which commemorate Kazakhstan’s heroes who fought alongside Russians against the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (World War II).
Behind it, along a tree-lined path, was one of the country’s most remarkable buildings. In 1910 and 1911, Almaty was flattened by an earthquake that left only one structure relatively unscathed, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension.
Built just four years earlier, this jaw-dropping Russian Orthodox confection painted pastel yellow and green with five multi-coloured domes each topped with smaller gold onion domes was built entirely of wood, including the brackets that were used instead of nails to join the timbers.
Towering 54 metres above the park and edged with gardens of native tulips, it is the most photographed building in Kazakhstan. Inside the cavernous church were walls covered with icons and acres of gold and a line of faithful knelt and prostrated before Jesus on the cross in preparation for the Orthodox Easter.
I strolled down Pushkin Street and detected the seductive scent of chocolate that grew stronger as I approached the pale green exterior of Zelyoni Bazaar, Almaty’s iconic Green Market, a huge undercover shopping hall and meeting place of the diverse cultures of Central Asia.
Fresh Kazakh fruit and vegetables, dried apricots and raisins from Uzbekistan, Korean salads, honey from the Altai Mountains and row upon row of butcher stalls, the largest and busiest was the section selling fresh horsemeat, a centuries-old Kazakh staple.
I followed the chocolate scent into a shop specialising in the locally made product prepared in every conceivable form. Just opposite was an outlet selling local alcohols vodka, “champagne”, “cognac” and the sweetish Bacchus brand wines from Almaty Oblast that Kazakhs seem to prefer.
Black Caspian Sea caviar was selling, slowly, for US$1,000 a kilo next door to a takeaway meat and salad bar reminiscent of a New York deli with local favourites like shredded liver in special sauces, various pickled vegetables, tripe in pepper sauce and Korean sushi rolls. Across the road outside was an open-air flea market selling old Soviet mementos, cheap clothing, and pirated DVDs.
For a dose of local culture, the excellent Central State Museum was hard to beat. I’m not a big fan of museums but this one was really special, primarily a history museum, it provided an intimate insight into Kazakhstan and its people from the Bronze Age to Tsarist Russia, through the Soviet period to the present.
Exhibits included the sort of fully furnished and decorated nomadic yurt once common across the Central Asian steppe, ancient weaponry, agricultural equipment, jewellery and old equipment used for the still popular falconry.
I took cable car up to Koktobe, a hill covered with apricot and apple trees just east of town with spectacular views of the city and the Tien Shan Mountains. At the summit were The Beatles, a life-size bronze statue of the Fab Four atop this misty recreational mountain.
There were cafes too including the Yurta Restaurant done up like a plush yurt where lunch consisted of various salads, traditional fried breads and horsemeat done every which way and another with a large outdoor hookah lounge draped with sheer orange drapes. It was all rather surreal but the views of the mountains, the city and its suburbs was
Saturday was shopping day so I headed across town to the pedestrianised shopping street Zhibek Zholy, also known as Arbat, and lucked onto an agricultural fair that happens only occasionally.
At a fresh meat stall I watched a muscled young bloke cleaving a large chunk of horsemeat into more manageable bits with what looked like a battleaxe and studied stall after stall offering everything from bananas and takeaway Korean meals to colourful fruit, freshly dug root vegetables still caked with dirt, more takeaway food, cheeses and sundry bric-a-brac being sold from an ancient ex-Soviet military van.
Back on Arbat, battalions of model-gorgeous young women clacked around in 20cm stiletto heels and skin-tight Versace jeans chatting and sipping classy coffee amid the blossoming tulips.
Painters exhibited their works outside TsUM, a department store with one entire floor devoted to the latest mobile phones. I saw an itinerant vendor trying to flog old Soviet medals, a jewellery store tout dressed like a harlequin and artists sketching portraits of passers-by for a small fee.
There were countless Kazakh and international restaurants in Almaty. Alasha was an upmarket place, all timber and tapestry, serving traditional foods such as beef, liver and chicken Uzbek shashlyks, salads, horsemeat sausages, piroshkis lightly curried and a local version of lamb pilov (pilaf).
Midway through third plate of shashlyks the peace was shattered when a troupe of Uzbek dancers exploded into the restaurant accompanied by frantic music, beautiful Kazakh women dressed in ornate traditional costumes and an odd-looking bloke with a bowl of pilov balanced perfectly on his head hurling himself around the floor like a Cossack on speed.
I saw Almaty’s beautiful people dripping with bling at the Rixos Hotel and Euphoria, one of the city’s hottest nightclubs, to rage into the wee small hours and I wished I could stay longer to see more of this lovely country.
The scenery in the northeast is said to rival New Zealand’s. There’s a canyon three hours from Almaty reputed to rival America’s Grand Canyon and, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome west of Almaty, which has been hurling Russians into the cosmos since Yuri Gagarin started the ball rolling in 1961, you can watch a contemporary launch to the International Space Station, if you book ahead and cough up US$20,000.
The national airline, Air Astana, which flies to major cities in East, South and Southeast Asia, has been awarded four stars by Skytrax for top service and safety and is the only Kazakh airline permitted to fly into the European Union.
See Kazakhstan’s magnificent steppes, lakes, cities, ski slopes and wildlife including flamingos, wolves, bears and snow leopards before the country, which is liberalising its visa regulations, joins the tourism mainstream.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)