In a restaurant called Weekend, horsemeat sausage, mutton shashlyk, a bowl of beshbarmak and chilled Shymkent beer were spread before me under the benign gaze of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The name mightn’t ring too many bells but the image of Kazakhstan’s president is omnipresent as you travel around the wealthiest of Central Asia’s ’Stans that is nothing like the country and people portrayed in Borat’s movie parodies.
When Nazarbayev recently decreed that tourism should be a central plank of the Kazakh economy along with oil, gas and minerals, it was like a call to arms for the narrow-focused industry.
Now the government is experimenting with visa-on-arrival and planning a new project to allow 34 countries to visit Kazakhstan visa-free.
The national airline, Air Astana, with executives poached from airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Delta at its helm, holds the coveted Skytrax four-star rating for safety and service along with the likes of Qantas, British Airways and Emirates.
Bordered by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country at 2,727,300 sq km (1,053,000 sq m).
Around the vast central grassy steppe are desert plains bordering Siberia, treasures of the Silk Road, mountains and a “grand canyon” in the south and lakes, alpine peaks and trout streams pretty enough to rival New Zealand’s.
Rising from the central steppe is the new “space age” capital Astana, but down south beneath the Zailiyski Alatau Mountains, part of the great Tien Shan range, the old capital Almaty where most tourists arrive remains the country’s most populous and most popular city.
Now a major Central Asian financial hub, Almaty has a distinctly European feel with broad, tree-shaded avenues, swathes of green parks and the dramatic backdrop and easily accessible playground of the snow-dressed alps.
When I checked in around sunset at the downtown five-star Rixos Hotel, hordes of Almaty’s young elites were milling around the lobby dripping with bling as others arrived in BMWs, Hummers, Range-Rovers and Mercedes-Benz limos.
It was a university graduation party and a graphic illustration of the country’s wealth and how far Kazakhstan has progressed since declaring independence from Russia in 1991.
With three colleagues we headed to the Weekend Restaurant up Dulati Street which ran into the Tien Shan foothills and on a summer afternoon, families strolled in the sunshine around a district dotted with cafes, pubs, playgrounds and roadside stalls that sold ice creams, wonderful Kazakh chocolate and grilled shashlyk.
Char-grilled shashlyk was a specialty at the Weekend which, like most Kazakh restaurants, served a familiar range of meat, pastas, seafood (limited) and vegetarian (limited) meals.
Like Argentineans, Kazkhs are committed carnivores and horsemeat features prominently, a tradition going back more than 1,000 years. There are horsemeat sausages, horse intestines, horse tartare and horse cooked any which way but the national dish is beshbarmak, a combination of meat, onion, spices and pasta with mutton broth that’s a lot tastier than it sounds.
We took the cable car across posh hillside mansions up to Koktobe, a sculpted, tree-studded mountain pleasure park overlooking the city with 360˚ views, games and rides for kids, souvenir sellers, a restaurant in a large yurt and cafes such as the Grill Bar with alfresco dining and an extraordinary Ottoman-style open-air hookah lounge draped with swathes of orange muslin.
Downtown we caught the brand new Metro underground to Panfilov Park where the city’s war memorial and eternal flame commemorate Kazakhstan’s heroes who fought with Russia against the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Behind it along a tree-lined path we spotted one of the country’s most remarkable buildings.
Completed in 1907 the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension is a jaw-dropping Russian Orthodox confection of yellow and green with five multi-coloured domes each topped with smaller gold onion domes and built entirely of timber without a single metal nail.
We walked along Gogol Street past pretty flower-bedecked shops and cafes, past grim old Soviet-era buildings cleverly tarted up to house brand names United Colours of Benetton, Ermenegildo Zegna and Swarovski and then we discovered Arbat.
Arbat is a pedestrianised shopping mall with specialty shops, outdoor cafes and bars where street musicians perform, where students are keen to practise English with you and where talented artists chat and sketch your portrait. It’s a great place for a leisurely coffee and biscotti or just a cold beer and people watching.
Shopaholics will find DeBeers Jewellery, exquisite chocolate, vodka, caviar and unusual fashions from Russian boutique chain, Oggi. Great textiles are available and the best are on the top floor of the Tsum department store on Arbat.
In October 2012, supermodel Eva Herzigova flew in to open the prestigious Esentai Park complex, 52,000 square metres of retail space housing 160 brands including Christian Dior, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana.
With tours of Russia’s “Cape Canaveral”, the Baikonur Space launch facility from where Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space and which now services the International Space Station, with its wildlife eco-tours, trekking, horse riding, heli-skiing, Silk Road heritage sites, fishing, rafting and health spas, Kazakhstan is bracing to become one of the most compelling new tour destinations.
Air Astana’s modern fleet of Airbus, Boeing and Embraer aircraft fly to Asia, Europe and the Middle East (www.airastana.com). Enjoy the Jewel of the Steppe, Astana, and the City of Apples, Almaty, with an Air Astana Stopover Package from USD 125 including accommodation, breakfast and return airport transfers (www.airastana.com/uae/en/holidays-stopover-packages.aspx).
Recommended reading: Bradt Travel Guide – Kazakhstan by Paul Brummel (www.bradtguides.com).
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)