I land in Kazakhstan, my first time in this part of the world, eager to discover some of the mysteries of the first one of the countries I visit ending with -stan. Pure curiosity and hardly no prejudices to break, as I am a complete ignorant on this country.
Would they still be nomads? Would they be undeveloped? Would they all wear soviet inspired grey clothes and live in soviet inspired grey buildings?
My first destination is Almaty – A former capital of the country, at the feet of some beautiful snowy mountains. The air is fresh and full of oxygen in the villas near the mountain slopes, but it turns polluted as you go downtown, as the mountains don’t let the wind circulate.
Just like the layers in the society. 1% of very rich people, who indulge themselves in the ski resort in the north of town before starting to work in the early afternoon. While some 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, a middle high class who got easily rich from oil-related businesses, spend their free time in flamboyant shopping malls, buying western fashion, playing computer games, ice skating or refreshing at the mall indoor beach, all year through.
Such an excess, as temperatures in Kazakhstan are extreme, and may range from -40 C in winter to +40 C in summer.
I move around by bus, I’m intrigued of the ethnicity of the Kazakh people, some outstanding mix of russian slavic features, with a very asian touch, due to the influence of Mongolia and Korea in previous generations.
I meet Irina, a local girl who kindly walks with me on her way to a telecommunications exam. – I feel delusioned about this country, things don’t seem to change fast enough-, she reckons.
Irina was born in Kazakhstan, but doesn’t speak Kazakh, just Russian which is the defacto language. – I would like to live in Europe -, she concludes.
Kazakhstan is the most prosperous country in central Asia, and struggles to locate itself psychologically between Asia and Europe.
Andrey, a local colleague, introduces me to the secrets of Kazakh cuisine. There are not many dishes purely Kazakh, but we embrace delicacies from Uzbekistan, Takijistan and even Turkey. Bread is delicious and sacred, and the best one is a flat bread that comes freshly baked in a tandoori oven, Tandyr.
We try beshparmak, the national dish made with flat noodles and horse meat. Also some popular rice with meat and raisins (pilaf) and some meat dumplings called mantushkas.
Shubat (salted yogurt) and black sweet tea with an intense taste of clove extend our meals much longer than expected.
Andrey reckons Kazakh people are lazy, but that’s not my impression. Seems to me that they know a lot about how to enjoy the pleasures in life.
People still clap their hands as we land in Astana airport, the new capital. An old woman smiles next to me with a golden grin. Literally, golden, she doesn’t have a single white teeth.
The dictator ruling the country moved the capital a few years ago, and it is newly built. A big percentage of the country’s GDP was spent on the construction of this city out of nothing. Golden colours, impossible shapes. Things are built to look grandiose, but a close look at them reveals an average quality.
Astana new city will not leave you indifferent, you’ll be caught by the futuristic and grandiose architecture of the buildings and statues, or by the bad taste and excess of its forms. Reminds me of Naypyidaw, the new capital of Burma, also built around the illusions of grandeur from another despot.
In spite of the ruling elite, I was very positively surprised by the quality of the ordinary Kazakh people.
Even if they don’t speak English they try to communicate with the foreigners. Even if they are driving fast they will stop to let pedestrians cross the street.
In which other country people would stop cars in the street to take them around, acting as improvised taxis?. Even just one person, men or woman, would stay next to the road moving one hand, and in less than a minute one car would stop, ready to negotiate price and destination.
Very efficient way of transport and a beautiful sign of how trustworthy they can be.
These little things are long forgotten in our western civilization, but do happen in Kazakhstan, that big country in the middle of central Asia, long forgotten by the west.
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