Beyond Borat: Discovering the Real Kazakhstan

Lake Almaty - photos by David Rich
Lake Almaty – photos by David Rich

By David Rich

Walking around Kazakhstan’s former capital of Almaty was like walking into a convention of female Russian tennis stars, streets strewn with willowy lasses cavorting in short skirts swirling icy blonde hair, a welcome change to the natural expectation that most everyone would resemble unglamorous buffoons, aka Borat.

Kazakh students
Kazakh students

[Editor’s note: Borat is a fictional character portrayed by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.]

What a relief after a wee hours’ arrival at Almaty airport, a confounded inability to decipher Cyrillic landing me in the wrong passport line and a luggage carousel disaster that sent packs, suitcases and duffels flying like the climax to the cultural leanings of the glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

Almaty in late summer could easily be likened to trudging Saharan wastes in the noon-day sun, fortunately alleviated by unending legions of trees that have transformed Almaty into a city disguised as a forest.

An Arbitrary Move
Without trees Almaty would be uninhabitable in summer. Perhaps that’s one reason the current dictator, democratically elected similar to other countries, arbitrarily carted the capital to Astana, a then minor town in the far north near the Russian border, far cooler than Almaty.

Because Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe, Astana is extremely far from anywhere except Russia. The pervasive Russian influence is reflected on the shelves of the average Kazakh supermarket, approximately 34% of which are stocked with 8217 distinct brands of vodka, a traditional inspiration for comedians whose names begin with the letter B, like Boris Yeltsin.

Highways outside all cities are jammed with impromptu kiosks stacked with fruit, offering chartreuse and green pinstriped watermelon the size of VWs, truly tasty tomatoes and pearly grapes, complemented by fish ranging from large, red and floppy, to desiccated.

A view from the Charyn Canyon climb
A view from the Charyn Canyon climb

Scooping Up Motorists
The highways are otherwise a vast game played with perpetual competition between motorists and radar cops. Cop-traps are situated for effectiveness, too close over the top of a hill to avoid careening into.

Kazakh cops have gone this hoary ploy one better, setting up fake traps with lolling cops reading newspapers a few hundred meters before the brow of the next hill where the true trap springs live and well, scooping up freshly accelerating motorists like a vacuum cleaner.

I seldom rode a bus more than an hour without the driver getting popped for speeding, such as during my initial foray into the wilderness to what the Kazakh tourist office brazenly hyped as the little Grand Canyon.

Even a non-comedian would have a field day with this characterization.

The grand Charyn Canyon looks more like Monument Valley with a thousand foot (300 meter) deep and two mile (three kilometer) long ditch down the middle. The brevity is crowned with a serpentine torrent of a river at the end where Kazakh tourists pack the banks with picnic lunches.

I was pleased to find one brazen chap wearing an off the shoulder, one-piece bathing suit, which a British comedian named Sasha would have envied nigh unto death.

An Unsuspecting Victim
I was trapped, an unsuspecting victim, into other excursions ballyhooing the Kazakh wilderness, such as to inspect Aksu Canyon.

Kazakh family with friends
Kazakh family with friends

This canyon is so narrow and deep the river was the merest glint of blue glacier-melt, too sporadically visible and far down to photograph, and what good was that?

The best expeditions were into the mountains forming the hundreds of miles (hundreds of kilometers) of mountains separating the south of Kazakhstan from the north of Kyrgyzstan, glacier-capped behemoths accessible a few miles or kilometers south of Almaty.

With English-speaking compatriots, one of whom spoke extremely-helpful Russian, we schlepped up a steep pipeline, gingerly teetering up to Big Almaty Lake, a milky blue concoction three miles from the Kyrgyzstan border, sitting below what the locals ominously called The Observatory.

Blurry Orange Balls
This concoction of telescopes, second largest in the old Soviet Union, was fortified by a cadre of Kazakh border agents bent not only on kyboshing drug smuggling but also wiping visiting foreigners off the map of ping-pong contests.

Kazakh wedding ceremony
Kazakh wedding ceremony

We acquiesced in unending friendly games of table tennis, blinking as blurry orange balls flew past eyes fatigued from balancing up precipitous slopes on a rumbling pipeline.

An escape was engineered the next day by trudging up to Kosmostansia Pass, the most advanced Russian experiment in particle physics, incidentally manned by serious types uninterested in fielding questions fired by probing Western journalists such as us; they’d never heard of any Western comedians.

Ever-Present Cheerfulness
The Kazakhs I met were true characters starting with Karla, featured in Central Asia’s most popular English language guidebook. She’d trained at the American Embassy and achieved employee of the year in 1995, the plaque reading to Karlygash Makatovoa… ever present cheerfulness… resolved numerous serious problems and raised spirits.

This American double-talk concealed Karla’s true service, holding off eleven Kazakh policemen wielding Kalashnikovs who subtly insisted on boarding an American jet flying a diplomatic flag. They were thwarted by Karla’s sweet-talk, such as how would they like the next day’s newspaper headlines.

St. Nicholas Cathedral in Almaty
St. Nicholas Cathedral in Almaty

In her spare time Karla organizes tours for befuddled Westerners and rents out various apartments in Almaty, the most expensive city for sleeping in Central Asia, while composing jazz music, raising a precocious daughter and playing a mean jazz piano.

Irina was born to a German family in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan during the old Soviet regime, grew up in Almaty, emigrated to Germany and then Canada, a fluent Russian-speaker and invaluable resource to such as I who couldn’t begin to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet.

She led our happy troupe through the intricacies of a bureaucracy surviving the Soviet Union, up mountain valleys frequented in childhood and down memory lane.

Inspired by Yuri Gagarin
Irina was instrumental in corralling Alikhan, a former Soviet-Kazakh jet pilot who hosted and planned two penetrations into the Tien Shan Mountains on the border with Kyrgyzstan.

Alikhan, a former Soviet fighter pilot
Alikhan, a former Soviet fighter pilot

Alikhan’s ambition to become a fighter pilot was inspired by the exploits of Yuri Gagarin, who Irina had been taught in Soviet school was the first on the moon.

I bedazzled our pilot-host with tales of my stint in the U.S. Air Force Band, which I understood Alikhan to mutter was the kind of target Soviet bombers would likely enjoy, perhaps even better than Gary Francis Powers.

Voyeuristic Viewing
Though Alikhan was the head of eco-tourism for south Kazakhstan, he’d never heard of the country’s newest monument, Khan Shatyr (the Royal Marquee), perhaps the world’s greatest and most interesting building, an edifice that in comparison diminishes the view across east Shanghai from the Bund to a collection of Tinker toys.

See for a video of this 150-meter (500-foot) high tent city made with high-tech polymer, transparent for voyeuristic viewing, with natural solar winter heating and summer cooling.

Rollerblading in Almaty
Rollerblading in Almaty

This skyscraper city is a Xanadu pleasure dome built as a Dubai-style megalith, an Oceanarium hatching sharks for presidential pets, with squares, beaches, streets, concert hall, and golf course.

Notwithstanding this and other Kazakh marvels the locals I asked far preferred life under the old Soviet Union, reasons ranging from people were nicer to each other then, and everyone had jobs.

I suspect the real reason was the old life in Kazakhstan was long before Borat.

When you go: Fly to Almaty by Air Arabia from Europe or Air Astana throughout Asia for about $1000 roundtrip, double the price from North America.

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