I've heard it said that since the release of the British satirical film 'Borat', tourism to Kazakhstan has rocketed. Having neither seen the film, nor being remotely inclined to, I cannot pass any comment on how likely that is. But having read Chris Robbins' book about the country - "Searching for Kazakhstan", I can say I hope it's true. Kazakhs deserve the economic input of tourism, and the country is certainly one that should be explored.
Sadly most travellers will not get the access that Robbins (journalist and award-winning non-fiction author, who speaks Russian and has all the right connections) was lucky enough to obtain... but even so... it's a place to add to the wish-list.
Chris Robbins is tempted to visit Kazakhstan by a chance encounter on a plane. On a flight to Moscow a fellow-passenger from Little Rock tells him that he is en route to Kazakhstan to meet his future wife... he also tells him that Apples are from Kazakhstan ~ which would have been a much better title for the book.
Although in traditional travelogue style Robbins tells us about his wanderings in this unknown country squeezed south of Russia between China and the Caspian Sea, a country as big as Western Europe but virtually unheard of until that movie, what he is really setting out to do is explain Kazakhstan. As he tells one of his friends on a subsequent visit... he wants to put across "a sense of Kazakh courage and heart... Unless people understand where Kazakhstan has come from, they won't be able to appreciate what it has become."
He certainly manages to get that sense of the Kazakhs across and to convey just how far the country has come, how quickly, how unfairly it has sometimes been misrepresented in the West and how the people and their president know they still have a ways to go.
He does this by clearly having done his research before he went. This isn't a wanderer's tale by any means. This is a project. Robbins has clear ideas of the places he wants to see, and probably (in general terms) the stories he wants to tell, before he arrives in the country. After all, he freely admits before he starts that he "has a publisher" - so the story is already sold... he just needs to fill in the details. That shouldn't detract, however, because the details he finds to fill in are serendipitous.
Getting locked in a subterranean disco where even the bouncers can't let you out, probably wasn't part of the plan.
Finding your friend has connections to the president might make you hopeful of gaining an interview... but presumably doesn't lead you to anticipate an invitation for a three day presidential tour, access to some remote and forbidden places, further meetings stretching over a two-year period, including late-night conversations about what it was like to grow up on a collective and then "betray" your family by joining the communist party and rising through the ranks, unashamedly doing the things that were done in that rise (albeit in the name of getting what your state needed from the system).
Conversations with President Nazarbayev provide an "official insider's" view of the country and its relations with its neighbours. A view that is balanced by other journeys with more ordinary people... journeys to visit the berkutchy (the eagle ruler) who hunts with a golden eagle as casually as a falconer would fly a Merlin... or to find a jewellery maker whose wares fund his labour of love restoring the grave goods from ancient Kazakh noblemen - goods which suggest links with the fables of our country the Knights of the Round Table, the Holy Grail ... or to find an old man who treasures the political disagreements at his kitchen table for the very fact that they can happen, a man who survived the Gulag.
With witty asides and the usual run of travellers' tale anecdotes, the real stories are told in straightforward journalistic style. There are few passages that I found moving (the Gulag survivor aside), but much that is shocking in terms of the horrors inflicted in past times, which always become more real when individualised.
The real gift of the book, though, is in the simple telling of things that we already know and things that we don't... things linked only by the fact that they are all part of Kazakhstan's hard-won heritage. The nuclear tests and the precise moment when Sakharov finally understood the reality of his work. The destruction of the Aral Sea... and the endeavours to bring it back from the brink. Covert operations with the USA to deal with nuclear material that the Russians couldn't take back because they'd (a) forgotten about it, (b) wouldn't be able to account for it since it was 'missing' from the original records and (c) couldn't afford to deal with it if it was returned. We travel with early English explorers and learn of the pre-flight rituals of the cosmonauts. Spend time in the Gulag Archipelago with its author, and discover how he is viewed in the country today... share similar reflections on Trotsky and Dostoevsky who have their own strong connections to the area.
It is still a country of contradictions. One coveted on all sides (by China, by Russia, by Turkey) but which chose to be nuclear free. A country which, when the higher echelons were accused of political assassination, invited the FBI to investigate - but is gradually turning its economic interests towards China. A country ruled by a firm presidential power, but determined to become democratic enough to win the approval of the US & the UK. A country sophisticated enough to introduce a new currency virtually overnight, but one where barter was commonplace right at the end of the 20th century. A place with a wealth of minerals that is only just beginning to reap their rewards. Where nomads might still hunt with eagles, but Sir Norman Foster is the architect of choice for civic structures. A country with some of the most beautiful, unspoilt places on earth and without a doubt some of the most devastated wasteland ever created by man.
It is a place that is not easy to visit - not because you won't be welcome, the Kazakh hospitality is legendary (though vegetarians might struggle a little) - but because of sheer scale of the emptiness. 15 million people spread over 1 million square miles. (Compare with Britain's 59 million crammed into 93,000 square miles). The steppe is bleak and more vast that we can imagine. The summer heat and the winter cold are extremes beyond the experience of Western Europeans. Infrastructure is still in its infancy, and transport vehicles often struggling on well into their old age. But it is a place that Robbins will tempt you to... to see the original wild apple orchards, to smell the crushed wormwood, to the beautiful mountains, and even the much reduced Aral Sea is still an inland wonder of a kind. There are city parks, and superb new architecture. The soviet era remnants are slowly being swept away... but it is still a place steeped in the momentous history of the 20th century - its politics, its literature, its science, all have roots or have left traces here.
Stylistically simple, ill-served by the choice of cover design and illustrated throughout with Bob Gale's ink-sketches, it has the feel of somewhat naïve book that doesn't do justice to the wealth of information it contains.
Not a book that makes you immediately want to go back and start the journey over again... but one that you will find yourself dipping back into for half-remembered facts and amusement... and one that might just make you want to go see for yourself.
(Thanks to Lesley Mason)
And so, without further ado, I continue my global trek to Uzbekistan. Having spent nearly two days on a train in my last transfer – as well as various modes of travel during my stay in Kazakhstan, including some hair-raising helicopter trips! – I opt to fly from Almaty to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital) on an Uzbekistan Airways 764 flight. For £90 I get a 1 hour, 50 minute non-stop journey, and find myself in another former Soviet Republic struggling to cope in a post-independence era. On this occasion my stopover is courtesy of American Peace Corps volunteer Tom Fleming, with his account of a two-year posting in the country entitled “Taxi to Tashkent”.