Two week holiday in Kazakhstan? Yes Please?

In 2004 I had the unique opportunity to visit Kazakhstan for a couple of weeks. We were based not far from Almaty which until recently, was the capital before the centre of power went to the city of Astana (now renamed to Nur-Sultan).

Kazakhstan was one of the countries on the ancient Silk route where merchants took their silk goods from China to all parts of Asia and into Europe. Not only goods were traded but knowledge and cultural and technical skills crisscrossed the Steppe through all of the countries ending in Stan!

Independence from the former Soviet Union was gained on the 16th December 1991 following an overwhelming vote to gain self-rule and break away from the control of Moscow. The 16th of December has been Independence Day ever since.

For most of visit we stayed adjacent to a disused army camp, the nerve centre for strategic operations back in the Cold War days. It has a gigantic underground command bunker with now empty missile silo tops still visible dotted around the area. Access to the bunker was some one hundred plus steps down through a tiled well lit tunnel, not unlike the metro network in the centre of Moscow, or indeed any major city. Around the area there were metal frames from the Soviet era reminding those passing of their might and power, I have included a photograph of one of these.

We were so far East, you could see the mountain tops of China in the far distance, behind us the rolling hills of the Kazakh steppe disappeared into the distance. We visited in August with the weather dry and arid, in that rugged terrain the only green to be seen were cannabis plants, which were hardy enough to endure the 45 degree heat. Everything else had withered in the relentless sun. It is easy to see why the Kazakh flag is a sun in a desert of blue, representing the sky. During the day you could look around 360 degrees and see just the deep clear blue sky.

The inhabitants of the rural areas were initially a bit shy of western tourists but after some encouragement with the exchange of cigarettes, they were easily won over and became friendly and helpful. Although there are many languages in the country, Russian is still the one to use in conversation with visitors.

Almaty city was like a jewel in the crown, for thousands of miles there are communities of nomadic people moving around with all their possessions, living off the land and livestock just as they have done for thousands of years, before Genghis Khan forayed into the county from the adjacent Mongolia. Open space gave the feeling of the ultimate freedom but a few short miles to the west we were in the city centre, a bustling and modern city with modern cars and buses with most people wearing western dress. A striking contrast to the country folk. During the Soviet era the war memorials across their empire were striking not only in size and statue, but in technical perfection. One of the more striking memorials in the former Soviet states is the one in Almaty, dedicated to General Panfilov and the 28 guardsmen killed in the defence of Moscow in WW2. The bronze statue stands on a stone plinth depicting the brave guardsmen arms outstretched protecting their country. In front of the uplifting edifice is a stone plinth containing an everlasting flame which burns brightly 24/7 even in the worst weather of the Kazakh winter the flame burns through the several feet of snow.

All around the city are memorials and commemorative buildings and museums. The restaurant scene is lively specialising in all cuisines, walking around at night is quite safe and the inhabitants of the city are most friendly. A smattering of Russian and you have friends for life. I would urge any adventurous tourist to spend some time in Kazakhstan, it is so much more than a name on a map.

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