Kazakhstan - anyone actually been there?
  • I love off-beat destination and have been wanting to visit Kazakhstan ever since Borat was so rude about it in his movie! I've done some research and found that there is actually a lot to see there, with really varied cultures and friendly people as well. I have never met a traveller who has actually been there though! Does anyone have any experiences or stories from a trip there? I would love to hear first-hand what Kazakhstan is actually like. Ta, Brian
  • Hi Brian,

    I am from the US and I live in Almaty, Kazakhstan now.

    I can tell you a little about this area.
    I have not seen much of Kazakhstan yet other than this city and a few trips to the mountains we sit on the feet of here (which are comparable to the Alps, but bigger.)

    First of all, forget the stupid ass that is Borat. Read the book, "Apples are from Kazakhstan" for some background on the nation.

    Borat is to Kazakstan as Hollywood is to the US. If all you knew about the US was Hollywood (the case with many people here, by the way) you would have an extremely limited and skewed concept of our nation. We understand that Hollywood is fiction and drama and escapism. If you take Borat and think you have an idea about this country it is just as ignorant as Borat taking the idea of Baywatch and expecting it to be America. Laughable.

    Kazahs have a rich and lovely (and very very long) history that is being lost today.

    It is culturally important here to understand that Kazakhstan in not even 20 years old.
    But the Kazakh culture is thousands on years old. The old culture is historically nomadic and richly skilled in hunting (they trained golden eagles to hunt for them), artistry (they make their own houses of felt and wood much like a teepee but rounded and richly decorated inside - these homes are called Yerts), animal husbandry and riding skills on horseback. This culture was the first to develop the skill to ride hands-free and aim and shoot at a full run, making them fierce rivals to any threat.

    However, upon this background, place the last century's oppressive hand of the Soviet regime who waltzed in and dictated changes. "You will now be farmers to feed the great motherland; you will give us all but what you can subsist on." The Kazaks largely refused, and rather than be dominated and have their herds taken away, they slaughtered all their animals, ate what they could and starved to death by choice.

    The ones that submitted became farmers and the steppes they inhabited lost their grassy root systems much like the prairies in the US and became a dust bowl and desert. It took a while for the Russian govt to realize the steppes were not very good places to grow crops for the motherland. Meanwhile, the Russians drained the Aural sea (this is a tragic story!) and set up radiation exposure experiments with whole cities and towns of people in Northern Kazakhstan - sending whole trains loaded with Kazakh people and animals and even insects through areas of freshly-detonated nuclear weapons, just to study what would happen. (This is a barbaric and shameful outrage that is a hallmark indicator of the Russian government mindset - people are expendable and exploitable. This is the experience that has blazed itself on the cultural consciousness here and had many significant impacts upon the collective consciousness.)

    Now to give a visual picture of the city . . .

    Start with a regular US city . . . let's see . . . how about Denver. That would be a good start because the climate here in Almaty is similar to Denver because Almaty is on the feet of a very impressive range of mountains and is far away from oceans. This makes the weather very warm in summer and snowy cold in winter. Also, the mountains create a lot of weather by causing clouds to rain and storms to happen. Okay, so that gives the climate layer to you.

    Now, for the buildings . . . take the hodgepodge backside of Denver and make that the main view building-wise. Place a layer of black wherever coal dust would settle, as this is the main means of heating in winter and it has a horrid impact on the air, the buildings, the soil, and the general mood in winter - very, very polluted.

    Throw in a few high rises here and there that are lovely.

    Widen the streets so most have two lanes in each direction. Add granite cut curbs on both sides (granite here is cut in slabs and laid out as stairs to walk on because the mountains are made of it), an open gutter gully on both sides for water run-off, a dirt bank or grassy width of a few feet and then an asphalt walkway/sidewalk/driveway parallel to the street on both sides for walking, riding, car driving out to the main road. On the far side of this walkway are parking spaces or front yards of apartments (where someone is sweeping the walkway clean every morning) and over this walkway you will often find a green archway from the trees growing on either side. If you are walking by nicer homes they often have high walls of concrete brick or corrigated metal with lovely but unseen yards; poorer homes will have gardens from which people grow their own food to get by. If you are in an apartment neighborhood, about five times a block you will pass an old lady or young person selling fresh vegetables, fruit or plants - or whatever else they can make. These people are usually friendly because they are in business.

    Now, for the people.
    They are generally reserved and quiet-spoken. They seem unfriendly until you break through their privacy and sense of being oppressed (which they are so used to that they are unaware of, much the way we are so used to liberty that we are unaware of its impact upon our daily outlook.)

    If you stereotyped the Kazakh look, you would (predictably, I suppose) take a long, lean Eastern European person (many models are E.Euro in origin) and make it longer and leaner (it is easier to ride hands-free on horseback if you are very long and very light - this seems to me to have had an impact over the years). The face would be a varied blend of Russian and Asian appearance, which is quite distinctive; think Mongolian and add variety toward both influences. Most people have dark hair and brown eyes, and if they do, they tend to be very small boned and quite tall; others are blonde and blue-eyed Russian looking folk - who are typically stockier in build.

    Now for the driving!
    Take a horseback riding culture and give it 20 years of explosive growth regarding automobiles, a culture of haves and have-nots due to an oil deposit larger than the middle east's and all the money that siphons to those who were in position to receive from it. Then take the broken-communist distortion that those in power get to share it all and everyone else can figure it out for themselves and make the infrastructure run somehow.

    Here is what you get - wall to wall cars, driving very fast, driving very close, driving very skillfully, generally making three lanes out of the two they have, passing on the shoulder if possible (the granite curbs make this challenging) and crossing the double yellow line at center to pass whenever traffic is bad one direction making the other direction an obstacle course. If you die in traffic, well, it must have been your day - Allah has called you home. Everyone else, keep driving.

    If you are a pedestrian, watch your step! You do not have the right of way unless you are crossing a crosswalk (we call them Zebras, as they are striped as such) and here, people will stop for you (generally people are not upset drivers, they are just enacting the training of survival and make the best of a bad situation by looking out for yourself and yours) but just barely will they stop - as in within inches of your knee, and when you clear their bumper by 3 inches, they are off again. Gasp! It is amazing and disconcerting to a newbie here, but that is what it is.

    A FASCINATING sociological development fills in the spaces here. In the Almaty culture is a social agreement that has evolved called the "gypsy taxi"- anyone with a car can legally stop and give a ride for a wagered fee to anyone else, which is such a common and accepted practice that if you walk to the granite curb and extend your hand (kind of like you are about to pat a dog on the head) a car will generally stop within 10 to 60 seconds and ask you where you want to go and how much they want to take you there.
    RARELY are people victimized with this system (though with the economic downturn and the resulting desperation this is becoming a bit more common.)

    Another aspect of this culture - very little middle class. Either you are swimming with money or you live on the scraps. Local school teachers here have classes of 30 to 40 and teach two shifts of students a day; they begin at 7:30 and work until 6 pm or so instructing and they make about $800 a month. (Living here is about as expensive as New Your City). Shameful.

    The government is still corrupt, though the "president (king)" is much more caring than the previous regime. The corruption has a large impact on the hearts and minds of the people and stunts any sense of freedom that is taken for granted in the US.

    One lady I know said to me, "The United States is to me the Moon - I will never get to go." She thinks it must be paradise; Hollywood at work.

    In the grocery stores you see videos of western music - why? It is a western style store; this is what the west is! Music videos of loose living and angry disappointment. "Borat -ignorance phenomenon" working both directions.

    Also, in the grocery stores, if you fill your cart more than 1/2 full, you will get people watching you walk down the isle because you have so much food.

    Here, for most people, buying a $30 can of excellent caviar is something you can only dream of. If I buy a chocolate bar (readily available) for a thank you gift, the recipient with eat one square a day until it is gone, because it is such a treasure. Then they are your special friend for a long time, because you were so nice to them.

    That's Almaty according to an expat.
    Hope that helps.
  • Hi almatyne,

    Thanks for the first-hand account - absolutely fascinating!! The nomadic culture you describe sounds very similar to Mongolia, with the eagles and yuirts and horse sports. What a pity that a place with so much oil wealth does not direct it to the benefit of its people. As a visitor are you quite free to wander around, and see the country? Do you need permits to go and there? And the mountains, is any skiing or retreats in there? Sounds to me like a country with huge tourist potential. First you need to get the backpackers in - seems cheap enough which is huge criterion.

    What do you do there?
  • almatyme i cant believe i read all that.
    kinda scary but i still wanna go!!! do u like it or what overall?
  • Sorry, that I am writing four years later than GHBRAIN asked about Kazakhstan. If you still have interest in Kazakhstan, I can write for you about it, as a Russian, who was born in Kazakhstan and live here.


    P.S.Sorry for my English, it is my B language.


    (kseniyalukoshina@mail.ru- it is my e-mail adress)
  • My post is strictly for those who really wanna know what its like to actually live in Kazakhstan. I am not here to sugar-coat anything and certainly don't suffer from any Lawrence-in-Arabia-type syndromes. I work in the thriving oil and gas sector and apart from the generous salary, there is absolutely no other reason for me to be here.
    First off, a casual visitor to this country will quickly realize that the old cult of ignorance is alive, endemic and it would appear that 'chronic stupidity' is the mantra adopted by the majority of Kazakhs in their approach to life. The local culture generally revolves around varying degrees of imbecility, apathy and all-out ineptitude. The men can be generalised as vodka-drinking alcoholics whose talents for buffoonery would make Beavis and Butthead look like amateurs. The women are interested in sex-for-profit and would rather starve to death than be seen in public without their favourite eight-inch heels. You may wonder whatever happened to your olfactory senses until you understand that taking regular baths is not the Kazakh way. Interestingly, this is justified on the grounds that the extra layer of grease on the skin acts as some sort of thermal insulation against the country's harsh winter!!!!
    Kazakhs are mythomaniacs so beware. The new capital is a case in point as it may leave you with the impression that the infrastructure of the country is pretty good. This is hugely misleading as the other towns and cities are generally backward and under-developed. As for the abundance of natural resources that the locals constantly brag about, I would suggest you take that with the proverbial pinch of salt.
    In any case, if you need to save some cash for a personal project then come here and work for a few years. It is pointless however to think of Kazakhstan as a tourist destination as the people have never seen 'foreigners' so don't be alarmed if they follow you home like the Pied Piper while you're busy chatting on your mobile phone. This is due to their apparent fascination with 'Yinglish' . Of course they have never heard anything other than Kazakh-Russian. Unfortunately in their enthusiasm, they may attempt to touch or embrace you in a rather awkward and heavy handed way. This is normal for Kazakhs as they prefer to spend ten minutes shaking hands with everyone in the building instead of hurrying off to a meeting that they are already late for. Of course the concept of personal space and privacy is totally alien to them. Don't worry if those who speak a bit of English tend to commence every sentence with a Homer Simpson- type giggle, it's because. ...well I don't know why Kazakhs tend to laugh at the wrong moments.
    The uncomfortable truth is that Borat actually make Kazakhstan look much better than it actually is.
    True the economy is booming but the human resource is extremely poor and may contribute to a serious stifling of growth. Make sure you come here for the right reason - money.

    PS: Whatever you do please don't remind Kazakhs that they are not Russian (European).

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