{ Diamond in the Rough

Asian Geographic - - On Assignment - Text So­phie Ibbotson

I imag­ine the world map with­out coun­try la­bels, I’d place China, Rus­sia, and Iran with ease. But be­tween them, covering an area the same size as Western Europe, many would draw a blank. And that blank would be Kaza­khstan.

The hazi­ness with which we view Cen­tral Asia should come as no sur­prise. For 80 years, it was within the Soviet Union, and its empti­ness (Kaza­khstan is one of the most sparsely pop­u­lated coun­tries on Earth) made the coun­try suit­able for three things: launch­ing space rock­ets, nu­clear test­ing, and grow­ing grain. For­eign­ers were kept at arm’s length.

But Kaza­khstan cel­e­brated 25 years of in­de­pen­dence last year, and it’s forg­ing its own place in the world. Nat­u­ral re­sources have strength­ened the econ­omy, it’s a key link in Bei­jing’s Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt, and this sum­mer the coun­try hosted Expo 2017 – the World Fair – in As­tana. I wanted to travel to Kaza­khstan to fill in that blank space – to see for my­self what was there.

If kaza­khstan}

Gon­doliers pad­dle their lit­tle boats through a minia­ture canal sys­tem rem­i­nis­cent of the one in Venice, and a group of life-size tyran­nosaurus, ve­loci­rap­tors, and tricer­atops in the Dinopark both scare and en­thral chil­dren in equal mea­sure.

Leav­ing the Khan Shatyr be­hind, I took a bus tour of As­tana. I quickly un­der­stood why Kaza­khsta­nis are so proud of their cap­i­tal. There’s a def­i­nite ar­chi­tec­tural in­flu­ence from Kaza­khstan’s past – tra­di­tional no­madic mo­tifs, mosques with

Al­tyn Emel’s high­light is its singing sand dunes, a cu­ri­ous nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non. When the wind blows across the dune (or some­one walks on it), it makes a whistling sound. The noise is quite haunt­ing, even when you know what it is.

It was late af­ter­noon when I reached the dunes. The air tem­per­a­ture felt cool. Given the steep­ness of the dunes, this was no bad thing. Climb­ing on sand dunes is hot, tir­ing busi­ness. But when you do reach the top, the en­tirety of Al­tyn Emel spreads out be­fore you. Light and shadow fall in a patch­work. Look­ing to­wards the moun­tains on the hori­zon there is only pris­tine wilder­ness, not a per­son or build­ing in sight.

Kaza­khstan is no longer a blank space on my men­tal map; it is a place of un­told beauty im­printed on my mind. agp Cen­tral Kaza­khstan experiences more ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, whereas south­ern Kaza­khstan en­joys a milder cli­mate. Spring and au­tumn (par­tic­u­larly April and Oc­to­ber) are good times to visit.

Catch the fast train from As­tana to Al­maty to head into the Alatau Moun­tains; visit the Al­tyn Emel Na­tional Park

Air As­tana flies from var­i­ous cities:

Flight time: Eight hours (three flights weekly)

Flight time: Seven hours (five flights weekly)

Flight time: Eight hours (three flights weekly)

Flight time: Seven hours (two flights weekly) As­tana

WHEN WHERE HOW • Kuala Lumpur to Al­maty • Bangkok to Al­maty • Bangkok to As­tana • Hong Kong to Al­maty

KAZA­KHSTAN

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A view of As­tana, lit up as the sun sets

Left The Khan Shatyr (Royal Mar­quee) is an im­pres­sive trans­par­ent tent in As­tana top right A tourist boat cruises along the Ishim River in As­tana at sun­set be­low right Out­side the im­pres­sive Khan Shatyr in As­tana

Bot­tom Kaindy Lake is a stun­ning shade of turquoise, out of which tall birch­wood trees emerge

Above Driv­ing through the iso­lated lu­nar-like Al­tyn Emel Na­tional Park in the Al­maty re­gion

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