Kazakhs are rightfully proud of their vibrant, modern nation with oodles of attractions
OK, let’s get the Borat thing out of the way. Tell people you are travelling to Kazakhstan and nine times out of 10 the response is: “Ah, Borat”. Twelve years after Sacha Baron Cohen poked fun at the Kazakhs in his famous parody film, Borat still looms large. So much so that while I was there, six Czech tourists thought it a good idea to dress in Borat mankinis and pose in the capital, Astana.
The stunt earned them a $90 fine and, presumably, frostbite, with the temperature hovering below zero.
It is a joke that is wearing thin. Ask the country’s foreign minister, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, who immediately rolls his eyes, then reels off a list of movies that have either made fun of his country or depicted it as a centre for terrorism.
“Air Force One, the terrorists at the start of that were from Kazakhstan,” he says. “And we’ve been in a couple of James Bond films as the bad guys.”
He admits Borat is a major impetus behind the establishment of the staterun Kazakh Tourism National Company, the aim of which is to show the country as a vibrant, modern and stable country attractive to tourists and investors.
This is a country trying to shed its Soviet-era image and open its doors. Consider that you could read about the Czech Borat wannabes on Facebook and Twitter while in Kazakhstan. Controls are more strict in some other “stan” countries and neighbours, such as China.
Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world by size (Australia is sixth), with a relatively meagre population of 18 million. Part of the former USSR, it has only known one leader since 1991, President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
For a part of the world known for its hothead strongmen leaders, Kazakhstan appears to be a hotbed of stability, being home to a staggering 131 different nationalities.
While looming large over the country with seemingly every second building named in his honour, Nazarbayev has earned praise as a relative moderate who is gradually transforming the political system from a presidential dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy.
The resource-rich country shares a 7500km-long border with Russia (the distance from London to New York) and 1750km border with China. Keeping those volatile powerhouses apart is a service to humanity.
The country’s biggest city is Almaty, which sits in the country’s south, near the Kyrgyzstan border and at the base of the Zaiilisky Alatau mountain range. Spectacular mountains up to 3500m high virtually lean over the city.
Few cities of two million people can boast a 25-minute drive from city centre to a ski resort cable car, but that is what you get with Almaty. For the skier, the city offers the beauty of skiing all day without resort-priced accommodation, food and drink.
The Shymbulak Ski Resort is the city’s closest ski resort, at a base elevation of 2200m, up to a peak of 3200m, providing for long seasons on its 20km of runs. This is the place that, in 2014, closed so Prince Harry could ski in private. Apparently there was no need to, with crowds often sparse, and little, if any, queuing for chair lifts. On the day we visited, two weeks into the season, there were few skiers about, despite metre-deep snow.
Opened in 1954, Shymbulak was once the training base for the USSR winter Olympic ski team and underwent a major renovation in 2011, with a new neighbouring resort in development.
At the base of the resort, sitting in a deep valley, is the Medeo skating rink. Even if you are unsure about donning the blades, a visit to this spectacular setting is a must.
Almaty carries the motto of the city of 1000 colours. It could also be the city of monuments, befitting a city that in 2016 celebrated its 1000th birthday. Statues of famous Kazakh philosophers, writers and poets dot city streets, but it’s the monument of Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, situated in the park of the same name, that is simply breathtaking.
The 28 men, part of an Almaty infantrymen unit led by General Panfilov, died defending Moscow against the advancing Germans in 1941. Their actions delayed the Nazi advance, allowing the defence of Moscow to be bolstered. Cast in bronze, the enormous installation dramatically conveys the darkness, yet triumph, of the men’s mission.
In the same 18ha park is the contrasting Holy Ascension Cathedral. It is no less breathtaking, but in such a different way. The cathedral is a riot of colour, and cannot help but lift the spirit.
It is reputedly the second largest wooden structure in the world. A few minutes’ walk away is the Green Bazaar, a symphony of smells, noise and energy. Green Bazaar is the place to buy souvenirs, and the vendors are happy to haggle.
Almaty is also a city of culture, with 26 museums and 12 major theatres, including the Kazakhs State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet. There is also a developing contemporary arts culture, including the newly established contemporary art space, Transforma.
And then there are the parks, vast and beautiful expanses of green throughout the sprawling city centre. To take them all in at once, ride the cable car up to Kok Tobe mountain for great views of the city.
From here you can also see the eyecatching Sunkar International Ski Jumping Complex that looms large over Almaty. The complex has five world-class jumps that are so close to the city you expect the jumpers to land on the freeway.
You could easily spend a week in Almaty, with day trips to Big Almaty