TRAVEL: THE ROAD MORE TRAVELLED
One of the biggest beneficiaries of China's Belt and Road Initiative is Kazakhstan. While Russia and China tussle for influence over a nation home to people who trace their ancestry to the Mongols, horsemeat is still on the menu.
A journey to colourful Kazakhstan
THE ROAD MORE TRAVELLED
It’s an assault on every one of the senses as the stall holders of the cavernous Green Market of Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, bellow prices and descriptions of their produce, their chorus, which echoes off lime Soviet-era tiles, is punctuated only by the pounding of butchers’ blades.
The air is an aromatic kaleidoscope, with light scents lingering and pungent ones assaulting the nose. Sunlight streaks through high, dust-encrusted windows, bathing mounds of candied nuts from Afghanistan, apricots and saffron from Persia, and Yemeni persimmons the size of softballs in mid-morning sunshine. Beyond the relatively sedate fresh produce counters, steps past the sweet stores and cured meat mongers, the wet market section is a frenzy of activity as butchers haggle over the price of frisbee-sized horse steaks, lengths of homemade sausage, and boiled goat’s heads, a local delicacy often reserved for traditional weddings. It’s an ancient scene in a city that seems permanently attached to its history as being on one of the many “silk roads” that connected ancient Europe and Asia.
Travellers have come to the ancient trading city of Almaty for centuries. Today, however, Almaty has competition in the form of Kazakhstan’s impetuous but unmistakably ambitious new capital, Astana. While Almaty lies along ancient trade routes near the borders with Kyrgyzstan and China (and within 200 kilometres of Korgos… ), Almaty lies far to the north, in the Russian-influenced part of Kazakhstan. Taken together, the two cities offer travellers a chance to see the Kazakhstan of the past and the future – and competing visions of that future.
A destination long relegated to the list of unpronounceable “Stans” of the former Soviet Union, sprawling, landlocked Kazakhstan has finally come of age. Shrugging off its communist-era persona (for the most part), embracing independence, and capitalising on a new-found prosperity thanks to extensive oil deposits, this ancient way station on the Silk Road is heralding in an exciting new epoch as the engine that will propel Central Asia forward, fueled in part by China’s Belt & Road ambitions.
Almaty, the country’s largest city and former capital, is a seven-hour direct flight from Hong Kong. Home to most of Kazakhstan’s 18 million inhabitants, Almaty has welcomed merchants and travellers since the first Silk Road caravans wound their way through the high alpine passes of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains on their journey west from China. Almaty
lies at the foothills of this range of snow-capped peaks, which now boast ski resorts popular with Kazakhstan’s emergent middle class.
A visit to the Zelyony (Green Market), Almaty’s central market, offers a glimpse into the real life of Almaty’s residents. A market place has stood at this site – the heart of Kazakhstan’s “Garden City” – for 400 years. Wreathed by birch-lined boulevards and the old oak trees of neighbouring Panfilov Park, the Green Market offers a touch of the Silk Road that was. The faces of the stall holders – Korean, Uyghur, Tartar, Uzbek and Russian – tell the stories of Kazakhstan’s heritage as a melting pot of cultures (some there by choice, others by exile), while their wares trace a spider’s web of trade that reaches from the saffron fields of Persia to the date plantations of Saudi Arabia and the rice paddies of eastern China.
“The Green Market is Almaty,” says Inzhu Aliyev, the youngest of a three-generation dynasty that runs a horsemeat butchery at the centre of the market. She works the stall with her mother and grandmother – the three clad in immaculate white coats like diligent chemists – between classes at nearby Narxoz University. While we chat, I keep one eye out for so-called “fruit and nut police”, the market’s security guards. These guards, a throwback to Soviet times, and camera-shy and like to stop would-be Instagrammers in their tracks, much to the amusement of locals. “There is so much history here, so many families that pass their stalls on to their children,” says Inzhu. “While the rest of Kazakhstan
is changing, it’s nice to have a place where time really seems to stand still.”
Despite being the business centre of Kazakhstan, Almaty seems to be in no hurry to face modernity. While there are gleaming tower blocks and luxury hotels cropping up in the city centre, and luxury car dealerships and gated communities on its peripheries, it’s not at the cost of the city’s iconic architecture, which includes the Kazakhstan National Science Museum, the mosque-like Alma-ata Art Centre, and the Iversky Seraphimovskiy Nunnery.
At the nearby bright yellow Tsarist-era Zenkov Cathedral, which has survived blizzards, fires and revolutions, stooped elderly women (babushkas) and millennials in distressed jeans pray before a magnificent golden iconostasis painted by Nikolai Khludov, while an orthodox priest silently watches a football match on his iphone in one corner. It’s a scene that’s little changed for a century. In Almaty, heritage is in vogue, and the present is in deference to what has been.
You’ll find traditions throughout leafy Almaty, from the intriguing (and rather torturous) bath houses, where birch leaves and buckets of cold water build character; and the traditional hunting falconry aviaries in the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau; to the authentic local eateries where the national dish, Beshbarmak, a combination of boiled horse and mutton with noodles, is served with reverence and pride.
But every city has its rival and for ancient Almaty, it’s the sparkling new Astana, a capital city of otherworldly architecture and 10-lane highways that has risen from the flat northern plains thanks to ambitions of Kazakhstan’s autocratic president. In 2015, The Guardian dubbed it “the world’s strangest capital”.
I traveled to Astana with award-winning boutique airline Air Astana, the country’s national carrier. Launched in 2001, the tiny airline is helping deliver Kazakhstan to the world beyond in a way no Kazakh airline has done before. There’s no government interference, no Soviet relics in the fleet, and no sluggish bureaucracy – Skytrax has even awarded the carrier the coveted four-star rating, putting it on par with the world’s leading brands.
It’s a fitting way to arrive in Astana, a city that was, in part, conceptualized on a napkin during a presidential flight – or so the legend goes. The brainchild of Kazakhstan’s enigmatic and ardent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, Astana is the antithesis of Almaty; a former Siberian Cossack garrison town, Astana became capital in 1998 and visitors will be hard pressed to find anything in the city older than two decades.
The first thing visitors to Astana will notice is the architecture, which is striking, unapologetic and showing a slightly nouveau riche sensibility. Set against
the region’s extremely flat steppes, Astana shimmers like a mirage, with grandiose monuments, new commercial towers and luxurious apartment blocks, and is crisscrossed with wide, proud boulevards planned by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.
At the city centre is the Khazret Sultan Mosque, the second-largest in Central Asia, which in turn is ringed by world-class arts institutions that still have that new auditorium smell; there’s the Norman Foster-designed, pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, where the Syria peace talks have been underway since early 2017. There is the eye-catching, yurt-shaped Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre and the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall, designed by Manfredi Nicoletti to resemble a traditional Kazakh instrument. Dominating the skyline is the Bayterek, a gilded observation tower themed on the mythological Tree of Life, where visitors can place their hands in the golden imprint left by President Nazarbayev and make a wish.
From the Bayterek, it’s easy to spy the city’s grow beneath, from the new Ritz Carlton and St Regis hotel to the 500,000-square-metre US$1.6 billion Abu Dhabi Plaza, home to chic apartments, craft beer bars, avant garde restaurants, and luxury retail.
One of my favourite places in the capital is a little older (by Astana standards). The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, which was also designed by Norman Foster, is a curious mall with its own monorail and members-only indoor beach, which makes sense when you realise how far the real thing is from Astana. But travellers should also leave time to visit the impressive National Museum of Kazakhstan, which opened in 2014. A truly ambitious project, the sprawling museum guides visitors through Kazakhstan’s preand post-soviet heritage, finishing with a model of Astana, present and future, growing from the floor in a fascinating light and sound display.
Just when you think things couldn’t get odder, a giant golden eagle, with a wingspan of more than 30 metres, descends from the ceiling of the main atrium to a chorus of patriotic anthems that could rival the volume of the stall holders of the Green Market. It’s testament to the spirit of the Kazakhs, their fortitude, their resilience, and the bold new path the nation is mapping for itself, one which embraces both the past and the future.
01 Leafy Almaty is an ancient trading city. 02 Butchers and buyers haggle over steaks and meat at the Green Market. 03 Nuts, apricots, persimmons and other fresh produce from neighbouring states are also sold in another section of the Green Market.