Kazakhstan…what do you know about it? Well whatever pre-conception you have in your head is likely to be very wrong. I have just spent 3 days in Almaty a city in south east of the worlds 7 th largest country, north of the Himalayas and yet a flight from the capital Astana to Bombay takes the same time as it would take to fly from London.
I was there at the First World Congress for the Performing Arts and I thought I was in for an experience but not the experience I got. Thanks to Sasha Baron Cohen, Kazakhstan is held in the UK as a bit of a joke… inhabited by poor un-educated peasants, un-industrialised and socially backward. But this is far from the truth. Almaty is a beautiful city of wide, tree lined boulevards, smiling people and no sign of a developing county in sight. The cars were all western brands, the infrastructure was good, the city was very clean and most importantly it felt very safe.
Now you may think that since we were guests of the government we were shown only the best bits but you can always tell the real state of a country by the trip from the airport to the hotel, the attitude of the taxi drivers and the efficiency and officiousness of the security guards and immigration officials.
Well the immigration official on our exit from the country checked my passport looked up at me in a deadpan manner and said you are booked to Moscow …but you have no visa…well I was booked to London so I replied in a panicked manner that I was going to London and his faced broke into a huge beaming smile and said…just kidding!
During the 3 days I was there not once did I feel un comfortable or threatened, not once were we bothered by hawkers, even after a walk of 820 steps up the mountain to a popular tourist spot in the ski resort that lies 20 minutes from the city centre.
I would describe the entire experience and the landscape as alpine, wooded, snow capped mountains, as middle class as most parts of Portugal and Spain, culturally rich and extraordinarily diverse.
The mix of faces you see are what surprises you. I expected Mongolian and Asian but there are everything a mix of Caucasian, Asian but some who look very Thai, and Indian.
I suspect that being on the silk route to China and having been invaded by Alexander the Great has left a genetic legacy unlike any other country. The religious diversity is also interesting with little evidence of any particular leaning and certainly good food, alcohol and entertainment you might expect from any western country was evident.
Culturally we were treated to 3 concerts of exceptional standard including the new Kazakhstan philharmonic, national band and a range of traditional folk-loric performances that covered everything from throat singing to Gothic rock with traditional instruments.
In short I discovered a country not just rich in oil and gas and minerals but one comfortable with its self and its place in the world, a secret destination that will reward those brave enough to go. Its future as a strategic business centre perfectly placed between Europe, India, the Middle and Far East is assured under the current benign political situation and so long as you don’t venture there in mid winter where the temperatures plummet to -40 or in the mid summer when they rise as high as 45 you will surely like me, come back smiling.