When you think of Kazakhstan – admittedly a rare event – what immediately comes to mind?
Most people would probably say ‘Borat’. But having recently visited the world’s ninth largest country, I discovered that it offers considerably more than a mustachioed anti-Semitic TV host.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise of course; believing that all Kazakhs are like Borat would be rather like believing everyone in Australia drinks beer and drives around in a ‘ute’ … okay maybe a bad example, but you get my meaning.
The fact is, Kazakhstan is developing fast. Its capital Astana rises out of the Steppe like oasis of glass and steel in the vast desert of grass. World renowned architects, including the legendary Sir Norman Foster, appear to have been given carte blanche to develop some incredible buildings, including the world’s largest tent (which houses a shopping mall and, somewhat bizarrely, a top-floor beach), huge new sports stadia, and a curiously-shaped art university that resembles a big blue dog bowl. But while the urban planning is somewhat hit and miss, Astana – like the booming Gulf cities – has the unmistakable sense of a city on the rise.
People who prefer their attractions to be more than a decade old however, should head to Almaty. Overlooked by the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains, the former capital has a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. Young people hang out and sip coffee in street-side cafes, while more adventurous types can head to the nearby mountains where shiny new gondolas connect to an impressive ski resort. The mountain restaurants are also a great place to tuck into a horsemeat steak, which are so good they will convert even the most passionate pony-lover.
Of course Kazakhstan has far more to offer than two cities, and a 400-word column can scarcely do justice to a country that covers almost 2.8 million square kilometres – the size of Egypt, France, Thailand and Turkey combined. To really understand this wonderful, slightly off-beat country, you really need to pay it a visit. Fortunately this will soon become a lot easier, following the Kazakh government’s decision to offer visa-free travel to citizens of OECD countries. The rapidly expanding Air Astana is also planning to add Hong Kong and Saigon to a route map that already includes Bangkok, Beijing, Delhi and KL.
So why not forget you annual beach holiday and head to Kazakhstan? Whatever happens you’re guaranteed an unforgettable experience. Just make sure you leave your mankini at home.