We came to Almaty expecting to experience some serious culture shock, but so far the most shocking thing about this place is the absence of that shock. This place could not be more different from the Kazakhstan which most westerners have come to know through Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat.
Almaty is a modern city with all the amenities you would find back home. Its very green and seems to us to be a really livable place. The climate is lovely and the whole city has the amazing backdrop of the Tien Shan mountain range. There is a huge mix of ethnicities and people seem to be pretty wealthy as a result of the commodity driven economy.
The country also has a very interesting history – of which I knew absolutely nothing about before arriving. In fact, I knew so little about the place that I feel the need to give a short history/geography lesson before sharing our experiences here.
Kazakhstan is a huge country – it’s the 9th largest in the world and about the size of all of Western Europe. Despite having a huge landmass, it has a very small population of around 18 million. For thousands of years, traditional nomadic life has dominated the extremely vast and empty steppes. The name ‘Kazakhstan’ comes from the Turkic language, meaning ‘land of the wanderer’. Around the 11th century, however, small cities started to emerge as important outposts along the silk road connecting Asia and Europe.
Prior to becoming part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was under the protection of Tsarist Russia, who considered the country a strategic point for expansion towards Asia. During the Soviet Era things weren’t awesome for Kazakhstan. It became part of the Soviet Union in 1920 but it was under Stalin’s rule that things really took a turn for the worst.
Ill-conceived, centrally planned agricultural policies severely disrupted the nomadic way of life. Efforts to collectivize farms led to mass starvation and a drastic 40% decrease in the country’s population. During this time, millions of political prisoner and undesired ethnic groups were exiled to gulags in Kazakhstan from other parts of the Soviet Union. These mass deportations are the main reason behind Kazakhstan’s ethnic diversity.
The end of Stalin’s rule wasn’t the end of questionable experimentation in Kazakhstan. Northern Kazakhstan was used as a test site for nuclear arms up until 1991 and has suffered long-term ecological and biological consequences as a result.
Ever heard of the Aral Sea? That’s because it disappeared. It was once the 4th largest lake in the world but has steadily shrunk in size and increased in salinity since the decision was taken in the 1960’s to divert rivers feeding the lake in order to irrigate the dry steppes to grow cotton. The disappearance of the lake has not only had drastic ecological impacts, like entirely altering the climate, but also economic impacts from the collapse of the fishing industry, and health impacts from the constant dust storms which bring in pesticides and toxins from the intensive agriculture.
Funnily enough, when reading an article on the Aral Sea in the Air Astana magazine on our way here, it was suggested that the disappearance of the Aral Sea is one of the greatest mysteries of our time– in fact, it could even have been the result of UFOs (no joke!). Looks like those ties with Russia are still holding strong.
After gaining independence in in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev became the country’s first and only president (his longevity could seriously put some African dictators to shame). According to his ballot scores, people really love him here. In the 2015 election, he received 97.7% of the votes.
Though freedom of speech is certainly restricted, and you wouldn’t want to say a bad thing against the president, he does seem to be more competent and less cruel than his fellow Stan leaders. Check out this article if you want to have a good laugh.
Today, Kazakhstan is driven by its huge oil reserves, which account for 60% of the GDP. Pumping 1.6 million barrels of oil a day has allowed the country to grow rapidly, and build one of the most eccentric capitals in the world from absolutely nothing in the space of 20 years. At the same time, this petroleum rich country is embracing the future of renewable energy, and has laid out a strategy to produce 50% of Kazakhstan’s energy needs by renewable or alternative energy sources by 2050.
Side note: Its been a while since we have blogged and that’s because freedom of speech is heavily restricted in Kazakhstan. We opted to err on the side of caution when sharing our impressions of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and so here we are in Korea sharing our blogs from the past two weeks.