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This summer I spent several weeks travelling around Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Now these countries’ names may not immediately ring any bells beyond ‘Borat’, which for many put Kazakhstan on the map. Not that the movie provided by any means an accurate depiction of its people, albeit the Kazakh government embraced it from the thought of ‘all publicity is good publicity’.
My first surprise came when on the streets of Almaty (Kazakhstan), after having flown from my then residence Hong Kong to Central Asia, I realized that this might be Asia….but as a blond-haired Dutchie I certainly didn’t stand out a single bit. In fact Almaty still has such a considerably large Russian population that blond haired locals can literally be seen everywhere. Secondly it soon became clear that Kazakhstan’s considerable oil & gas reserves, as well as less legit means of earning one’s keep, have created a very wealthy upper class with countless larger-than-large SUVs and BMWs zooming past. At the same time, judging by the state of the omnipresent potholed sidewalks and crumbling public spaces –or the slowly dilapidating toilets and tatty exhibits in the humongous and dark Central State Museum!- it appeared that the municipality itself has little money for upkeep.
Once I’d decided to set foot in Central-Asia I received plenty of concerned looks and questions about my plans to make ‘the Stans’ my summer holiday destination this year. This surely was going to be a dangerous undertaking, figured many of them. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so here’s surprise number three: the Kazakh, and in one swoop let’s include the Kyrgyz as well, are very friendly, hospitable and accommodating people who happily help out the small trickle of western, non-Russian speaking tourists who make it to their respective countries.
That said, was it worth it? After all, my lack of Russian language skills and the limited tourist infrastructure don’t always make this the most straightforward region to embark on for some well-deserved summer explorations. Well, let me tell you this…. Have you ever been to a spectacular ‘mini-Grand-Canyon’ where you have almost the whole place to yourself? A 10km single dirt track to the entrance, then a small shed with wooden boom gate, a dirt parking lot, no souvenir stalls, food joints or even a visitor center…..just the canyon for you to freely explore.
Or what about some of the interesting traditions and ‘sports’ that still survive in this part of the world. Anyone fancy ‘goat polo’ or ‘eagle flying’? When in Kyrgyzstan we met with a traditional eagle hunter, one of only about 50 in the country, who trains one or two golden eagles to hunt for him and releases them back to the wild after 4 to 10 years of duty. If this picture may look familiar, you probably saw the same man pictured on horseback with his eagle in coverage of the ‘World Nomad Games’, which recently took place at Lake Issyk-Kul. The sport of ‘goat polo’ or Kokpar, traditionally played in summer by semi-nomadic livestock farmers, has less of a happy ending for the animal that’s the centerpiece of the game. A headless goat carcass is used with horse riders battling over it, trying to carry it across a field to the opponent’s goal.
And of course let’s not forget one of the most iconic structures of Central-Asia: the yurt, or ger as they call it in Mongolia. Although few people still live a year-round nomadic lifestyle, in summer many families from the villages can be found heading out to the steppes or alpine pastures with their livestock of sheep, horses, cows, goats and sometimes even yak. Their most important asset though is the yurt, a portable, bent dwelling covered by felt and fabrics which can be easily dismantled and provides the families with a comfortable home on the often treeless plains. As life in the great wide open wouldn’t be complete though without some drinks and snacks to enjoy with friends and family, one can regularly see horses being milked in order to make a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink known as kumis, sold in every market and shop. For a bite, there’s kurut, small round white balls produced from dried yoghurt – certainly an acquired taste that didn’t match too well with my taste buds.
So if this brief introduction has wetted your appetite to experience a slice of Central Asia, made famous long before Borat by the illustrious Silk Road and the conquests of Genghis Khan, put it on your to-do list for once the upcoming harsh, cold winter has receded again. Kyrgyzstan is nowadays visa free for 58 countries, while Kazakhstan introduced a 15 day visa free scheme this July for 10 countries including the United States.
FYI – Although I normally don’t keep track of the number of countries I’ve visited, I occasionally do a quick count if people ask. Last time I was starting to get close to 70. That said, one could spend a lifetime just covering a few major countries (e.g. China, India, Russia, US, Brazil).