Kazakhstan: Between Lexus and Camels

IMG_0247Let’s play word association.

Quick! I’ll say ‘Kazakhstan’ and you say…. ?


Before coming here, I wasn’t quite sure what to picture. Dusty plains? Women in head scarves? Snow and brown rock maybe? How little I knew about such a huge country:

Central Asia.

The 9th largest country in the world.

The largest landlocked country.

Originally nomadic, it is a former Soviet Republic, now an independent republic.

IMG_0297I am amazed to learn that not everyone speaks Kazakh but practically everyone does speak Russian. Russian is the common language. Signs are in both languages. I am told that the Kazakh language is closely related to Turkish. After more than a hundred years as part of Russia, it is no wonder that the language stayed. “No Russian occupation,” I am corrected by my guide, “Russian protectorship!”

IMG_0289The population is half Muslim, half Christian and the country is very rich in minerals. Oil, uranium, natural gas – have all contributed to Kazakhstan’s development and wealth. Kazakhstan is now an interesting blend of Lexus and camels.

Having been invited to some international schools in Almaty, I only spend a week in one city – not enough time to see much at all. Having been to Mongolia, I thought it may be similar. But, other than people’s facial features and the fact that most people speak Russian, I don’t see much resemblance. In many locations Almaty reminds me more of a small Shanghai or Dubai. The city has close to 2 million people. Its downtown feels much smaller – with wide, tree lined avenues and apartment buildings, some beautiful ornate buildings. I found Panfilov Park with its impressive Zenkov’ Cathedral. Sparkling golden domes, ornately painted wood, an impressive interior with much carved wood and paintings, the entire structure has no nails in it.

IMG_0285This is late February. I packed a warm coat, sturdy shoes, a hat and mittens. But here I am, strolling through the park in shirt sleeves. Families are out in full force, with strollers, kids chasing pigeons and blowing hundreds of bubbles. Spring is already in the air (the day after I wrote this, it was 20ºC, the next day it snowed!)

From the park, I walk to the Green Market. Outside it is a bubbling chaos of stalls. Vendors sell local crafts such as felted booties and slippers, silk scarves and woollen sweaters. In the very first stall I fall in love with a turquoise silk scarf interwoven with felted wool. It is 3,000 tengi – under 10 dollars. I don’t even engage in the expected barter but pay the very reasonable price. In the next stall I see a similar scarf but less nice in colour. It is priced exactly double.

IMG_0256Then we go down the stairs and are enveloped in a lovely, foreign world. The food market! Along the stairs are warm breads and fresh eggs for sale. On the huge trade floor are nothing but rows and rows and rows of tables with fresh food: meat in every possible size and shape. I see an enti
re pig’s head grinning at me. IMG_0261One table has a meeting of five goat sheep, teeth and everything
in tact. I spot a row of tongues dangling off a rod. Huge roasts, horse meat, camel meat. Then fish. And poultry.

IMG_0264Cheese: curds, smoked, dried, herbal, goat, cow – slabs, balls and round of every possible kind of cheese served by smiling women in clean white coats and headscarves. Now I know I am in a wonderful exotic country.

IMG_0258There is a large spice section with mounds of yellow, red, brown and the wafting aromas of cinnamon, cumin, and many spices I don’t know.

Fruits! You name it and they are piled high here in glorious colourful mounds. Tomatoes, mangoes, strawberries, pears, apples. I buy a large bag of freshly roasted nuts and dried fruits.

I am hesitant to leave this living painting. Outside at the market, I am fortunate enough to spot an elderly man in traditional Kazakh costume. “It is rare to still see this,” I am told. The man is happy for me to take his photo, without asking for money. IMG_0394

The contrast with Café Central couldn’t be greater. This circular structure of gleaming chrome and glass serves western food, french pastries, fresh fruit drinks, culinary art… It is adjacent to a huge mall. The Esentai Mall is even more grand. With spotless marble, mirrors and lights this mall boasts stores like Armani, Stella McCarthy and Chanel. You can buy anything, including designer chocolate and out-of-this world cakes. Stylish high heeled women tote packages from Gucci to their chauffeured cars. Art that would not be out of place in a museum is sprinkled throughout the mall, the ATM is discreetly hidden under the escalators. This is Kazakhstan?index

It is an interesting blend of old and new, rich and poor, traditional and modern.

It also is a neat blend of west and east.

Elegant mirroring skyscrapers next to broken up sidewalks.

The very posh hotel has a ultra modern control panel on the wall. I’m not sure what all the symbols mean – there is one for the TV, one for temperature control, some mysterious symbols. But no matter which one I push, ALL lights in the room go either off or on. I asked the cleaning lady how the controls work but she had no idea. I asked the front desk if they could explain the symbols. IMG_0287No idea but they would send a technician. The technician looked at the panel as if he’d never seen one, scratched his head and then motioned “Open the window if it is too hot.”

The traffic, too, is a nice blend of European and Asian. Cars politely stop immediately if you try to cross the road. No one tries to run you over. But they do honk and cut each other off if the mood strikes. The most confusing thing I noticed is when you have to turn left or right. Neither one is permitted on a red light. But when ALL lights turn green, the right turn lane still doesn’t move. You have to wait for a green arrow – even though there is no red light to show this. On Friday night I’m promised to be picked up at 5 for dinner. It’s almost 7 when my friends finally make it through the dense, congested traffic.

IMG_0301One of the recommended sights in Almaty on Lonely Planet and other sites is Kok Tobe – a tall skinny tower in the foothills. The view promised to be nice so I went up to a small bus station where you buy a one or two way ticket and take a shuttle bus to the top. It was very smelly at the top. First I thought it was a sewer problem but then I noticed a sad, small zoo. Cages held ostriches and other exotic birds. I didn’t even try to look what else since it seemed sad and stank to high heavens.

There were lots of rides that weren’t open yet because it is too early in the season, but there were a few stalls with local crafts. I bought a lovely small felted doll for 2500 tengis, which seemed reasonable – less than 10 dollars. In the shop next door I saw the exact same doll for 5000 tengis….

The views were nice but be sure to go up when the sky is clear. On misty foggy days and with air pollution there’s not much of a view.

Back down at the bus station I turned to a Kazakh man I heard speak english, and asked if he knew which bus would take me into town. “Oh, we are going,” he waved to a small group of guys, “Hop in!” And that’s how I got a ride back with American, Spanish and Estonian military guys who were out on a sightseeing trip. The next day I asked in a restaurant where a certain shop was that I couldn’t find. The manager asked one of the waitresses to get her coat and walk with me, down the street, down a metro station, along some passage ways and take me right to the shop! Amazing. People was very kind here.

IMG_0350The Kazakhstan Museum is a huge building with lots of carved stone and blue domes. I spend a couple of hours roaming around. There are many displays of costumes: from peasant linens to soldier’s shields to weavings and gold embossed robes. Coins, tools, an entire furnished yurt. I like the display of women weaving best. The fabrics are gorgeous. There’s even a whole floor with dead, molted animals as well as bones, rocks and everything else that relates to a proud history. Check out the museum here:


I worked with local teachers one day. Through a translator I shared the stories of my books, the process of writing, different genres, the publishing process and more. The teachers loved it and where full of stories. They are keen to use books and get their students excited about reading. These teachers came to school on a Sunday to listen to my presentation. To realize that a teacher’s monthly income here is not more than the equivalent of 100 dollars, is humbling. “Not even enough to pay the rent,” someone told me.

IMG_0413Perhaps my favourite time is dinner in a local restaurant. After having had French, Italian and Georgian dinners, I was delighted to visit a restaurant with authentic Kazakh food. A real yurt had been reserved inside the restaurant, complete with traditional carpet, carvings and instruments. We sat at a low table and enjoyed savoury dishes: horse meat, potatoes, wonderful warm bread. What a treat to meet the real Kazakhstan. IMG_0426