|Kazakhstan - you're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy!|
I was in Kazakhstan on business, but am resolved to try to get back there on holiday soon. One of the things I've learned about going on holiday in recent years, particularly during the summer break in July/August, is that European vacation destinations have inevitably become flooded with people. The experience is increasingly becoming a poor one, as every parent with school age children tries to have a good time at the same time, while locals seek to make as much money as humanly possible in as short a time as possible from the tourists.
I learned my lesson two years ago when I visited the French and Spanish coasts, and sadly the coast of Croatia, a regular holiday haunt for me in the past, is starting to suffer again from the same over-crowding. I say again, because I first visited Croatia in its current form in 1997, a year after the Dayton peace treaty ended the war in Bosnia. At the time the coast was almost deserted, and certainly there were few foreign tourists there, other than the odd Hungarian and UN soldier. Now it has become unpleasantly crowded.
My current resolve then is to try to focus on those areas of the world that are still less frequented by the European Horde. Kazakhstan is one such place. Few Western Europeans know much about it and its proximity to 'hot spot' Afghanistan brings unpleasant associations for the holidaymaker. Yet Kazakhstan seems like a fascinating place, a former Soviet republic, a massive centre for global metals mining, and a critical crossroads for various huge Asian empires over the centuries.
What surprised me the most was how Asian the people there really are (see picture above): I expected more of a Middle Eastern flavour, and while Islam is an important religion in Kazakhstan, the people remind me more of the Japanese than anything else, although generally taller. They are an interesting mix - Russia has ruled this place for many years, but they still preserve their own language and seem not to have the animosity towards Russia that other former Soviet republics nurse. In some respects they seem western, but in others they lean more towards Asia. Russia has left its imprint, for sure, but certainly the people seem more eastern in their behaviour and general politeness to the foreigner, without the arrogance one can encounter from the Chinese these days.
Kazakhstan is also a huge place - it is sparsely populated, seemingly very flat, yet covers a vast expanse of central Asia, almost the size of half of Europe. Just around the new capital Astana there are massive plains covered in huge farms, obviously a legacy of the Soviet collectivised approach to farming. Roads run straight to the horizon like they do in Uruguay. There are few buildings outside the main conurbations. Given the total population is only 17 million versus Uzbekistan's 30 million, it comes as quite a change for someone used to living in England's southeast.
Wealth from natural resources has, however, blessed the country with new and very modern infrastructure in its major cities. It is hard to make an accurate assessment from the perspective of Astana, which feels almost like it has been designed to meet the role of national capital (in a similar vein to Islamabad in Pakistan, Canberra in Australia or indeed even Washington DC), but I was impressed with many of the public buildings.
As someone who grew up in the more populous areas of Asia (I'm looking at you Bengal), Kazakhstan, with its post-Soviet culture and more temperate climate provides a totally different perspective on this massive continent from the well-beaten tourist trails or the mighty megalopolises of Tokyo and Hong Kong. I hope I can return there soon as I really didn't get much of a chance to see the country outside the capital. For people who travel regularly to Asia, it presents an alternative stop off point to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and the local airline Air Astana seems very good indeed.
In summary, the lesson from Kazakhstan is to invest time and personal resources in visiting places that may not fit into the conventional travel itinerary. Just because we don't know much about them is no reason not to explore them. And you won't end up rubbing shoulders with the rest of stressed out Europe.