Behold Borat's glorious nation
We take a look at Kazakhstan, the country made famous by Borat
The car that picked us up from Almaty airport was crawling in the morning rush hour through the city outskirts. As I took in the whitewashed trees, snow-peaked Tien Shan Mountains, the muddle of new building and run-down Soviet apartments, shiny land cruisers and beat-up old Ladas, I realised that I was seriously overheating in the sheepskin coat I had brought to insulate me from the anticipated Siberian blasts in the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — the former Soviet Union state made famous by Borat Sagdiyev, aka Sasha Baron Cohen.
The war memorial in Almaty's Panfilov Park
In fact, the temperature was just one of the things that confounded me about this vast country which stretches from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, Russia in the north and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the south. Bigger than Western Europe, it is home to 130 ethnicities, including up to 40,000 Jews.
There’s no such thing as a boutique hotel in Kazakhstan, though, with high-profile guests expected (such as Prince Andrew, Britain’s representative for international trade and investment), this may soon change.
For now, you can stay in dowdy guest-houses designed for locals, join ultra-affluent business travellers at the five-star international hotels (the kind with pillow menus and jewellery boutiques) or a mid-range option. I chose the last; the three-star, Soviet-era Otrar with dull but comfortable rooms, initially surly staff who soon broke into smiles, and a concrete exterior that concealed appealing eccentricities like a domed breakfast room that resembled a giant yurt, evoking the lifestyle of the nomadic Kazakhs.
After dropping off my bags, I headed to Kosher, the kosher restaurant which opened in March. After a convivial falafel lunch, our guide, Dima, took me sightseeing. No sign of Borat’s shacks. Instead we passed posh new real estate developments for oil and gas millionaires, built in Almaty’s old apple orchards.
The city does not have a centre as such; attractions are scattered, meaning long, dusty walks, taxi rides through the traffic-jams or crowded bus journeys. I took a bus to the Green Market Bazaar, which was much more like the Silk Route trading centre I had expected. Stalls were piled high with souvenirs and clothes made in China while the food hall had an exotic array of pickles, cheese, dried fruits, flowers, spices, fish and meat, including local favourite horse. Friendly stall-holders offered crunchy almonds and cherries.
At the other extreme of Almaty’s shopping experience, sleek, air-conditioned malls with names like Avenue Montaigne and The Ritz, are packed with high-priced European designer brands, from Armani to Versace.
To discover the city’s laid-back charm, you have to sip iced lattés in its cool cafes, chat with friendly locals — many of whom speak English — or plunge into the malls where teenagers hover around the latest mobile phones.
Leaving the city centre, we headed for the ever-visible mountains. After a look at Modeo’s 10,000 sq m skating rink, built to win medals for Stalin’s state and now being refurbished for the 2011 Asian winter games, we headed to the uncrowded slopes of Chimbulak ski resort, and on by cable car to Kok Tobe with its restaurants, strolls and a great city view.
Back in the city, I strolled through Panfilov Park, home to melodramatic Socialist Realist war memorials and the wooden Russian Orthodox cathedral with its the glinting golden onion domes. One of the few buildings to survive the devastating earthquake of 1911, it is also, along with the vast, blue-domed central mosque, one of Almaty’s most striking buildings.
Next day, I took a 90-minute flight 1,000 km north west to Astana, the country’s new capital. Bordering Siberia, winter temperatures drop to minus-40c and climb to 40c in summer. Despite being spring, the wind still sliced across the flat landscape and ice made the earth crunchy.
My base was the Radisson SAS, where a yellow Ferrari in the forecourt, pearly smiles, shining lobby, goose-down pillows and free wi-fi demonstrated a new economic reality.
After the friendly mish-mash of Almaty’s architectural styles, Astana is a shock, its gleaming towers appearing from the bleak plain of the steppes like a mirage. It may not yet be a tourist must-see but it is certainly a playground for architects and developers.
The best view of the capital is from the top of the stunning 97-metre Baiterek Tower. A lift stops in the huge gilded bubble at the top and from this eyrie you can see the magnificent symmetry of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s city, growing from a blueprint by the late superstar Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. The wide Nurzhol Boulevard, lined with modern government offices, leads to the shining Presidential Palace; just below are the buildings of the Ministry of Power and Mineral Resources and KazMunaiGaz, the state oil company which finances Astana’s spectacular growth. On the right bank of the River Ishim is the astonishing Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation.
The striking 62-metre pyramid has four façades, each representing a world religion, and 130 stained-glass doves symbolising Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups. Inside this vast structure, is an opera house and a cultural museum.
President Nazarbayev was so happy with his pyramid that he asked Norman Foster to design the Khan Shatyry, a transparent structure due to open later this year. Roughly the size of 10 football pitches, it will provide an environment that is permanently summer, with shops, concert halls, schools and hospitals, a beach resort and a park.
There’s nothing futuristic about Astana’s traditional ice-blue and white synagogue. Opened in 2004 on land given by President Nazarbayev and financed by Israeli property developer David Ben Nani, it is the largest synagogue in Central Asia and its site, which also incorporates a community centre, covers 60,000 sq ft.
Departing Astana and its audacious architecture, en route for Almaty and the flight home, local fashion designer Maya Kuandikova invited me to a party. Vodka flowed and someone offered a toast: “Let’s drink to Borat. Thanks to him people say ‘Ah ha!’ when they hear where we are from, and thanks to him people want to see our country.”
Anna Goldrein flew with Air Astana (www.airastana.com) on a trip organised through Scots Tours (www.scottstours.co.uk, 020 7383 5353) which offers 7-day packages from £1,029 per person (based on two sharing) taking in Almaty and Astana, including all flights, hotels, transfers and visa. Air Astana flies to Almaty on Tuesday and Saturday from Heathrow, from £415 return
- The Jewish community is estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 and has grown from Russian and Iranian immigrants.
- There are shuls in Almaty and Astana. Alexay Gerasimovich Kolakovsky, a Jew who studied alongside Pushkin, founded the former capital Almaty.
- Famous Kazakh Jews include Trotsky and Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufmann, a Russian Army General.
- The first kosher restaurant opened in March 2008 in Almaty.