Kazakhstan – Impressions from a First Time Visitor

Kazakhstan – Impressions from a First Time Visitor

Chocolate from Kazakhstan

Chocolate from Kazakhstan

I have just been to Kazakhstan for the first time. I was going for work, as the Creative Director and Programme Advisor for the UK’s participation at the Astana Expo 2017.

Having travelled all my life, it’s been a long time since I had the chance to visit somewhere completely new and I was a sponge – ready to absorb whatever new, strange and interesting experiences this country and its people would throw at me, without any preconceptions.

Although when I told friends and colleagues where I was going – my announcement was almost universally responded to with ‘have you got security ? / is it safe ?’.  The thought never occurred to me. Was I naive ??

The only direct flight from London to Astana is with Air Astana…mmmm. Maybe I did have some preconceptions. Never heard of it. Echoes of Garuda Air from years gone by resonated in my brain. Would it be safe ? Clapped out aircraft, surly staff, safety record ? Instead I found myself in a modern, new, clean Boeing 757. Economy is tight – but some clever chap at HQ had the idea to introduce a class of fare that allows you to book 3 economy seats for an additional fee so that you are guaranteed a ‘sleeper’ seat without having to elbow people out of the way in the scrum to the empty seats that invariably ensues when the fasten seat belt sign goes off on other airlines. I get the beginnings of the impression that this nation has an entrepreneurial spirit and strong ambitions for the future.

The plane lands at 0530 local time and I forget that this country is known for the extremes of climate that throughout the year can vary from -45C to +30C. I wonder how all the wild horses survive and what happens to the birds. Having left an unusually hot September day in London, when we landed it was -1C and smelled of winter – a mixture of diesel, wooden fires and that smell that accompanies the falling of leaves at the advent of colder climes.

I had busied myself on the plane reading up on local customs and behaviours with the intention not to offend anyone I met. I read about not blowing your nose in public, about not standing with your hands on your waist, and about a strange national sport that is a mixture between polo and rugby where the riders compete to pick up and throw the carcass of a beheaded goat into a large goal consisting of a raised bowl of sand, which I later discover to be called a ‘Circle of Justice’ (not managed to figure out why yet) . The latter endeavour I put down to a quirky travel writer’s intention to shock and had dismissed it as some regional micro event until we spent our first night at dinner in a local restaurant with a full screen TV – the kind you watch big footie matches on at home in sports bars – showing this remarkably aggressive sport in full action while trying to consume dinner. It was an experience that took us all out of our comfort zones – yet somehow by the time we left this city – we were all up for not only going to a match on our next visit, but possibly even trying to play it.

Which brings me to the food. I grew up in Italy and am fond of cooking and respectful of sourcing local ingredients and trying anything. I admit that the menus in local restaurants challenged me in every way, Lamb Brain, Fried Lamb Tongues, Horse Meat Steak, Horse Meat Burgers, Lung are just some of the local delicacies this seasoned traveller and animal lover could not bring herself to order or indeed taste – although fellow travellers assured me that horse meat was delicious and somehow dense and fine at the same time. I was content with delicious Chicken Kebabs. Any vegetarians or vegans might struggle with what’s on offer at formal dinners – which can consist of 6+ protein rich courses. However, grilled vegetables seemed to be plentiful and cooked to perfection at most establishments.

I hasten to say that the horse is an animal that is at the heart of every Kazakh. Horses are respected, loved, worked, part of the Kazakh identity. They are a national symbol of a nation that has been living with these magnificent beings for centuries harking back to the times of nomads and Genghis Khan.

When it came to the drinks menu, almost anywhere we went had the most amazing selection of vodka. The local vodka – Snow Queen – became my drink of choice from day one. Fine, dry with a hint of sweetness in after taste and providing the consumer with the ability to exceed the UK recommended maximum weekly limit in one night , without getting a hangover. Fabulous !

A surprise was the locally produced wine. Kazakh wine ???? Really ??? The red pinot noir proved itself a rival to any from France or New Zealand – delicious and highly recommended.  The same could be said for the local chocolate – watch out Switzerland.  That was worth buying for the packaging alone.

At first glance, people in Kazakhstan look quite stern. Faces are set into determined, closed expressions. The type you used to see in old movies showing populations under soviet rule. Basically a little intimidating. Yet, the minute you get to know anyone for the shortest period, an inner warmth, pure generosity of spirit and genuine friendliness radiates.

Anyone will help you with anything, even if it means going considerably out of their way, Customs and immigration officials welcome you with a smile and wish you well, eager to practise their english. When is the last time that happened to you anywhere ??? In fact, this is the most linguistically adept place I have visited. Most people can speak Kazakh, Russian and English and many also Mandarin. This is a nation where education is valued and seen as a key driver for future economic and social well being.

As to the question of safety and security. Just because this is a ‘stan’ doesn’t mean it deserves to be tainted with the reputation of some of its neighbours. Street lighting might leave a lot to be desired for a pedestrian – but then the locals don’t really walk anywhere in a city where everyone drives. It’s just us foreigners that brave the winter ravaged pavements and fabulously high curbs in inappropriate shoes. Safety is more around ensuring against sprained ankles and broken broken bones than any ill will from anyone.

Kazakhstan is progressive and ambitious. It also has a bit of catching up to do. Corruption is still a fact of life; there is a naïve disregard for health and safety regulations by our standards and no acknowledgement that disability should be catered for as clearly ’no one is disabled’. I sense an opportunity for us to share some London 2012 Paralympic learning here. I suppose a nation that is full of young people doesn’t generally need to consider this until its young become older. Yet respect for the elders reigns supreme. Families can recite the names of their ancestors going back at least 7 generations, and in fact, marriages between people that have any genetic connections going back less than 7 generations are discouraged.

The economy is based on oil and gas. Clearly with dropping oil prices, the economy is looking to diversify – medicine, financial services, renewable energy and space are just some of the growth areas. The landscape is amazing. The country is the world’s largest landlocked country – roughly the size of Europe with a population of only 19million. The traditions of dance, music and story telling merge with the aspirations of the young to work in science, medicine and engineering.

Future Energy is the theme of the Expo. Astana is a hotbed for energy and entrepreneurship.

People are energy, We are Energy.

Astana will be hosting the next mini Expo from June to September 2017. The UK is participating with a standout Pavilion by KBW / WOO / Asif Khan.