The only recognised personality from Kazakhstan is Borat, and he is a fictional character! Sasha Baron Cohen’s parody is world-famous but the locals don’t take very kindly to it for the gross misrepresentation it inflicts on their society and culture.

I became aware of this very soon after I flew into Almaty (earlier Alma-ata), the second-largest city in Kazakhstan. The people are friendly and helpful, though constrained by the language barrier, which is essentially Russian. Women drive cars, dress well, many are outgoing and smoke, some are doctors or professionals, and are quite independent with their views on any subject ranging from domestic issues to political ones. The crime rate is low and travellers are free to roam the country without fear.

Such a beautiful and large country and not many of us know much about it. It is the size of Western Europe; and is ranked 9th largest in the world, just after Argentina and India. It has borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

The physical geography of the place is in your face; the low density of the population gives its vistas an eerie beauty filled with calm and tranquillity.  The gorgeous steppes, dotted with horses and yurts (round tents); Yester-world villages nestled between high mountain passes; and scores of glaciers, canyons, and lakes abound everywhere.

It has a rich biodiversity: remember it is the original home of the apple and many other food crops, it has vast stretches of steppe grassland, cold desert-scapes, and conifers line the mountainsides.

This surreal place is home to Kazakhs (from the Turkic word for Free Man), Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, and Uyghurs. The reason why this country is shrouded in mystery is because Russian Tsars closed the country to foreigners, and the Soviet Union did no different. They used it Gulags (Soviet Labour Camps), nuclear test sites, and bases to launch their space missions.

Kazakhstan, which is part of the Eurasian Steppe Route, the forerunner of the Silk Route, has been visited by warriors and adventurers over the centuries. In ancient times some myths existed: it was an unexplored and inaccessible world, a place of dragons and monsters. Herodotus wrote about its deserts and impassable mountains wreathed in eternal mists, and of a tribe of fearsome female warriors known as the Amazons!

Originally, the nomadic Scythians resided here, but have since vanished. Alexander the Great fought in the Battle of Jaxartes (Syr Darya) against them. In the 13th Century, the Kazakhs were subjugated by the Mongols under Genghis khan. By the 18th Century, they were absorbed into the Russian Empire.

Do Kazakhs eat horse meat and drink camel milk?

See Kazakhstan Part 3.