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Flag of Turkey  ,
Saturday, September 15, 2012


My trip started in Astana, the brand-new capital of Qazaqstan. Qazaqstan is the largest country in Central Asia, nearly as large as the continental part of the European Union. However, most of the country is a barren and unbelievably flat steppe. As recently as one hundred year ago, Qazaqs were nomads riding around all over the steppe on horseback, mummifying horse meat to eat in times of hunger. Now there are several museums across the country dedicated to portraying this lifestyle, while modern Qazaqs seem culturally Russian. In fact, the whole country seems completely modern and culturally European after decades of Soviet domination.

  The Qazaqs were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, and basically their entire culture. Ethnic Russians moved into their country in huge numbers, and became a majority. In the 1930s, the Qazaqs were forced onto collective farms, a change so dramatic and unsustainable in such an environment that more than half their population died. In the next decade, the USSR drafted every Qazaq man to defend Leningrad from the Nazis right before the harvest. Again, the result was that half the population died. Meanwhile, the Qazaq intelligentsia was severely repressed as part of the Great Purges.

I went to the Museum of Political Repressions, housed at a former concentration camp for women and children political prisoners. The museum detailed the suffering of the Qazaqs, yet unbelievably it made no reference whatsoever to the perpetrators of the injustice. The museum showed pictures of hundreds of toddlers taken just before they were executed by firing squad, with the caption mentioning that they were labeled as either Traitors of the Soviet Union or Enemies of the Communist Party, and had been sentenced to the thousands years of hard labor before being summarily killed. There were no references to Stalin, or Russia, or anything connected to Russia. In fact, since Russians continue to make up over forty percent of the population, Qazaqstan enjoys extremely close relations with Russia, and there is enthusiastic talk of an upcoming union of Russia, Belarus, and Qazaqstan.

  But the relationship was not always harmonious. In 1986 Qazaqs protested the appointment of an ethnic Russian as the head of their Soviet republic, and this popular uprising led to the appointment of the current leader, Nursultan Nazerbayev, whose ubiquitous short quotes can be seen everywhere throughout the country. The official history of Qazaqstan goes like this: Qazaqs were nomads, than a horrible fate befell them, the country was modernized, suddenly Nazerbayev came to power because the people demanded him, and he alone is responsible for the recent impressive economic growth of the country. The coming and going of Soviet rule are skipped over as irrelevant details that would complicate the simple history of the county. What matters is Nazerbayev’s brilliance. 

 Indeed the man has overseen one of the world’s greatest economic booms, and has led his country in a peaceful transition from Soviet Socialism to a somewhat more open economy controlled by him, his two daughters, and his best Israeli friend. While these four people have grown to be four of the richest in the world, average Qazaqs have clearly benefited enormously as well. And people like the man, if for no other reason that he has steered the country away from the ethnic violence that seemed to loom over it twenty years ago, when the Russian majority feared violent reprisals from the indigenous Qazaqs and the countless minorities who had been deported there in the Soviet days (Soviet Koreans, Volga Germans, Ahıska Turks, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians) feared they might be pushed out of Qazaqstan. Nazerbayev has also worked to curb any potential Russian secession trends in the Russian-majority north. 

One of the ways he went about this was to build a huge new capital city in the middle of the northern steppe where ethnic Qazaqs would come to work and live. Dubai has nothing on this city (except of course for the tallest building in the world). Astana is far newer, more expensive, and more futuristic than Dubai or any other city in the world. It may have more futuristic buildings than the rest of the world combined, complete with the world’s largest tent and a tower where Qazaqs flock to place their hand in the President's own golden palm print. Rumor has it that if you make a wish when you do so, the President will grant your wish, provided that you have been a truly loyal citizen in word, deed, thought, and dream. Long lines to this golden palm print testify to the popularity of this belief. This seems no matter to the Qazaqs, who, though historical Muslim for only two centuries, seem to have abandoned religious practices even more than the local Russians have.

After a few days in the north, I boarded Qazaqstan’s old Soviet trains and headed south. The trip across half the country took two full days, and the ride proved to be almost as interesting as the scenery was empty and flat. In Qazaqstan, no one assumed I was a foreigner until they would ask me something in Russian (the main language) and I would respond in English or Turkish. Central Asia is full of Turkic people who speak Turkic langauges. Qazaqstan is one of the ones most different from Turkish, and I could only understand vaguely what people were talking about in Qazaq, without being able to translate, except for specific things like numbers. Qazaqs could understand Turkish a bit more easily, but would also prefer to talk to me in Russian, and seemed unable to understand why I didn’t speak it. Most have never encountered people who don’t speak Russian, as there are no tourists there. This was even true at Qazaqstan’s one historic sight, a beautiful old mausoleum. Located in the homeland of ethnic Özbeks, the gorgeous building was a great preview of what I would see in Özbekistan.

Another day-long train took me to Almaty, the country’s former capital near the Kyrgyz border. Located on an earthquake zone (as are all Central Asian capitals, thanks to Stalin’s wish that they would always be dependent on Moscow) near the Tien Shan mountains, Almaty is one of the most green cities I have ever seen. A perfect grid, the city was planned with wide avenues to accommodate large trees. On every street, huge trees line the roads so that you are always under a canopy of trees. Though comprised almost entirely of hideous old Soviet block buildings hidden behind trees, the entire city feels like one giant park. This feeling is only magnified by the dramatic mountain views on three sides. Another booming modern city, Almaty proved to be a nice place, but one as expensive as the US, but at least cheaper than Astana.

From Almaty, some friends and I headed up to the Tien Shan mountains for some hiking. Snow was still visible and the weather was cool. Eventually we stumbled upon a secret Qazaq military camp, where we were met by extremely friendly soldiers who were bored out of their minds. They advised we make our way to a deserted facility of some kind, and we headed in that direction, towards the nearby Chinese border. We soon came to an old abandoned Soviet military base. Old antennas and radar equipment were scattered about, and some buildings were in a state of collapse. I decided to enter some of them, and stumbled upon some very strange machines, and, eventually, some 100-gallon drums of fluid clearly marked as nuclear material. A great time was had by all.

Back to the verdant city, I had some time to hang out with a friend I had met in Astana. Her brother had been wearing a Syracuse baseball hat! Turns out they are Uygurs, a Turkic minority that continues to experience Tibet-style repression in their vast steppe of a homeland occupied by China, stretching from Qazaqstan to Tibet to Mongolia. Their family had escaped the deadly Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in China in the 1960s and found safe haven with millions of Uygurs in Soviet Qazaqstan. Uygurs are Muslim Turks, and to hold extreme pro-Turkey, pro-America, pro-NATO views and a hatred of everything Chinese. They also speak a language much more similar to Turkish.

  I finally got used to the transportation system in Almaty: when you want to go somewhere, you just go to the street and put your hand out. Cars stop, and you tell them where you want to go, and offer a price. If they reject it, they drive away, and if they accept it, you get in and they drive you there and you pay them. It’s very efficient: no waiting, no calling a cab, no meter. You just how up and go. This is difficult if you don’t speak Russian of course. Thankfully the Qazaq numbers are the same as Turkish. 

With a warning from my Qazaq friends that I was about to do the equivalent of flying from San Diego to Tijuana, I left my new friends behind, a with a green and snow-white rash on my still on my arm from the Soviet nuclear facility, I boarded a plane for the ten-minute flight to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. 

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