The New, the Old, and the Beauty of Kazakhstan

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Having explored most of Central Asian countries, it was now time to venture to the far away land of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan was a little known former soviet country which was brought to fame through the comedic movie 'Borat'. For us, Kazkhstan used to be thought of as an exotic country, and finally we got to explore the ‘new’, the ‘old’ and the ‘beauty’ of Kazakhstan.

Our first stop in Kazakhstan, was the modern, new capital city of Astana. In 1997, the capital city of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty to Astana. Along with the new capital came futuristic modern buildings, and as we strolled through the new town of Astana, we started to call it ‘Little Dubai’.

Astana was impressive with its modern architecture, but its soviet history also caught our eye. On a visit to Alzhir, a former Gulag camp for the female family members of ‘traitors to the motherland’, we were quickly reminded that this new city had some old scars. Over 8000 women starting from the year 1937 were sent to this Gulag camp which was set up by the infamous Stallin. Women were inprisoned for no good reason, and tortured to the point that they were forced to admit to crimes that they were innocent of. As a result of the oppression in this camp, up to 6000 women lost their lives. Alzhir was just one of the 26 Gulag labour camps in Kazakhstan under the Stallin regime. This was a clear example of the negative ‘old’ aspects of Kazakhstan.

Leaving the ‘new’ city of Astana behind, we headed back into soviet times, literally. On our flight to Taraz from Astana, we experienced what it would have been like to fly in soviet times in the 1960’s as we boarded our SCAT Airways TU-24 aircraft, and gee it was old! As we approached the aircraft, Shaun with his aviation experience, commented that this aircraft would have been close to 40 years old, maybe even older, and that it definitely belonged in a museum. As we entered the aircraft, it smelt like a museum, and Karen was dumbfounded to find that there were no overhead lockers, no shutters, but instead there were curtains, and the noise was unbearable. This was an ancient plane, and we had to cross our fingers that we would make it to our destination safely. Nearly 3 hours later, our slow propeller powered flight arrived in Taraz, thank goodness. We were later to learn that Scat had just had two fatal accidents in the last month!

Over the next couple of days, we explored the ‘old’ of Kazakhstan. In Taraz we checked out some small mausoleums, but it was in Turkestan that the top historical sight of Kazakhstan was revealed to us. The mausoleum of Hoja Ahmet Yassawi is one of the holiest places in Central Asia, and is like a ‘Mecca’ type pilgrimage for Muslims in this area of the world. This mausoleum was dedicated to a Sulfi from the 12th century, and Tamarlane who conquerred this area, ordered for this mausoleum to be built. It was beautiful and had a liking to what we had seen in Uzbekistan, but this was the ‘old’ of Kazakhstan.

Along with the ‘old’ theme, we headed to the ruins of the city of Otrar. Otrar was an ancient city in the twelfth century. And going with the theme of Central Asia, this city also was destroyed by the ruthless Genghis Khan. It was good to see, but little has been excavated. In fact, excavations of this city took place in the soviets times, and then soviets being soviets, destroyed these excavations. It was like they were keeping secrets from the rest of world, well that sounds familiar.

So far, we were having fun, but not overly impressed with the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ of Kazakhstan, compared to other Central Asian countries. We headed to Aksu Jabagly to take in the ‘beauty’ of this exotic land. Several days of hiking in the Aksu canyon, bird watching, and participating in a hike with no trails and plenty of scratches on the legs as a result, allowed us to take in the beautiful scenery that Kazakhstan has to offer. Snow capped mountains, green grass, and hundreds of wild flower speices covered this land for thousands of miles. This land was beautiful and a highlight of our trip in Kazakhstan.

Our last ever overnight train on our world adventure took us to Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty. This former capital had it all. Soviet reminders, tree lined streets, modern technologies and western civilisation, all surrounded by amazing snow capped mountains. Our time in Almaty had its ups and downs as we had to compete with the weather and aggressive ripoff taxi drivers. We ventured to Medeu lookout point to find ourselves in the clouds, and the pouring rain. Then next day, we struggled to negotiate with Almaty’s taxi drivers for a trip to Big Almaty Lake. One driver was pestering us. He kept calling our English speaking guide to talk to us. In the end his lowest price was four times what it should have been, and we had to walk away. Before we could walk, he started to yell at Shaun, and when Shaun tried to give him some money for the phone calls, he slapped it out of his hands, and pushed Shaun aggressively in the chest. This was not adding to our impressions of Kazakstan as a country.

We finally got a taxi to Big Almaty Lake, which was followed by a very steep hike to the actual lake, which turned out to be more like a pond. And then, as we should of expected, it started to pour with rain. We had gilmpses of beauty in Almaty, but the ugly definitely reared it head.

Leaving Kazakhstan on a mashrutka (minibus) to Kyrgyzstan, we were feeling glad. To be honest, we were a little disappointed with Kazakhstan as a travel destination. It was expensive, yet the services weren’t up to scratch. The sights were okay, but nothing special compared to the rest of Central Asia. But above all, even though it wasn’t our favourite country, we had fun as we explored the ‘new’, the ‘old’, the ‘beauty’ of Kazakhstan.
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