Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Discovering Kazakhstan

Running a ski holiday business in the French alps can lead to some unexpected  adventures: I was most generously invited to visit Kazakhstan by our regular chalet guests from that country (and Russia) for a 10 day tour of this vast, largely unknown Asian territory stretching from the Urals to China.

First, a few facts and figures about Kazakhstan. It's the largest land-locked country in the world (9th largest overall), roughly the same area as Western Europe but with a population of under 17 million. So it's possible travel hundreds of kilometres without seeing anyone, or indeed any trace of human activity.

The southern part of the country is mainly desert, and in the east  the Altai and Tien Shan mountains form the borders with China, Mongolia and Russia.The central areas in known as the 'steppe', a vast grassy plain which was home to the nomadic Kazakh tribes before they were mostly forced to settle under Tsarist and Soviet regimes.. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR.

Astana - the new capital
The capital of Kazakhstan is the glittering new city of Astana, more or less in the centre of the country and in the oil-producing region (KZ is set to become the world's 8th largest oil exporter). However, my destination was the historic city (and former capital) of Almaty in the south-eastern corner at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains. It's in area once famed for apple production, hence the name translates as 'Apple-like'; indeed it is claimed that apples were first found here.

Glaciers on Mt. Chklov from top of Shymbulak ski area

First on the agenda was a visit Shymbulak Ski Resort, half-an-hour from the centre of the city. Built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games,  it rises up the Medeu valley to the Tagar Pass (3180m), under the glaciated peaks of  Mt. Chklov. With 7 modern lifts and over 20km of pistes it's a popular weekend choice for the burgeoning middle classes of Almaty. Facilities are being constantly improved: I noticed recently installed snow-canons and plenty of smart eating-places and accommodation. You can even see two enormous ski jumps from the centre of Almaty, also built for the Asian games.

Back in down-town Almaty it was time for a beer at the soviet-style pleasure gardens of Kok-Tobe, with its own rustic 1950s cable car, amusements, small zoo and, surprisingly, a life-size statue of the Beatles, whom are apparently venerated by the country's young people.

Kazahk Beatles in Almaty park
Uzbek dancing girls
The evening was spent in an out-door Alasha Uzbek restaurant, with a cabaret of Kazakh and Uzbek traditional dancing and an acrobatic display. The food wasn't bad either, with  my first chance to try besharmak (lamb slow-cooked with pasta and onions with its stock an accompanying drink) and the central Asian favourite of plov (stir-fried lamb, vegetables and rice).

Next day, and time to visit my hosts' flagship store - their business meloman.kz operates 40 multi-media shops around Kazakhstan, together with a a chain of cinemas and D-I-Y stores. They also stock toys and children's goods, so currently they have a big  'Back to School' promotion, advertised in English, Russian and Kazakh. The government wants all three languages to be spoken, although the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.

Zenkov Cathedral Almaty
Nearby is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, built in the dying years of Tsarist imperialism (1905), and stunningly restored during the more liberal Soviet period of the 1970/80s. KZ is not a highly religious country, but two-thirds of the population claims allegiance to Islam, the remainder mostly to the Orthodox church.
Hydro-electric dam
In the afternoon we flew 1000km north, to the mining and metallurgy town of Oskomen (formerly Ust-Kammenogorsk), which was quite a contrast to the fast-growing lavishness of Almaty. A short taxi and motorboat ride took us to my hosts' lakeside guest-house, on the southern shores of the virtual lake created by the damming of the Iyrtush river for hydro-electric power in the 1950s. It was here, looking over the hills and moutains surrounding the lake that I began to get a sense of the size of Kazakhstan and its vast swathes of virtually uninhabited and (as yet) unspoilt terrain.  
Azia-Auto helicopter

Among the vital industrial and mining industries of Oskemen (uranium, lead, zinc, beryllium etc). new enterprises are emerging to satisfy the growing consumer hunger. Notable among these is  Azia-Auto car assembly plant, which is producing 120,000 vehicles every year.  The amiable owner of Azia-Auto, Anatoly Balushkin had kindly offered my hosts his 15 seat helicopter to fly, the next day, to Rahkmany Springs, 1000km east towards the Chinese border.

View towards Altai Mountains
Rahkmany Springs (1800m) has been renowned since the 18th century for the supposed health-giving qualities of it's radon-rich springs. It was developed in Soviet times as a kind of  health farm, with guests (or patients perhaps) staying in wooden cabins near the large, wonderfully fresh water lake. Meals are still provided in a communal canteen, which according to my hosts, serves authentic Soviet-style meals: large portions of stodgy but tasty food, with no choices and unsmiling waitresses, all washed-down with endless cups of strong tea.
Rahkmany Springs lake

Since the wholesale privatisation of state assets in the early years of Kazakhstan's independence the Rakhmany Springs 'resort' was bought by Mr. Balushkin for redevelopment as a wider  tourist centre. The log cabins have been improved or replaced with more luxurious 'chalets', and spa/health facilities upgraded, a bar and amenities for children introduced. But much remains the same and overall it has the comfortable feel of a USSR holiday camp in the 1970s.

The lake itself has been stocked for leisure fishing, but sadly this has resulted in the further decline of the 'singing frog' gracixalus quangi, a rare species threatened by the non-native fish who devour the frogs' eggs and tadpoles. This is a national park area, but there is little evidence of the kind of environmental sensitivity and awareness you'd expect to find in an equivalent European or American location.

Mertvoe river
However, it is a beautiful and unspoilt place, with treks around the lake and into the mountains and forests on foot, with horses or on mountain bikes, all of which can be hired locally.

AA rides out!
I rode a horse for a few hours (for the first time in my life!) to visit a nearby scenic waterfall.

 Mr. Balushkin kindly laid on a helicopter trip the next day, in the esteemed company of the local Orthodox bishop (they are planning to build a church at Rahkmany to complement the existing small mosque) to fly over the Belukha (white) Mountain, rising to 4500m  near the point where the Russian, Chinese,
Glaciers on Mt. Belukha
Mongolian and Kazakh border meet (known to some as the '4 corners of the world').  It is heavily glaciated and highly dramatic, the glaciers being among the oldest in the world (up to 5000 years old). The surrounding foothills reveal more gentle countryside, with meandering streams and herds of wild horses - but few villages, roads or other traces of human civilisation. 

The route back from Rahkamany to Oskamen took 12 hours by 4-wheel drive down a rough track, strewn with boulders and swimming-pool size pot-holes. Until recently ambitions to modernise and improve the road have been resisted by the government in order to preserve the environment, but I have read that a large sum of money has now been allocated to this project.  Let's hope a consequent influx of tourists doesn't ruin the pristine environment that attracted them in the first place.

My 'chalet' at Rahkany springs
The route, along the Berel river, is stunningly scenic, marred only by the derelict industrial and agricultural buildings that seem to so surround each village on the way. Relics of the Soviet times, it seems, but being such a spacious county no-one seems to renovate or knock anything down: they just build something new alongside. Planning control seems to be an unknown concept in Kazahkstan, so architectural 'style' is extremely random. Perhaps this also stems from the nomadic instincts of the people, where permanence is not regarded as an attribute for survival.  

Dispensing the kumis
We made a brief halt at a group of roadside yurts (portable nomadic tent shelters made from felt) , where local honey and kumis, fermented mares' milk,  is available for sale on on-the-spot consumption.  Our Landcruiser also needed refreshment, but all the petrol station around Katon-Karagy (the only town on the 950km route) seemed to have run out of fuel. Eventually our resourceful driver pleaded that he had an "important French delegation" on board. Apparently right on cue, without knowing what was going on, I got out of the car speaking a 'strange' language, which convinced the garagiste to supply us from the reserves that have to be kept for government vehicles.

Bukhtarma lake
Katon-Karagy is at the confluence of the White Berel and the Black Berel rivers, which then become the Irtysh, which meanders east towards China. In the 1950s the Soviet government constructed three large hydroelectric plants and dams on the river around Oskomen to provide power for the fast developing metallurgy industry.
This resulted the huge Bukhtarma Reservoir, which is 500km long and up to 35km wide, more or less the size of Wales!

My hosts' vessels and former Pioneer camp in background
My next destination was my hosts' riverside house at Clear Springs, once the site of a Soviet Pioneer camp but sold of to private owners in the early years of Kazakhstans' independence.  The old camp buildings are still there, surrounded by new holiday homes of varying degrees of luxuriousness.

The terrain around the lake (which reminded me of the Scottish islands) contains some of the oldest rocks in Kazakhstan, beaten and weathered by the capricious  continental climate in to weird and wonderful shapes and formations.  Much of Bukhtarma freezes over in the winters (they can expect 3m of snow here) but in the summer it's pleasantly warm with frequent thundery storms. In front of their new and spacious house thrives a vegetable garden, with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, fruit trees and bushes, grown for the consumption of visitors. The Bukhtarma is teeming with fish, I even had a go at fishing myself!  We had plenty of delicious meals, with freshly-caught carp and bream from the sparkling clear waters of the river.

My hosts' house at Clear Springs
It was a long, bumpy ride to get to Clear Springs, so travelling by water is a much better option. My hosts' ex-soviet patrol vessel,  which was formerly used to keep an eye on the Chinese border a few hundred kilometers upstream, proved to be an excellent way to get around.  We visited several isolated beaches in beautiful settings, but almost everywhere there were piles of litter and old bottles from previous picnics. I spent my last morning there helping collecting and burning rubbish on one particularly nice beach, doing my bit for the Kazak environment.

Almaty - growing fast!
Later that day we flew back to Almaty, arriving late but still able to visit a highly-westernised 24 hour deli-supermarket full of sumptuous imported Italian and French food and wine. Everything was written in English and obviously aimed at the emerging affluent middle class, quite a contrast to the rain-soaked stalls and soviet-era shops of Katon-Karagy. But the Kazakhstan is a country of contrasts and transition, and the President Nazarbayev's aim to make put it in the top 30 richest countries by 2050 seems highly achievable given the richness of its resources and the openness and energy of the people.

On the flight back to London I realised that more than half of its 8h hour duration was over Kazakhstan itself. I could gaze down at the vast steppe, straining to spot the rare traces of human habitaiton or activity.  What a contrast to the visibly crowded territories of Germany, Denmark and Holland. Europe's development is complete, it's gone as far as it can go, perhaps. Certainly that is not the case for Kazakhstan and, I imagine, the other dynamic new countries of central Asia.

Many thanks for my hosts, Igor and Alexander Deriglazova and their families and especially to Arseny Deriglazova for interpreting, and Dualet Yermagambetov, my guide in Almaty.


1 comment:

  1. Really interesting with this "insider" report from your trip. Now we look forward to more of your interesting blogs! :-) - Olof Malmlof. Sweden