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|
|Glaciers on Mt. Chklov from top of Shymbulak ski area|
|Kazahk Beatles in Almaty park|
|Uzbek dancing girls|
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|
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 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.
|AA rides out!|
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|
|My 'chalet' at Rahkany springs|
|Dispensing the kumis|
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|
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|
|Almaty - growing fast!|
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.