Spring In The Steppes: A Journey Through Kazakhstan

A trail through the slices of urban life in cities and the vast landscapes, and the traces of Soviet Russia. Travelling through the old and new Kazakhstan is a mesmerising experience
Horses on a pasture near Almaty city, Kazakhstan
Horses on a pasture near Almaty city, KazakhstanAureliy/Shutterstock

The first hints of spring are appearing amid the drab Soviet apartment blocks and the could-be-anywhere steel and glass office buildings of Almaty. New leaves hang tentatively off birch and poplar trees that line the endlessly straight streets, framing distant views of the snow-capped Ile-Altau mountains (the northern spur of the Tien Shan range). It's a few days after Nauroz, the New Year, the day of the 'big melt', and celebratory flowery neon arches still straddle the streets. And while the snows of winter have given way to a light grey sky and the occasional drizzle, the sun is still rare. People are out on the streets but summer clothes haven't appeared—it's still leather jackets, black and grey overcoats, and boots. You can smell a change in the air though. The city seems poised on the edge of a transformation.

Reclaiming An Identity

A little time in this country, and you'll realise that the transformation goes beyond the seasons. Kazakhstan is a massive country—almost the same size as India, but with a population of roughly 15 million (over 130 ethnic groups, the majority of which are Kazakh and Russian). Till early in the 20th century, most of this population was nomadic. Then came the Soviet era, and Kazakhstan became, variously, a vast mining site a pretty place of exile for political dissenters and ethnic groups like the Volga Germans, and, most ruinously, the centre of Krushchev's notorious Virgin Lands (or collectivisation) experiment. It's not a time or legacy that the Kazakhs remember fondly, and short of tearing down the concrete apartment blocks they're doing everything to erase it. They're trying to reclaim and reassert a distinct Kazakh identity. Kazakhstan is a country, which is making (or remaking) itself in a tearing hurry.

Encounters In Almaty

Panoramic view of Almaty city, Kazakhstan
Panoramic view of Almaty city, KazakhstanAureliy/Shutterstock

It's only eight in the evening, but Inara, an Azerbaijani pub in downtown Almaty, is crowded. Thick swirls of smoke rise from different corners of a space which resembles a vast many-levelled barn. The band is playing Russian rock, and the dance floor is packed with a bewildering mix of people —young, old, Kazakh, Russian, Uighuir, suited, mini-skirted—a whirligig of clapping and dancing. It's difficult to find a table in the melee. Sameer, my friend and translator for the evening, puts his Russian to use, and we're soon led to a table at the edge of the dance floor. The Russian song comes to an end, and is replaced by the murmur of a hundred animated voices.

Then the band changes language, breaking into a delightfully gay Turkish song. "Davayee (cheers)," says Sameer throwing back a shot of Stolichnaya vodka. "Davayee" say I, getting into the swing of things. Then my throat catches fire, as the drink scorches my gullet. "Here," he says laughing, handing me a can of orange juice, "you'll need it. When you go out for a drink in Almaty, unless you're sick you can't just have one, the bottle's got to be emptied." The band is now playing a Kazakh folk song. "Nobody here understands the lyrics, they'll dance to just about anything," explains Sameer. A lilting Uzbek song follows, and then we're back to Russian. Four rounds, and we're almost through with the bottle. I certainly am.

A Russian Repast

The Ascension Cathedral Russian Orthodox church in Panfilov Park,  Almaty city, Kazakhstan
The Ascension Cathedral Russian Orthodox church in Panfilov Park, Almaty city, KazakhstanPikoso.kz/Shutterstock

The next morning, I set out to walk the streets, my Russian phrasebook in hand. Most of the city's upscale restaurants, government offices, museums, and parks are in downtown Almaty. The signs are all in Russian, but with a decent map, it's not difficult to find your way around. It's Easter Sunday, a clear morning, and all of Almaty is on the streets. The tulips in Panfilov Park have started blooming—neat beds of red, yellow, and purple alternate with each other. Zenkov Cathedral, inside the park, is one of the few buildings to have survived the devastating earthquake of 1911. It's a wooden, typically Russian cathedral, with colourful onion domes.

A huge crowd of people has gathered for the afternoon service, and I can hear the distant hymns. Outside, a carnival is in progress. Teenagers in tight clothes hang out with cans of beer in hand, mothers try to drag their children away from ice-cream stalls, an old man wearing a traditional Kazakh Tubeteika (embroidered skull-cap) looks on as a horde of children jumps onto one of the horse-drawn carriages that clatters noisily through the park, while a few girls sit on a bench sketching scenes of this delightful morning.

Of Art And Music

Arbat Avenue in Almaty
Arbat Avenue in AlmatyMinar Aslanova/Shutterstock

I wander through the park, and move towards Arbat Street—Almaty's pedestrians-only boulevard where artists sell their paintings, musicians perform, and all the fashionable people promenade up and down. Open-air cafes are setting up shop for the coming summer—and the few tables they've got out are occupied by people drinking and having a lazy lunch. An elderly woman sits on a tiny collapsible stool, outside the entrance of a mall, playing the dombra (a two-stringed Kazakh instrument). She's singing what sounds like a folk ditty in a mournful soft voice that weaves in and out of the mandolin-like sound of the instrument. "What's she singing," I ask Lazar, an Uzbek from Tashkent, my translator for the morning. He hesitates for a moment, then asks her. "It's a song about zee mothaar." I put a 100 tenge note in the lady's basket and make my way towards Bambolo, one of the small cafes.

By four in the afternoon, the traffic picks up. Mercs, Land Cruisers, svelte convertibles streak by, interspersed by the odd ordinary Korean car. Green Market, the fruit and vegetable market off Arbat Street, is shut, but the stalls outside the market are doing brisk business. Fruits from across Central Asia are on display—there are fat, juicy grapes from Uzbekistan, apples from around Almaty, and melons from China. "We've got goods from everywhere, and people from everywhere too," says Tatiyana, my pretty translator for the afternoon. "Cars from everywhere too," I add, gaping at the Hummer stretch limo that has just pulled over. And the bewildering diversity of Almaty suddenly made sense. This was Central Asia's land of opportunity, its cosmopolitan heart.

Outside The Urban Life

Things change quickly once you move out of the city. The box-apartments give way to the elegant dachas of the rich. The snow-covered mountains suddenly seem much closer, the roads get a little more gravelly, and the air becomes a little cleaner. A light cold rain falls, as I set out on a three-day trip around the Almaty oblast (or region—one of the 14 the country is divided into). Our first stop comes not too far out of town. "Eagle Farm," announces Altem, the translator from the Tourism Association, with the enthusiasm of someone ready to carve up the Thanksgiving turkey. I stare at her in dread (imagining her offering me roasted eagle soup), and then force a smile.

Kazakhs traditionally hunt foxes and wolves using trained golden eagles
Kazakhs traditionally hunt foxes and wolves using trained golden eaglesRawpixel/Shutterstock

The Eagle Farm turns out, much to my relief, to be the equivalent of a kennel for dogs. Hunting with eagles is a popular sport in Kazakhstan, and the farm is where people leave their eagles to be cared for in off-season. The farm also houses tazis, the incredibly lean and angular hunting dogs that are used to retrieve the kill—which can be anything from a small rodent to a fox. "This is Borya," says their keeper, stroking the head of a majestic steppe eagle. The deep brown and black feathers of the fearsome bird gleam in the sun. "We rescued him when he was small, his leg was broken." The bird responds to the stroking by flapping its wings, which when measured from tip to tip are over two metres across.

A Vast Nothingness

A few hours later we pass by the Kapchagai reservoir. Beyond that lie the steppes. The land flattens out, the trees disappear, and a more complete silence than anything I've ever known before surrounds us. We find ourselves on a vast endless plain that stretches out on all sides to the distant mountains. The road extends straight ahead for what seems like a hundred kilometers. A line of electricity poles tilted at varying angles keeps it company. Dirt tracks veer off the main road onto the grass and disappear. In the distance I see a car the size of an ant making its way along a track, leaving a corkscrew of dust in its wake. We pass by herds of Bactrian camels being herded across the steppe by horsemen. They turn to look at us, and we wave back as they canter off. Then there's nothing. Nothing. An endless carpet of grass, the purr of the engine, and the sound of the wind rushing through the windows.

Stunning sunrise on the bay of the Kapchagai reservoir from the Kapchagaisoy hydroelectric power station.
Stunning sunrise on the bay of the Kapchagai reservoir from the Kapchagaisoy hydroelectric power station.PromKaz/Shutterstock

Suddenly, in the middle of this vast nothingness we come across the check-post of the Altyn Emel National Park, one of Kazakhstan's largest parks. Skirting the edge of a few small hills, we arrive at a small wooden shack, which serves as a guard hut. There, under a shady tree, an elaborate dastarkhan (table with nuts and breads on it) has been laid out for us. The guard's wife talks cheerily, serving us tea from a brass samovar. Then the naan is brought to the table, and we all dig in, eating it with delicious grape, apricot, and apple preserves and loads of butter.

Mountains And Dunes

Panoramic view of Aktau Mountains located in Altyn Emel National Park, Kazakhstan
Panoramic view of Aktau Mountains located in Altyn Emel National Park, KazakhstanSergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Later in the afternoon, we head across the park to the Aktau Mountains, a moonscape of white, blue, and yellow volcanic mountains. On the way we stop at the Singing Dunes —two huge dunes of white sand over 150m high and more than a kilometre long which appear out of nowhere in the middle of a range of scrubby hills. Occasionally a jeyran (goitred gazelle) dances across the track and disappears behind a bush. We then backtrack a bit to Basshi village, which lies in the heart of the park. It's a quaint little village with wooden houses. Its roads, lined with flowering cherry trees, seem to be used more by donkeys and horses than by cars. At dinner, Kazakh hospitality is at its very best. There's beshbarmak—perfectly cooked horse meat with potatoes and onion served on a bed of noodles pilau (or pilaf)—lightly spiced with more meat and shubat or camel's milk—heavy, slightly sour and syrupy, but good with the food.

From the steppes we head straight into the mountains to the Kolsai Lake. It's only a few hours' drive away, but there's still snow on the ground. The clear waters of the alpine lake reflect snow-capped peaks and dense forests. In summer, people from Almaty, camp around the lake. Many walk up to the second Kolsai lake, a few kilometres away, and apparently much more beautiful. I'd love to do the same, but we've got to head back to town.

A tourist on the pier at Kolsai lake in Kazakhstan
A tourist on the pier at Kolsai lake in Kazakhstan Mitriakova Valeriia/Shutterstock

The City Epilogue

The city comes as a shock after the emptiness of the steppes. I hook up with Sameer for dinner. We wander desultorily for a while through Ramstore, the upmarket shopping mall, where beautiful women gyrate in a display window, and a little girl does perfect twirls in the indoor ice-skating rink. A few hours later we find ourselves at a cheap local dive. The Jonny Gaz band is playing. The lead singer, a short, dark, pot-bellied, curly-haired Malayali in a tight T-shirt smiles at Sameer as we enter, and joins us at our table at the end of the song. "That f*****g woman in Bishkek, man," he starts off, walking off mid-sentence. "Oh baby," I overhear him smarm, kissing a girl who's just walked in. "He's mad," sighs Sameer. He wasn't a bad singer, but he'd have been a good plumber in Bishkek if there was more money in that.

I'm up early the next morning. I've been out of Almaty for a little more than three days but in that short time the city seems to have changed. Spring has established itself. People have started cleaning their barbecues for weekend shashlik in the park the buds on the trees have grown into leaves. And the days are now sunny.

The Information

Getting There:
The major cities connected by flights are Shymkent, Almaty, and Astana (now Nur-Sultan). Two Kazakh airlines, Fly Arystan and Air Astana, offer regular flights. Almaty is a short four-hour flight from Delhi.

Visa Information:
Kazakhstan is now visa-free for Indian nationals. An individual can stay for up to 14 days without a visa.

When To Go:
The best time to go to Almaty is during the summer months, from late April to late September. If you're planning to travel to other parts of the country check local conditions first.

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