At the receiving end of a huge unflattering publicity boost from the movie Borat, Kazakhstan is an enormous country in Central Asia with a fairly small population because much of the country is barely habitable.



The former capital but still largest and most cosmopolitan city of Kazakhstan. Almaty is the new name for the city that was formerly known as Alma-Ata in the Soviet Union – "the city of apples". The reason for this is that the place was once famous for its big apples. The city may have changed its name and lost its status as political capital to Astana, but it still is the economic and cultural capital of Kazakhstan. It doesn't have the flashy new architecture of Astana (which is being pushed to outshine Almaty on that front with big government money), but its location is unbeatably more visually attractive: it is nestled in the foothills of the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains that rise to well over 4000 metres just beyond the edge of the city limits – providing a dramatic backdrop.
However, it is also an earthquake-prone location, which explains why you don't see many old structures in the city. Since independence, Almaty has been undergoing an economic boom thanks to the riches from the country's huge oil and mineral resources. The spoils are everywhere, swanky cars, lot of brand new buildings & shopping malls being constructed, and a shiny metro system.


Big Almaty Lake

About an hour away from Almaty is the Big Lake, a mountain lake at 2600m. The road there is very photogenic. Beautiful views and fresh mountain air. It was definitely colder than the city.



When my flight approached Astana, the glitzy capital city looked like a mirage. Little surrounds the city for 1,200 kilometres, only the world's largest steppe, a flat, empty expanse of grassland. Shooting up from this void is a mass of strangely futuristic structures making up a bulging science fiction-like skyline that will leave you goggling in amazement. Yet just 20 years ago the city used to be a lot more modest than what it is today. In 1997, Kazakhstan's president moved the capital from Almaty to the newly-named Astana (previously it was called Akmola), which was then mostly an empty patch of land best known as a former gulag prison camp for the wives of Soviet traitors.
In Kazakh, "Astana" means simply 'capital city'. Why was Astana made the new capital? Nobody seems to know for sure, but several factors have been suggested, including its central location away from earthquake prone regions. Another advantage over Almaty may be that it sits in the open steppe with no limitations on expansion, whereas Almaty is hemmed in by mountain ranges. Much of Astana remains a building site – as expansion continues and new ambitious architectural extravagancies are under construction. So the face of the city is bound to keep on changing. The core of the new government district is more or less finished, though.



Many Kazakhs still live a semi-nomadic existence, moving with their herds into summer pastures every year. They eat and sleep in yurts, the ancient dwellings of the nomads. They also drink a lot of kumis {fermented horse milk}. I was offered some kumis on the way to Almaty, it was so bitter, it could have brought down a bull. Kumis is rumoured to be an aphrodisiac, I can confidently say I was in no frisky mood afterwards.


Border with Kyrgyzstan

I entered Kazakhstan by crossing the border with Kyrgyzstan. At passport control, they had a "no corruption" poster plastered on the wall. The officer took my passport, asked me to follow him, then made a money sign with his hand {ie requesting a bribe}. When I pointed to the "no corruption" sign, he smiled and sent me on my way.