I don’t think there’s any way to write about Kazakhstan for an English-speaking audience without first addressing Borat. It can’t be done, and many have hurt themselves trying.
If you ask someone in the US or UK to name two things about Kazakhstan, they will say that Borat is from there and after asking for a lifeline will follow up with the fact that Borat’s manager friend that he had the naked hotel fight with was also from there. So, the question becomes obvious: Was it like the movie?
Not in any even vague or remote way.
First off, Kazakhstan is an Asian country. The people there are related to the Mongols, with a few Russians sprinkled in for a lack of color. Walking around, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Japan or China. No one there looks, sounds, or acts the slightest bit like Borat, who seems much closer to a broad parody of someone from Turkey or Azerbaijan.
So, basically, Borat is as much about Kazakhstan as Benny Hill is about Japan.
The people of Kazakhstan were so not thrilled by Borat that they banned the movie in their country. I tried to rent it from iTunes while I was there, and every time the download finally finished over the glacial hotel Wifi, the movie refused to play. Which was either a testament to the impressive technical acumen of the Kazakhs or the fact that iTunes sucks.
You can’t blame the Kazakh people for being offended by the movie introducing them to the world as a bunch of sister-fucking dipshits, but the parody is so far off the mark it’s hard to really take offense. You come to just see it as Sacha Baron Cohen pulling the name “Kazakhstan” out of a hat because people in the West would never have heard of it, so it could serve as a blank slate for his comedy. Borat is more of a general absurd parody of “foreignness,” and the Kazakhs were just unlucky that the Scrabble tiles Baron Cohen pulled out of the sack happened to spell out “KAZAKHSTAN.”
The disconnect is made even more absurd by the fact that Kazakhstan is actually a wealthy country, flush with oil money. High-end malls full of Prada and Luis Vuitton shops are everywhere, and everyone’s driving a Mercedes or Lexus. A relatively modest house in Almaty costs a million US dollars. The scenes of Borat’s home village were filmed in Romania with Romanian locals. Any of those people would have looked as out of place in Kazakhstan as I did.
Did I still walk around the city, singing “Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, you very nice place”? Don’t be an asshole. Of course I did. I’m a human being.
Almaty used to be the capital of Kazakhstan, until 1997 when it got drunk at a party and made fun of Kazakhstan’s stupid toupee, at which point they changed the capital to Astana, a city that would never say something horribly untrue like that. It is a very nice toupee.
The name Almaty means “full of apples,” because sure, whatever. Actually according to our guide this was the birthplace of all apples in the world, the place where the first apple came down from the heavens and everyone said holy shit, this green tree booger can talk and is delicious.
The thing I found the most interesting about Almaty were the boulders everywhere. Apparently when they have earthquakes, or light rain, massive boulders come boogying down from the nearby mountains, turning the city into a giant pinball machine of random boulder destruction. Some of the boulders from past catastrophes are still in the city, just sitting in random places as a reminder that nature is cruel. People paint smiley faces on them.
The thing I found the second most interesting were the pipes. There are pipes everywhere, some yellow, some red, running along the sidewalks by the side of the road, suddenly making a right angle to arch up over someone’s driveway, then turning back down so they can continue along two feet off the sidewalk. I cannot stress strongly enough that these pipes are fucking everywhere. It’s like the city has been invaded by that 90s era Windows screensaver where a bunch of pipes just keep forming and connecting to each other out of nowhere just for shits because they’re pipes and that’s what they do. Pipes and pipes and pipes, endless pipes.
The people in Almaty don’t seem to even notice the pipes, they’re part of the invisible world of infrastructure we learn to not see, like power lines or old people. It takes an outsider to really stop and ask “Wait wait wait, what the fuck are all these pipes you guys?”
Gas lines. All of these pipes are full of highly flammable natural gas. So, you know, don’t hit one with your car or your bike or your knees. Oh good, okay. I thought they were just harmless eyesores.
Why don’t they bury these things? The expense? The earthquakes? Nobody knew. Okay.
After we crossed the chaotic border into Kazakhstan, where the immigration guys were hilariously interested in my travels “Oh, you’re going to Georgia? I hear that’s nice! What are you going to see? I want to go there” and not particularly concerned with whether I was going to sponge off their social services or illegally watch Borat in their country, we changed our drab home currency for Kazakhstan’s beautiful and colorful notes and walked a mile to our bus because I guess our bus driver doesn’t like dealing with traffic.
We picked up our tour guide like he was a hitchhiker and hit a nearby restaurant that was absolute bullshit for vegans, so I skipped out on lunch and wandered around the neighborhood, which was idyllic in its autumnal splendor.
From there we drove up into the mountains, passing along the way massive metal barriers that looked like beach fortifications from WWII, which were there to give any future boulders considering making a run into Almaty to pick up some milk something to think about.
We stopped at a massive skating complex up the mountain, famous for having the fastest ice in the world. I use the term famous out of kindness to our tour guide, who has to deal with questions about Borat all day every day and probably doesn’t need to know that “fastest ice” isn’t a thing and nobody knows where the hell Kazakhstan is, let alone their finest skating rink.
Weaving through the massive knots of luxury cars strewn everywhere and Asian people eating hot dogs, we proceeded to ascend the 800 steps up the Medeu Dam, which is a lot of steps at altitude and when you skipped lunch to take photos of little kids playing street soccer.
Up top we took in the mountain expanse and the cable cars spanning the chasm.
I badly wanted to ride one of the cable cars but they were shut down for some kind of testing. The cars would run for a few minutes, then suddenly stop, and when they stopped the cars would bob dramatically down toward the earth and then spring back up high into the air, swaying up and down a hundred feet in a vertiginous undulating wave that was both mesmerizing and seemingly indicative of a massive disaster about to happen.
I admitted to myself that this kind of made me want to ride the cable cars more.
Our guide explained that the dam we were standing on was to prevent flash floods and mudslides from destroying Almaty, which happened five times in the 20th century alone. The dam was finished in 1972, and just a year later it stopped 3.8 million cubic meters of water, boulders and mountain goats from Almatying Almaty. Unfortunately, there were a large number of people picnicking on the wrong side of the dam when this happened, enjoying the beautiful valley we were looking down upon at that very moment, and they had the worst picnic ever recorded.
Dammit Almaty, don’t you have anything that’s not disaster-related? Yes, I will have an apple. Thank you, this is delicious.
Back down amongst the Lexuses and Benzes, Russians burned out on huge motorcycles, smoke billowing from their back tires. That looks expensive. After fumigating the entire region with his burnt rubber smoke, one of the bikers peeled out and was immediately followed by an adorable little Kazakh police car.
Down in the city, we took in a monument to the “Golden Man.” We weren’t sure if this was a sequel to the Eddie Murphy movie which was only released in Kazakhstan, but we nodded respectfully just the same.
On our way to Panfilov Park, we passed some kind of wedding party who were playing it low key and keeping the focus on love and commitmentHOLY SHIT WHAT IS THAT THING.
Inside the park we took in the under-restoration Zenkov Cathedral. I followed the sound of prayers to a small building nearby where the services were being held while the Cathedral was having new layers of gingerbread applied. The tiny church-hut was packed with the faithful and I was struck by the energy of devotion that was positively vibrating in the air as I shoehorned my way into the throng. Wow. But at the same time it felt like this energy was trapped in the building and being directed to some other, less-positive intent. I was simultaneously moved by the people’s sincere devotion, that they were bringing the best of themselves to this place, while at the same time I felt like they were being used. A strange mix of emotions.
An emotional WWII memorial nearby mixed solemn remembrance with “Come at me, bro” ballsiness.
We all met up for a goodbye dinner at a Georgian restaurant in town, where my request for lemonade somehow returned a glass of aftershave, which Christian from Germany took one sip of and identified as “Forest Master” which I don’t think should be the name of a drink. When I failed to describe the taste of the drink to anyone’s satisfaction, they each had to have a sip and then agree that yes, that thing definitely defies description.
Goodbyes to my tourmates regretfully said, it was back to the hotel and off on my own for my early morning flight to Astana.
I had decided to take a little extra time in Kazakhstan after the Central Asia tour ended so I could see the completely bonkers architecture that Astana is famous for. Kazakhstan had built its new capital out of absolutely nothing in the middle of nowhere, and to give people a reason to make the trip they had populated it with some of the strangest buildings on Earth.
I stepped off the plane onto a runway absolutely stuffed with cold rain and fog. Brrrrrr. Hmmm. This may not be the best “wandering around a city taking photos of batshit crazy buildings” day of my life.
After figuring out that I needed to open a random closet door in the airport and leave my bags with the woman who was inexplicably sitting in there, and then finding the right bus to get into the city, being the only person on the bus who didn’t have a bus card, meaning I had to just dump a whole pocketful of coins on the dashboard of the bus so the kindly bus driver could pick out however many he needed for my fare because that shit’s all in Kazakh and I can’t read which is what, I was off to take really mediocre photos in the most brutal lighting conditions possible. Let’s go!
I hopped off the bus as soon as I saw the beer cans.
These are the Golden Towers, the entrance to the Presidential Palace. The locals call them The Beer Cans.
I wandered through some kind of police checkpoint on the way to the Presidential Palace. The cops looked at me like “What?” because they do not get tourists in Astana. But they were too confused to stop me or question my presence so it was all cool.
I made a hard right and wandered toward the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall. The nice thing about Astana is that you don’t really need a map, there’s enough weird shit that you can always see the next weird shit from the weird shit you’re standing in front of. So it’s just connect-the-dots all the way across the city.
I mean if you’re there to do anything other than gawk you’re probably in trouble but I wasn’t here to do that so I was fine.
After the concert hall things got a little dicey as I needed to cross the river and this wasn’t 100% designed to be done on foot. I wandered through a park and under the bridge spanning the river, where a police car was sitting, suspiciously. Yeah I probably look somewhat out of place here. But it was cold and shitty out so they couldn’t be bothered to get out of their warm car to see what I was up to.
I approached an elaborate indoor staircase that looked like it would get me up onto the bridge to cross the river. The door was rusted shut. Huh. I walked all the way around to the other side, where the other door had collapsed in on itself. Okay then.
Eventually I made my way all the way around to the start of the bridge and made my way across in the cold wind. Everyone in Kazakhstan looked at me like “What are you doing- What- What ARE you?”
The sky suddenly darkened, like during the Council of Elrond when Gandalf had his “You kids get off my lawn!” moment and started yelling “Osh kosh b’gosh!” and everyone was like “Whoa whoa whoa, you can’t speak that Wisconsin shit here, you dick.”
Hmmm. The sidewalk I was walking along ran out and I had to jaywalk through a giant intersection full of foot deep ice water to get to the other side. Oh yeah. That's cold.
The freezing rain started to come down harder while I was standing in front of the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan and I suddenly decided being inside a museum where it probably wasn’t raining ice sounded really nice.
Inside, the orderlies forcibly took my wet coat and the girl at the counter upsold me on a special ticket that would get me into the “Golden Hall.” I had no idea what this was but it sounded expensive. Above me, a giant bird showed off how made of gold it was. Hmmm.
I made a beeline for the Golden Hall, in case the world ended in the next half-hour I didn’t want to be the asshole who paid extra to see the Golden Hall and yet didn’t even get in there before the Earth was swallowed up by the sun.
At the entrance, some ladies checked my ticket to make sure I had, in fact, paid extra to enter the mysterious Golden Hall. Numerous helpful signs reminded me that I could not take any photographs of any of the life-changing sights I was about to be exposed to within, because other people would be broken and driven insane by its majesty and also they had not paid extra to see what was in the Golden Hall. I entered a tunnel of lights.
The donut-shaped tunnel was covered in LED lights on all sides, which changed color in waves and washes of intense psychedelica. The music bumped and I prepared for a champagne dance that never came. It was sort of like being in the future and sort of like being in a U2 video from the early 90s.
I thought this was Golden Hall I’d paid extra to experience, so I hung out in there for a while and soaked it up. After getting my fill, I left and realized that was just the inexplicable entryway to the Golden Hall, which was actually an exhibit featuring a 3rd century warrior who walked around blinged out of his mind in golden armor.
To avoid the inevitable problem where your horses get jealous of your outfits and stop doing horse stuff out of spite and just sort of stand around looking offended all the time, he also blinged out his horses.
Seriously though, if I were a horse, this is how I would dress. I mean holy shit.
Oh yeah I wasn’t supposed to be taking photos but I was alone in the hall and come on, if you don’t want people taking photos don’t dig up 1600-year-old dead guys who make Rick James look like a conservative dresser.
Around the corner were a series of other figures from the same era, dressed in elaborate and beautiful gold armor and crazy bird hats. My only regret from the entire trip is that I didn’t get photos of these guys, because they were full-on awesome. But an old lady sitting at a desk was watching me and I think she had a shiv. I’m not saying I know this for a fact but she had that look about her.
The figures were Scythian royalty and warriors, and I was deeply impressed by their entire culture. Why have I never heard of these guys before? Our education system sucks? That’s a good reason!
I’ve managed to steal a few photos online so people don’t think I’m just describing hypothermia hallucinations.
Looking at the clothing, I was struck by the dignity of these figures, like they were living on a higher plane than we are now, in our hoodies and skinny jeans. Maybe progress isn’t always a straight line. I thought about the vibration of gold and what it would feel like to be wearing that every day. I mean, they were probably burning horse poop to stay warm and braining people with staffs all day long but they also probably never had anyone spell their name wrong on their Starbucks cup either.
After I’d got my fill of gold people who made me feel like a homeless rag merchant, I bundled back up and headed back out into the winter.
Outside, Astana was celebrating their 20th year of being better than Almaty.
Down the road, huge video screens on the underside of a leaf attempted to propagandize me about something, which I was shielded from by my utter inability to read Kazakh.
Down the street I passed Shabyt, Astana’s Palace of the Arts, known by locals as “The Dogbowl” for unknown reasons.
Across the street, the Palace of Peace and Accord disappeared into the fog as the freezing rain tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that it was October. Man, all of a sudden I’m realizing we had great weather on this entire trip right up until right now.
I still had the circus (which looks like a UFO) and the mall (which looks like a circus) to check off my list, but as I walked up the street, Astana did its best to change my mind. The freezing rain turned into hail, and began to blow sideways straight into my eyeballs. My face stung as it was being sandblasted into a new shape. I wondered what person I’d look like by the time I got to my destination. Maybe Karl Urban? He’s okay. Maybe it’s like a healthy exfoliating? A new spa trend, walk around in Kazakhstan until you’re beautiful. Yeah no I’m probably going to look like I’m wearing a mask of raw hamburger by the time I get inside again.
After a mile or two of this I determined this was too much of an affront to the very concept of a vacation and decided to skip straight to the grand finale. I hopped on a bus to the Bayterek Tower.
Bayterek is impossible to miss as you walk around Astana. It represents the magic bird of happiness laying its egg in the mythical tree of life. The design was based on a cocktail napkin drawing by the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and I think they made up the magic bird and tree stuff because nobody could tell what the hell the president drew.
Inside the egg tower, elevators zip you up to an observation deck, from which you can see all of Astana disappear into the freezing rain all around you.
The ceiling has some kind of mystical bird shit going on up there.
But the climax of the tower, and of Astana, and of Kazakhstan overall, is the president’s hand print. On a pillar in the very center of the room sits a mold of the president’s handprint in gold, like if you pushed your hand into wet concrete but it turned out to be molten gold and that’s why the president of Kazakhstan only has one hand. A long line of Kazakhs waited to marvel at and get their photo taken with this clearly amazing artifact.
Once it was my turn, beneath the magic egg at the pinnacle of the mythical tree of life, I put my hand in the president’s mythical handprint, firing up reactors deep beneath the city, which belched forth copious quantities of oxygen to finally gif da peephole aihr.
Mission accomplished. Thanks Kazakhstan.