Glistening with oil money: Exploring Kazakhstan, things to do when you travel and more
In the spring, a dramatic display of wild tulips covers vast areas of Kazakhstan. This pristine, unpeopled and windswept land is the birthplace of the tulip, the emblematic flower of Turkic folk across Eurasia.
But I’m here in late autumn, just in time to pluck the last of the apples as the orchards begin to wither. The first wild apples too, I read in Christopher Robbin’s delightful book, ‘Apples are from Kazakhstan’, first originated on this land, near Almaty, a major city whose very name, Alma tau, means apple mountain.
This vast, sparsely populated Central Asian country gained independence from the Russians in 1991. At first things were tough and disillusionment reigned, but soon, aided with riches from a large bubble of oil found under the Caspian Sea, and strong leadership, the nation uprighted itself and now the proud, self-assured Kazakhs keenly showcase their nomadic traditions and many of them are turning to Islam after decades of living in a spiritual void.
The glistening new capital, Nur-Sultan, has an array of impressive buildings by internationally renowned architects, and the neo futurist-style Khan Shatyr tent, an enormous entertainment centre, by Norman Foster and partners harks to the yurtas, or foldable tents used by the locals in the nomadic days of yore. ‘Kazakh’ means wanderer, and the yurta, the horse and livestock were at the very heart of their existence.
The ethnographic section of the National Museum, the Museum of Art and the vibrant Green Market of Almaty, an established southern city, are the best places to uncover the local traditions and tastes. Down the centuries, men and women have had distinct roles; The women tending to the home, orchard and livestock, weaving shyrdak rugs, making yoghurt, cheese, dumplings and shorbas, and raising the children. The men took the livestock to pasture, rode, hunted, played a version of polo with a goat carcass, formed the legal councils and protected their people from invaders as best as they could. Their lands were at the crossroads of Eurasia, and the legendary Silk Road flowed through them. Kazakh faces reflect that blend of the east and west.
The pride of the Kazakhs has long been their horses. They enjoy horse meat on special occasions, and extoll the curative virtues of fresh mare’s milk in the spring. No surprise then, the experts claim the horse might well have been first tamed on the boundless plains they call home.
Best time to visit: May- September
For experiencing beautiful landscapes further afield from Almaty- explore the dramatic Charyn Canyon, Altyn Emel National Park, and the colourful Ak Tau Mountains made of a dazzling array of minerals.
You can follow Geetika Jain on insta- @Geetikaforest
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