Pardon the geography lesson, but my guess is that you may need it. Until a few months ago, when I fetched up there by accident, I knew nothing about Kazakhstan, and had never met anyone who did. This massive slab of Central Asia had somehow managed to slip right down the back of the international settee — and yet it’s one of the most exciting places I have ever blundered into.
Actually, I’ve been twice. The first time was last summer, while making a film about the best Islamic buildings in the world. We’d been driving all around Uzbekistan, looking for architecture, and discovered many lovely things. But Uzbekistan being what Uzbekistan is, we had never managed to eat well, or relax, or feel free. As soon as you arrive in Uzbekistan, you start looking over your shoulder.
Just before the end of the shoot, we were told of a gigantic mausoleum that the most infamous of the local tyrants — the mighty Tamerlane, dubious fruit of the loins of Genghis Khan — had built in the desert in the 14th century. Various enthusiastic witnesses told me that it was the most spectacular of all the Islamic buildings in Central Asia. We had to film it. Where was it? In Kazakhstan. Where’s Kazakhstan? The next country up from Uzbekistan, stupid.
So we hustled up some visas and drove there. Kazakhstan and back in a day. And as soon as we crossed the border, we all felt better. The guards had cheeky oriental grins on their faces. The landscape appeared to expand in scale and charm. That dark religious mood lifted like a fog. And suddenly the long straight road we were driving down was arrowing its way through seemingly boundless and happy space.
Pretty much all I knew about Kazakhstan was that they like their horses here. And there they all were, great galloping herds of excited welterweight ponies, chasing each other around the steppes like lambs. Look, it’s a yurt. Let’s stop. So out we all got. Inside the yurt was a hazelnut-coloured woman with gold teeth, a big round beaming face and clenched oriental eyes that seemed to smile. She was selling fermented horse milk: a Kazakh speciality. It’s unexpectedly fizzy, and goes straight to your head, though this could just be the raw excitement of daring to drink it.
Three hours up the road, the Kazah Akhmed Yasaui Mausoleum was everything they said it would be, and more. Yasaui was a Sufi mystic — and Tamerlane, who liked to say it with buildings, set about commemorating him in the typical Tamerlane fashion, which meant putting up something extra-large in the middle of nowhere. It popped up on our windscreen at least 20 miles out from where it stood. The closer we got to it, the more it taunted us, with its impossibly pretty turquoise domes, and its golden expanses of amber brickwork on which was traced in unbelievably large letters the sacred incantations: Allah, Allah, Allah. When you finally stand underneath its ridiculously tall entrance arch, your lungs begin expanding in instinctive sympathy with this huge new scale. Then they go phew.
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So that was my summer visit to Kazakhstan. One day: one knockout. I was determined to return. Channel 4 asked me to go back there to shoot another film, about the wild modern art of Kazakhstan. At the climax of the action, you’ll see me on the top of a snow-clad mountain surrounded by nine naked Kazakh women chanting “grandmother, grandmother”. It’s a Kazakh happening. And it happened in the middle of the coldest winter in Central Asia for 50 years.
The day before my departure, I checked the weather in my paper and it definitely said that it was minus 35 in Kazakhstan. We flew in with Air Astana, the national carrier, which favours great big old-fashioned leather seats. The visas had been simple to get. Hotels are online. So the mechanics of getting there are easy. Learning to have fun in minus 35 is another story. I arrived in Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, sporting some very big bags, full of very woolly jumpers. It turned out I didn’t really need them. Extreme cold is deceptive stuff. It sounds worse than it is. Once you’re in a place as cold as this, you tend not to get changed much, preferring to keep on what you’ve got. Whenever I went out, I added a few layers, and soon worked out the real as opposed to the imaginary impact of this infamous Kazakh winter. Down to minus 15 was easy. Minus 15 to minus 25 was mildly testing. Between minus 25 and minus 35 your fingertips start freezing, but only after about 10 minutes.
Kazakhstan used to be part of Russia. Almaty used to be the capital. But a new Tamerlane, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who’s ruled here since independence and who keeps extending his reign through creative democracy, moved it further north to a place called Astana, where, according to the Kazakhstan Monitor, it was now minus 40. How could I resist a figure like that?
I trained it up there on an old-fashioned sleeper with heating that worked on shovelled coal and tea boiled in samovars. Astana, which means “the capital”, was fascinating. It isn’t often you see a brand-new city rising up from the steppes and having billions of petro-dollars thrown at it in an attempt to make it architecturally spectacular. Several of the new buildings are shaped like flying saucers. Even Norman Foster is supposed to be building some sort of pyramid of peace here.
The best place to see it all from is the top of a presidential tower that resembles the old World Cup trophy in shape and balance. Its pinnacle is a hovering ball of cognac-coloured glass, at the centre of which is the president’s own hand print, preserved in gold. Through these cognac-coloured windows, beyond the carefully futuristic outlines of the new city, in every direction, lie the steppes. It’s like landing on another planet and discovering a metropolis designed by Flash Gordon.
Almaty, in contrast, delivers old-style urban joys. It’s an exceptionally pleasant place to wander around, a walker’s city, filled with trees and cafes, the proud possessor of an unexpectedly European air. It’s located in the foothills of the Himalayas, and every morning when you take breakfast on the 26th floor of the Hotel Kazakhstan, you’ll see snowcapped peaks leading all the way to Everest stretching before you.
But the place to spend your time in Almaty is the streets — on the town, down the market.
What’s that big barrel of black stuff you’re displaying there, babushka? It’s beluga caviar, Englishman. Perhaps, Englishman, you prefer the osetra? I do, I do. Having compared a few tubs of osetra with a few tubs of beluga, all acquired at a fraction of their duty-free price in Almaty market, I am now of the opinion that fresh osetra is even tastier than fresh beluga. It is illegal, of course, to smuggle this much caviar back into Britain, so I was forced to eat it there.
Other babushkas in the market were offloading weird grey outer garments fashioned out of felt, or incredibly soft winter shawls knitted at home from Kazakh mohair. When my toes grew too cold, I bought myself some inlays for my boots carved out of dog skin. They worked well.
Outside the market, down a side street, an assortment of fortune-tellers huddled against the cold — Russians, Kazakhs, Gypsies, Uzbeks — offered to look into my future in their various national ways.
I picked a jovial Kazakh man who moved some beans around a cloth, and then sang me his predictions. At 85, you will have a party, he warbled, to celebrate your health and your wealth. Your children will grow up to be more successful than you are. Your work will give you great joy, and so will your wife. Apparently, you never hear any bad news on fortune-teller alley. The customers don’t like it.
It’s the people who make Kazakhstan special. Just to wander among them, noting their splendidly different looks and sensing their faraway origins, is fascination enough. For most of their history they were yurt-packing nomads. Today, they’ve been put in houses, but the old nomadic lessons remain learnt. The music is always on in a Kazakh home, the plov is always bubbling, and guests are always welcome. I was lucky enough to get invited into a couple of village living rooms, and immediately they unsheathed their dombras: two-stringed lute-like things that everyone plays. Vodka flowed. Singing started. Out, too, came the horse meat, which I learnt to appreciate in its many forms — sausage, liver, roasted, steak — because it is so healthy and lean.
Just out of town, Almaty has a huge Olympic ice rink, the largest in the world. Pulled up outside it when I went skating was a fleet of white Zil limousines, blaring out electric dombra-rap. A Kazakh couple were having an ice-skating wedding. They danced, they twirled, they drank. She looked gorgeous in her ivory-white wedding gown. He was snappy in a morning coat with tribal add-ons. Neither of them had any need of coat or jumper because it was only minus 20, and Kazakhs heat themselves from within.