Everyone should have experience

The flight from Kiev to Almaty takes five hours, the same amount of time it takes to get from New York to London. This is because Kazakhstan is nearly the size of the continental United States, a fact that both baffles and amazes me. 

People have been crossing this land for thousands of years on various branches of the silk road, but relatively few have chosen to settle here. The names of the civilizations that have risen and fallen here evoke the Lord of the Rings: Scythians, Tatars, Zhungars, Huns, Mongols. Kazakh, from the Turkish word for ‘adventurer’ or ‘outlaw’, is a relatively recent term, appearing in the 15th century to describe a hodgepodge of ethnicities just starting to develop a collective national identity. I wondered what a Kazakh might look like: were they fair-haired and Germanic looking, like some of their eastern neighbors in Urumqi, China’s predominantly Muslim western province? Dark and Slavic, like their Russian neighbors to the north? Mongolian, with high cheekbones, tan skin, and Asian eyes?

The answer, as far as I could tell from the border, was all of the above. Customs was the farthest I got during my visit to Kazakhstan, having been told mistakenly that I could get a transit visa on arrival. 

The first customs official looked eerily like the proprietor of a guesthouse where I’d stayed in Mongolia; the one who refused my visa application was blonde and puffy, like he’d had bratwurst for breakfast. The one who spoke enough English to explain that, contrary to the information on the embassy’s website, I could not get a transit visa for my stay of less than five days, for reasons that remain unclear, was a friendly Slavic giant named Pavlov. 

He escorted me to a flight back to Kiev and handed my passport to the stewardess, mumbling a complicated sentence in which the only word I could understand was ‘deported’. I was surprised how much the word bothered me. Travel has always been easy for me, a fact I have grown to appreciate more and more after seeing people of different races subject to humiliating ‘random’ searches and non-American passports being examined skeptically. Noticing I was upset, Pavlov put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, you,’ he said. ‘It’s experience. Everyone should have experience. Good experience, bad experience. Come back soon.’

My flight to Kazakhstan had been overnight, and so I appreciated being able to see the country pass underneath me on the way back. Almaty, the old cultural capital, is in the southeast; Astana, the current capital, is closer to Russia in the northwest. Between them stretches a vast plateau of Mars-like bleakness. There are some mountains, though the biggest by far are in the southeast, spilling into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The majority is inhospitable steppe land, occasionally punctured by lakes white with salt. The Soviets used vast swathes of northern Kazakhstan for nuclear testing, and in a twisted way you can almost see why. If anywhere on earth has to be sacrificed to atomic waste, here seems as good a place as any.

Less than an hour outside Almaty, we fly over a mountain with rings carved by the wind, like a giant terraced field. It is the only thing resembling human habitation I see in four hours, by which point we’re flying over Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Russia, and finally the Ukraine.

I’m disappointed to have bungled my first experience of Central Asia. Whenever I mentioned I was going to Kazakhstan, people exclaimed how lucky I was to travel there while it was still relatively undiscovered. The people, they say, are incredibly friendly, a tradition born out of their nomadic heritage. ‘When you have only your herd and family for company, you begin to really like strangers,’ said a Ukrainian man I met on the train. Almaty, set against the backdrop of the Alatau mountains, is one of the more stunning cities in the world, according to an American diplomat I met in Kiev, and the nightlife rivals Moscow. Astana is quick becoming the Dubai of Central Asia, as foreign investment pours in to get a slice of Kazakhstan’s 35 billion barrels of oil (and, potentially, 65 billion more, if the government’s estimates are to be believed). 

Despite the picture that Sacha Baron Cohen paints, Kazakhstan is the most economically advanced country in the region, and by most accounts the stablest. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been ‘democratically’ elected to head the government since 1989, though not a single election has been declared fair by foreign observers. Growing resentment over the fact that 16% of the country still lives below the poverty line, despite annual growth of around 10% a year, could change that, but for the moment he has a firm grip on power. His ability to forge a multiethnic government with close ties to both western governments and his Russian and Chinese neighbors shows he is a politician of no little importance.

In the end, my deportation was little more than a few hours of hassle and a chance to catch up on some reading. Sympathetic airline personnel didn’t charge me for the flight and I got to spend a few extra days in Kiev, a city I am beginning to love. Kazakhstan is not going anywhere. ‘Come back,’ Pavlov had said as he waved me on to my flight. It won’t be long, I hope, before I have the chance.
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