Kazakhstan: What you won't learn from Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen's comic creation portrays them as a band of goat-punching, woman-caging, urine-drinking anti-semites; the Kazakhs, understandably, object, and are threatening legal action. So what is central Asia's most obscure nation really like? Ed Caesar reports
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The Independent Online

50 things you may not have known

1. Almost as big as western Europe, and four times the size of Texas, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world.

2. At the 2004 Olympics Kazakhstan finished 40th in the medals table - above South Africa - with one gold, four silvers and three bronze medals.

3. Despite Borat's suggestions that, in Kazakhstan, people hunt bears "for fun", hunting is no longer a popular pastime. The ancient custom of hunting with eagles, however, has been revived in the past few years, after being discouraged by the Soviet regime.

4. The word "Kazakh" means "independent" or "wanderer".

5. Since independence from the USSR in 1991, Kazakhstan has been ruled by President Nursultan A Nazarbayev, right. He has the power to initiate constitutional amendments, appoint and dismiss the government, dissolve parliament and call referendums. In 1995, President Nazarbayev called a referendum to expand his powers. In 1999, he swept to power again, although he did not face stiff competition - one of his opponents based his campaign on his ability to crush glass in his bare hands.

6. Kazakhstan is home to the Baikonur cosmodrome, from which Yuri Gagarin's first orbital flight was launched in 1961. The centre used to be top secret, but has been re-invented as a tourist destination.

7. Kazakhs love rhythmic gymnastics and cycling - a local boy, Alexander Vinokourov, came third in the 2003 Tour de France.

8. The main export is oil. The aim is to be in the world's top five exporters.

9. The government discussed whether to legalise polygamy in 2000 but, despite a lot of support, the practice remains common but illegal.

10. Traditional beshbarmak consists of boiled horseflesh on big noodles.

11. The official language is Kazakh, but most people also speak Russian.

12. President Nazarbayev is lining up his daughter, Dariga, to succeed him. She is an opera singer. A mezzo soprano to be precise.

13. Borat's sister is a prostitute - "maybe second or third in whole of Kazakhstan". She is not alone. The country features in an official American report as one of 15 countries that has not done enough to combat people-trafficking.

14. There are 600,000 registered drug addicts in the country.

15. Kazakhstan is the only central Asian country that exports oil to China - and the Chinese have built a 1000km pipeline to ensure this continues.

16. Kazakhs excel at boxing. They won two golds and two silvers in the sport at the 2000 Olympics, while in 2004, Bakhtiyar Artayev won gold and was named best boxer of the Games.

17. Local inns are likely to sell two types of traditional tipple: fermented camel's milk (kumyran), or fermented mare's milk (kumiss).

18. The capital moved from Almaty to the purpose-built city of Astana in 1998. Almaty comes from the old name "Alma-Ata", meaning "Father of Apples", after the wild apples that grow in the area.

19. The largest outdoor ice rink in the world is at Medeo, outside Almaty.

20. There are six Kazakhs for every square kilometre.

21. In the Almaty Zelenniy Bazaar, a kilo of caviar costs around £170, although local mafia interests can secure the luxury for well under this price.

22. Kazakhstan has had a glittering Hollywood career, starring with Harrison Ford in Air Force One, with Pierce Brosnan in The World is not Enough and Jean Reno in Rollerball.

23. The words of the Anthem of the Republic of Kazakhstan are as follows:

"We are a valiant people, sons of honour,

And all we've sacrificed to gain our freedom.

Emerging from malicious grip of fate, from hell of fire,

We scored a victory of glory and success

Soar high up in the sky, oh, eagle of freedom,

Call up to harmony, agreement and accord!

For hero's might and strength is in the nation,

Just as the unity is nation's razing sword.

While honouring our mothers and respecting

The cream of cream of our rising nation

We welcomed all ill-starred and struck by ruin ...

Our homeland, the steppe, a sacred cradle

Of friendship and accord

Gave all a shelter and a hearty refuge

We've overcome the hardships

Let the past serve bitter lesson

But ahead we face a radiant future.

We bequeath our sacred legacy implying our mother tongue

And sovereignty and valour and traditions

So dearly cherished by our forefathers

As true mandate to future generations."

24. The national football team are 140th in the Fifa world rankings, out of 205. Their first World Cup was in 1998, when they were placed in the Asian group. Kazakhstan protested, and were moved to Uefa, the European governing body.

25. Around 1,500 Kazakhs live in Britain.

26. The population of Caspian Sea sturgeon, from whose roe Beluga caviar is made, is plummeting. A quarter of a century ago, around 1,100 tonnes of caviar were harvested each year. In 2003, this was eight tonnes.

27. The semi-arid, thinly populated steppe is used by the Kazakh and Russian governments as a nuclear testing site. Few efforts have been made to stem the resulting pollution. The rates of disease in nearby rural areas have soared.

28. Kazakhstan's currency is the tenge; 1,000 tenge are worth £4.30.

29. During President Nazarbayev's speech at the new capital's opening ceremony, he said there was no problem with the hurricane winds that whip through the city. His hat blew off.

30. Men over the age of 18 must serve two years of military service.

31. Foreign hunters pay for expensive licences to hunt Siberian ibex (large, long-horned goats). Maral (mountain deer) or Asiatic wapiti (elk) with antlers weighing up to 20kg are also a big draw.

32. Borat's wish to "Throw the Jew down the Well" is shared by some Kazakhs. Although President Nazarbayev denies that anti-Semitism exists, inflammatory articles have appeared in the populist Kazakhskaya Pravda newspaper decrying "the Zionists" and "International Jewry".

33. The population is 15,143,704.

34. In the western plains, the Karakurt spider, a relative of the black widow, kills scores of camels every year.

35. Genghis Khan ravaged Kazakhstan in the 13th century, leaving it without settled civilisation for 600 years.

36. Ethnic Kazakhs were, until the middle of the 20th century, pastoral nomads. They lived in yurts - portable, domed tents made of felt - and travelled from summer pastures to warmer winter lands, accompanied by their livestock.

37. Zhambyl Zhabaev, who died in 1945, is Kazakhstan's most famous folk singer and poet. He played the domra, a plucked string instrument.

38. The population is 47 per cent Muslim and 44 per cent Orthodox.

39. Kazakhstan has borders with Russia, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

40. Last month, the national football team finished at the bottom of their seven-team World Cup qualifying group. They had accrued a total of one point, from a goalless draw with Georgia in Tbilisi.

41. Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet republic to repay all of its debt to the IMF in 2000, seven years ahead of schedule.

42. Kazakhstan cuts off Turkmenistan, Kyr-gyzstan and Uzbekistan from Russia, and acts as a power-broker for the region as a whole. It uses this geographical advantage to justify charging exorbitant fees for rail-usage dues across the steppes. There is still no rail service connecting Almaty with Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, for precisely this reason.

43. To celebrate the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test range four years ago, Tugelbek Kasymov, 56, a member of the International Anti-Nuclear Movement, cycled from Moscow to Rome. Calling himself "Kazakhstan's earth cosmonaut", he completed the 5,000km journey in 25 days.

44. Kazakhstan has the 10th highest number of horses in the world.

45. It is the world's largest land-locked country, although it borders the land-locked Caspian Sea.

46. Wife-stealing is a common way of securing marriage. A man kidnaps a woman whom he wants to marry, and her parents are left with no option but to negotiate a reasonable dowry.

47. The international dialling code for Kazakhstan is +7.

48. The national flag, adopted in 1992, comprises a golden sun and bird on a sky blue background. The background represents "the sky", according to the designers, while the golden sun represents Kazakhstan's "golden future".

49. In 2001, archaeologists found a 600-year-old mausoleum on the bed of the Aral Sea, which is rapidly drying out. They believed it to be evidence that the giant lake had dried out at least once before.

50. The age of consent is 18.

Other jibes

WALES

In 2001, The Weakest Link presenter Anne Robinson was attacked by MPs and people living in Wales after saying on the BBC Two programme Room 101 that they were "irritating and annoying". The Welsh Select Committee at the Commons even demanded the presenter come to Westminster to "explain herself". Police in North Wales also investigated the racism complaint. Ms Robinson said at the time that people who were upset by her remarks should "find a sense of humour".

CANADA

Trey Parker and Matt Stone's cartoon creation South Park caused uproar in Canada when it was propelled onto the big screen in 1999. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut made fun of the Canadians and contained a ludicrous song, "Blame Canada" - performed in the movie by US parents and community leaders. The expletive-filled song, which condemned the US's northern neighbour for exporting a corrupting movie for children, managed to cause offence despite being totally fictitious. The song was nominated for an Oscar at the 2000 Academy Awards.

BRITAIN

In July, French President Jacques Chirac reportedly cracked jokes about British food at a meeting with the German and Russian leaders Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin. French newspaper Liberation quoted Mr Chirac as saying: "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad" at the meeting in the run-up to the G8 Summit in Scotland. Mr Chirac also reportedly said Britain had the worst food after Finland. UK food critic Egon Ronay accused the French president of being "ill-informed". "A man full of bile is not fit to pronounce on food," Mr Ronay added.

ZAMBIA

A British writer was threatened with deportation from Zambia in 2004 after allegedly insulting the president. Roy Clarke had compared President Levy Mwanawasa to a "foolish elephant" in a satirical newspaper column. He wasgiven 24 hours to leave the country, but the High Court in Zambia revoked the order.

KUWAIT

Hundreds of protesters of the al-Sliba tribe occupied the offices of a Kuwaiti TV station last month after remarks by a comedian on a popular television show. The protesters scuffled with staff and broke windows at al-Rai's offices in Kuwait City, injuring seven people. On the Gergeaan show, comedian Daoud Hussein described Saddam Hussein as a dog of the al-Sliba tribe. The channel later said the remark was part of a comedy and had not been intended as an insult to anyone.

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