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Borat: Come and visit us if you think you're hard enough

Sacha Baron Cohen won't take up Kazakhstan's challenge - but Julia Stuart did. And so, oddly enough, did Deep Purple

Sunday 22 October 2006 00:00 BST

They are long, very long, and their tips are grey. A woman with a headscarf wipes them down with a cloth, which suggests that they are still moist. The tongues hang from a metal bar in the bazaar in Almaty, cultural capital of Kazakhstan. Behind the counter another women has her arm inside a slippery intestine, making sausages.

"Horse is a Kazakh delicacy," says my guide Rimma Junussova, 55, proudly. "It's very rich in vitamins. When a guest comes it's a rule that you put out horse sausage."

Nearby, another stallholder is selling bowls of fermented mare's milk. It tastes of rancid stable. "You shouldn't be afraid," counsels my guide. "It is a strength-giving beverage."

Rimma has been charged by the Kazakhstan embassy in London to show me the city. Ask most Britons what if anything they know about the central Asian republic, and their information is likely to have been gleaned from Borat, the fictional Kazakh television presenter played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. If he is to be believed, the locals drink horse urine, wives can be bought from their fathers for 15 gallons of insecticide, and Jews should be thrown down wells.

If the government was upset at Borat's portrayal on Channel 4's Da Ali G Show, as well as on HBO in America, it is nothing compared to its despair that he has now infiltrated Hollywood. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is released on both sides of the Atlantic on 2 November. In the film, Borat is sent by the Ministry of Information to make a documentary about American culture. He travels across the States in search of Pamela Anderson, learning about the country from real members of the public, in order to aid Kazakh citizens who are suffering from "economic, social and Jew" problems.

Kazakhstan's government, whose President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, comes to Britain on an official visit next month, has banned Borat's website - and ads extolling the country's virtues have suddenly appeared in the US media (though it denies they are a response to Borat). The ambassador to the UK, Erlan Idrissov, has denounced him as "a pig of a man", while the deputy foreign minister last week invited the actor to come and see the place for himself.

So it is that I find myself on an Air Astana flight to Almaty. I'm headed for the ninth largest country in the world, south of Russia and north-west of China. Business class is full: Kazakhstan is fast emerging as the economic powerhouse of central Asia and a global player in the oil and gas industry.

Standing in the centre of Almaty, the snow-capped Tian Shan mountains in the distance, Rimma is on message from the off. As we gaze at the tiger on top of a monument marking the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, she states: "Kazakhstan is like a tiger of this region - rapid economic growth, political stability, social progress, ethnic and religious peace, accord and harmony."

As we enter the city's museum filled with splendid tribal costumes - "We are famous for our diversity of nationalities, 130 of them" - Rimma announces: "As soon as we got independence we closed the nuclear testing sites." (Borat claims the ministry supplemented his film's budget by selling uranium to "some brown men".)

After looking at a sheep stomach once used to store fat and butter, she declares: "There are two meat eaters in the world. The first is wolf, the second is Kazakhs."

That evening I take Rimma's recommendation and arrive at the Promised Land for dinner. I opt for a selection of horse meat as a starter. The sausage is bearable, but the rest reminds me of the smell of my sister's pets. It is not until I've tried them that a fellow customer points to various parts of his body to indicate their provenance, including his thigh, neck and, worryingly, his armpit.

It's time to brave the national dish, beshbarmak, a selection of horse meat and mutton on a bed of pasta. Its aroma rises from the dish like equine halitosis.

The following day, I am furnished with another guide, Gaini Amanzholova, 21, a law student, who unlike Rimma, has heard of Borat. "I heard that opposition leaders gave him money to start this show. My friends hate him." Yeshaya Cohen, the country's Chief Rabbi, is also upset with Baron Cohen, who, it must be said, is Jewish. "For us Jews it hurts twice because Kazakhstan people saved hundreds of thousands of Jews from Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Europe during the Second World War. Stalin sent the Jews here when he exiled them from Georgia in cattle trucks. When they arrived they said they were lucky. There is an expression in Russia: 'Beat a Jew and you will save Russia'. You don't hear that here."

Israel's ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ran Ichay, suddenly calls the rabbi on his mobile and says he wants to give me his opinion too: "If you want to look for anti-Semitism in the world it's not hard to find. But this is one of the only places on earth where it doesn't exist."

While Andrew Newman, head of entertainment at Channel 4, said they chose Kazakhstan at random, conspiracy theories are rife. Camilla Maxatova, 19, a marketing student sporting thigh-high leather boots, has one suggestion: "Our instructor said she thinks it's some kind of PR campaign and our government paid him to choose our country to advertise it. Saying good things would have been boring, and wouldn't have got any attention."

Others fail to see anything positive. Gaukhar Dikhanbayeva, director of marketing at the decidedly plush InterContinental Hotel, says: "What he is doing is unacceptable. It ruins the image of the country."

That evening, we head for the Soho Almaty Club. I plump for a shot of "Rzhanaya (Glavspirttrest)" from the vodka menu. Our fellow diners promptly refill our glasses as they are drinking by the bottle. A series of impressive cover bands start up, and on the dance floor I happen across Kazakhstan's curling champion. Just when I think it can't get any better, Deep Purple's Roger Glover and Don Airey appear on stage and bash out "Black Night", having just played to 6,000 in the city. The audience, particularly the national curling champion, goes wild.

"Kazakhstan is wonderful," says Airey afterwards. "The welcome we have had has been beyond belief. Borat makes me laugh, but he couldn't be more wrong."

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