For those who like their solitude, there are few places quite as expansive and lonesome as the steppes of Kazakhstan. Like the great plains of east Africa or the vast North American prairie, a seemingly endless carpet of wild grass stretches and sways long into the distance. The smallest hills, where they exist, offer a panoramic view of the horizon.
Look towards the heavens, and the sky above appears simply enormous. So extensive is the view that you can often see separate weatherfronts tumble across the steppe. On one side, shafts of golden sunlight shoot through gaps in the clouds like enormous earthbound searchlights. In the opposite direction, bruised and angry storm clouds unleash a similarly spectacular symphony of lightning and rain to drench what seems like the equivalent of a small country in seconds.
After the long, continental summer, winter temperatures often drop to minus 20C, blanketing the ground in a thick layer of ice and snow for months on end. Then, for just the briefest of spring moments, the land erupts in a riot of colourful tulips before the hot winds arrive once more.
It was on these steppes that some of the world's greatest nomadic empires flourished. As their armies galloped towards Europe, Attila's Huns and Genghis Khan's Mongols cemented in the Western world's popular imagination the idea of the dreaded eastern horde, a virtually unconquerable land of warring tribes that supposedly threatened to overrun Christendom at any moment.
Of course, nowadays, most Westerners who find themselves in Kazakhstan are there for the vast lakes of oil and gas that lie below ground. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhs finally gained their freedom after 200 years of Russian domination, and opened up their borders and oil wells to the outside world. International oilmen have flocked like moths to a flame ever since. Tourists, however, are still few and far between. But those who do choose to holiday in central Asia's largest and most prosperous nation discover an enormous land mass featuring plains, mountains, lakes and shining modern cities, that for once truly deserves to be described as out of the ordinary.
The oddities of Kazakhstan come thick and fast, not least when you're sitting down to a traditional meal. My guide, Dorjem, winked at me as he prepared to order from the Cyrillic menu before us. "There's an old Kazakh proverb," he said. "Only wolves eat more meat than Kazakhs." Vegetarians beware – he wasn't wrong. The first dish was besparmak – literally, "five fingers" – a traditional nomadic dish of horse meat and flat noodles, which, as the name suggests, is eaten with the hands. We forwent the equally traditional sheep's head (reserved for truly honoured guests, not scruffy backpacking writers) and opted instead for kaza, a plate of hot and cold horse-meat sausages, followed by an enormous horse shashlik, or kebab. When I asked Dorjem whether there was any bit of the horse Kazakhs don't eat, the wink was replaced by a grin. "Ah," he said, "you need to try kumis."
Kumis, a pungent and salty drink of fermented mare's milk, is possibly the ultimate acquired taste. But to Kazakhs, who prize their horses above all animals, it is their most cherished delicacy. In the desert regions of the south-west, towards neighbouring Uzbekistan, shubat, a slightly less acrid version made from camel's milk, is the preferred tipple. Either way, few and far between are the foreigners who manage to avoid a grimace on their first sip of either drink.
But for those who think Kazakhstan is simply a land of rural isolation, think again. Soviet industrialisation, in particular Khrushchev's "Virgin Lands" programme of the 1950s, not only turned vast swathes of the Kazakh steppe into ultimately disastrous farmland, it also herded huge numbers of Kazakhs into the belching machinery of the modern industrialised city. A land that 300 years ago barely contained a sizeable settlement now houses three out of five of its people in towns and cities.
Yet Kazakhstan's cities are as much a part of the country's historical soul as its steppes and mountains – and travellers would do well to visit them. The north-eastern town of Semey, where Dostoyevsky spent some years in exile, looks like just another middle-of-the-road Soviet hub. That is, until you discover that it was just outside the city that the USSR tested all its nuclear weapons (Kazakhstan has since become the only country in the world to voluntarily give up its nuclear arsenal).
A former living nuclear test-chamber might not sound like much of a draw, but touring Semey and its series of poignant museums, is to take a journey into a forgotten corner of the Cold War's deadly legacy. When asked sensitively, older locals will happily regale an inquisitive traveller with tales of how mysterious columns of soldiers and scientists arriving in the town would often foreshadow the even more mysterious flashes of bright white light that could make day out of night. Semey, like Auschwitz or the killing fields, books simply cannot illustrate.
Despite the often deadly legacy of Soviet rule – the environmental catastrophe that is the Aral Sea, drained of life, is just another of many lethal bequests that spring to mind – Kazakhs themselves are infectiously optimistic about the future. Unlike the neighbouring "Stans", theirs escaped the type of civil strife that once threatened to tear Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan apart, while the country's popular, strong-arm leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, looks positively puppy-like compared with his more viciously autocratic neighbours in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan is also a world away from another former Soviet Republic, Georgia, and unlikely to be in the sights of the Kremlin in Moscow.
Kazakhstan's comparatively relaxed bureaucracy makes it by far the easiest country in the region for which to get a visa. It also makes the nation the most traveller-friendly, with five-star hotels and experienced tour operators for those looking for luxury, and an equally good network of backpacking hostels for those on tighter budgets.
Nowhere is the future Kazakhstan more apparent than in the shiny new capital Astana, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Once a dusty town with a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants and a bankrupted industrial quarter, Astana has been transformed into a city of skyscrapers and outlandish architectural projects. This is thanks to President Nazarbayev's pharaonic building complex, and an estimated £7bn of investment. Some 1,700 cranes are currently working on 650 sites in a city that's expected to have 1.5 million inhabitants by 2030.
Walking through Astana's streets is a surreal experience. The inhabitants of Paris must have felt something similar in the mid-19th century as Baron Haussmann, under the orders of Napoleon III, tore down vast tracts of the city to fashion a brand new capital fit for an empire. Astana's Haussmann is none other than British architect Sir Norman Foster, who has been instrumental in some of Nazarbayev's wackier projects. One such is the so-called Palace of Peace and Accord, a 62m-high glass-and-steel pyramid built opposite the sprawling Presidential Palace. Conceived with the typical aplomb of any Central Asian leader as a place where the world's religions could meet under one roof to discuss their differences, the pyramid was constructed in less than a year thanks to the Kazakh army being drafted in to help. Inside is a 1,500-seat opera theatre, rooms to cater for every one of the world's religions, and a glass atrium painted with giant white doves by the British artist Brian Clarke.
Across the Ishim river, giant blinging skyscrapers made entirely out of golden glass hold the vast bureaucracies and ministries that appear to be a staple ingredient of any former Soviet bloc country. (Incidentally, my favourite bureaucratic adventure in Kazakhstan involved having to provide the serial numbers of all my cameras, lenses and flash units before being allowed to interview the Prime Minister near one of these buildings.)
A couple of kilometres further down the city's central boulevard – itself a pantheon of peculiar buildings – are the beginnings of Norman Foster's next Astana creation, an indoor city for 10,000 people made of glass in the shape of a yurt. Nervous guards let me take a picture of the concrete foundations of the Khan Shatyry (Royal Tent), which currently looks like something out of Area 51. However gaudy an idea, it will undoubtedly be breathtaking when finished next year.
What Astana lacks is the feeling of a living, breathing city – which is why many travellers head to the old capital Almaty. Located at the foot of the Tian Shan, a majestic black mountain range that rises out of the steppe and climbs its way towards the Tibetan plateau, Almaty is Kazakhstan's cultural and financial capital, and a great place to kick back and enjoy the usual distractions of a thoroughly modern, multicultural city.
My guide, Kwanysh Abzhanov, was a 25-year-old London-educated banker, and typical of the infectiously optimistic international youngsters that fill Almaty's modern bars and cafés. Driving around in his gleaming 4x4, he refused to let me pay for anything, explaining, despite my protestations, that Kazakhs always look after their guests. When I asked whether he resented what the Soviet Union did to his country, he laughed. "You have to understand that it's not in the Kazakh nature to get angry or want revenge," he says. "Kazakhs welcome everybody into their tent, that's what we've always done."
Later, as Kwanysh waved me off at the airport and promised to meet up with me at his favourite Kazakh restaurant when he was next in London, I found myself suddenly and inexplicably looking forward to my next glass of fermented mare's milk.
Air Astana (01293 596 622; www.airastana. com) flies direct from Heathrow to Almaty; and KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com) flies from a range of airports via Amsterdam. Astana is served by Lufthansa (0870 837 7747; www.lufthansa. co.uk) via Frankfurt.
Trips can be organised with tour operators such as Steppes Travel (01285 651 010; www.steppestravel.co.uk) and Regent Holidays (0870 499 0911; www.regent-holidays.co.uk).
Red tape & more details
British passport-holders require a visa to visit Kazakhstan. These can be obtained from the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 33 Thurloe Square, London SW7 2SD (020-7590 3485; www.kazakhstan embassy.org.uk); or the Consulate of Kazakhstan, 10 North Silver Street, Aberdeen AB10 1RL (01224 622 465). Single-entry visas cost £20 for stays of up to three months.
10 facts about Kazakhstan
* Nikolai Vavilov, the Soviet geneticist, discovered that apples originated in Kazakhstan. The Russian name for Almaty, Alma-Ata, means Father of Apples.
* Due to the USSR's mass exiling of dissidents to gulags in Kazakhstan, it's now one of the most racially varied countries in the region, containing some 100 different ethnicities.
* In Kazakhstan, a berkutchy or "eagle ruler" (pictured) traditionally hunts from horseback using golden eagles.
* Between 1949 and 1989, the USSR tested more than 500 nuclear devices at the Semipalatinsk Polygon in north-eastern Kazakhstan – the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs.
* Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world but has one of the lowest population densities: 14 people for every square kilometre (Britain has 246 per square kilometre).
* Kazakh oil reserves are approximately 35 billion barrels, enough to satisfy the world's energy needs for a year. The government estimates that this will rise to 100 billion barrels by 2015.
* Kazakhstan's most famous archaeological find, a Scythian warrior clad in gold armour and known as the Golden Man, may well have been a woman.
* Lake Balkhash, Central Asia's second-biggest, is half-saltwater, half-freshwater.
* In 2000, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet republic to repay all of its debt to the International Monetary Fund, seven years ahead of schedule.
* Kazakhstan has some of the largest metal deposits in the world, and was one of the USSR's major sources of metals.
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