Kazakhstan beyond Borat
A British journalist offers a colorful look at an ancient land and its people.
Ask any Western family heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a child: It’s hard to scare up readable English books on the Central Asian nation, and even harder to find an upbeat one. Like the rolling Kazakh steppe, the few existing volumes tend to be dry and bleak.
Into this landscape comes Christopher Robbins’s Apples Are From Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, a colorful, whimsically illustrated travelogue about the past and present of an ancient land and its people.
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Many foreigners couldn’t find Kazakhstan, a nation the size of Western Europe, on a map – and the country’s history is just as mysterious.
"Modern Kazakhstan occupies a region of Central Asia that is not only a lacuna in the knowledge of most of the West, but has also been shrouded in mystery from the beginning of time,” Robbins writes. “To the ancients it was an unexplored and inaccessible world more myth than reality.” For today’s average Westerner, little has changed, but Robbins aims to alter that.
As his title suggests, along with the rich artistic and social legacies of its once nomadic inhabitants, and the vital role it played as a Silk Road caravan route, the land is thought to have given the world apples, tulips, and possibly even King Arthur.
From the hat-shaped airport in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, to the spiky, oil-funded grandeur of its present one, Astana, the book shatters the pervasive image of today’s Kazakhstan as a backward land of bigotry and Borat.
“I took to Almaty, the apple city, from the beginning,” Robbins writes – despite the pounding of an all-night disco under his hotel room and some evocatively Soviet encounters with the hotel staff. Once installed in a cozy apartment near Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s former exile digs, Robbins spends his days visiting golden eagle hunters, Kazakh antiquities experts, and of course the famous apple orchards.
When he leaves Almaty to travel to Astana, he seems to share the regrets of legions of bureaucrats who’ve been ordered to relocate to the odd new capital. This shiny $10-billion metropolis “bang in the middle of nowhere” is so thick with construction cranes, “so spanking new, so lacking in a settled identity, it seems unreal.”