Kazakhstan: The jewel of Central Asia

| September 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

 

Baiterek Tower in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

Baiterek Tower in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world — larger than Western Europe, but located in Central Asia, deep in the Eurasian continent. It shares borders with Russia (the longest continental border in the world at 6,846 kilometres), China (1,533 kilometres), Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
As a result of its geographic location and size (2.7 million square kilometres), Kazakhstan has a natural beauty that features the most striking examples of European and Asian landscapes: steppes, mountains, lakes and the Caspian Sea in the west, which is famous for its oil and gas deposits, to say nothing of its caviar.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, built in the 14th Century.

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, built in the 14th Century.

Kazakhstan’s land is rich with history. It remembers Genghis Khan’s hordes and the journeys of tradesmen and travellers along the northern route of the Great Silk Road. Today, there are unique national parks and reserves and more than 9,000 archeological and historic sites. At one such site, a famous “Golden Man” was discovered dating from the 4th Century BC, his armour clad with almost 3,000 golden plates. Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is an important Islamic pilgrimage site constructed from 1389 to 1405, which has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. More than 6,000 species of plants grow in Kazakhstan, 500 species of birds nest here and 107 species of fish inhabit local rivers and lakes.
These factors promote a diverse tourism industry in Kazakhstan. According to Kazakhstan Tourism Industry Development, the industry’s contribution to the country’s GDP will grow from $2.4 billion to $7 billion by 2020.

Women in traditional Kazakh dress.

Women in traditional Kazakh dress.

The country itself saw impressive economic growth after it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and extraction of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium and other minerals and metals was intensified through foreign investment. Today, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest uranium producer. Within the next decade, the country is expected to become one of the world’s largest oil producers and exporters.
Since independence, Kazakhstan’s per-capita GDP grown from $700 to $12,500 and it had attracted more than $170 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) during this period. As a result, Kazakhstan has become one of the five fastest growing economies in the world.

Walking through the Sharyn Canyon.

Walking through the Sharyn Canyon.

The government recognizes that diversification, modernization and investment in people’s well-being, health care, education, sports and other areas are vital to creating sustainable development. To that end, our athletes showed impressive results at the recent Summer Olympic Games in London, finishing 12th in the overall medal standings with a total of 13 medals (seven gold, one silver and five bronze).
For most tourists, a visit to Kazakhstan starts with Almaty. It is the biggest city in Kazakhstan, with a population of almost 1.5 million and is a major connecting hub for international flights arriving from Europe or departing to Asia.
But it’s more than that. Despite of losing its status as Kazakhstan’s capital in 1997, Almaty is still considered the financial and cultural centre of the country and is often referred to as the “southern capital.” It is located at the foot of the  Zaili Alatau Mountains and has a mild climate, which makes it inviting for guests to spend time in its parks, gardens and squares. This climate is also good for the  variety of flowers, vegetables and fruits that grow in the area.
Apples have a long history in this city. The legendary Aport apple, which made the city famous long before the Soviet period, is grown in Almaty. In fact, Alma-Ata, the former name of the city, translates as the “Father of Apples.” In addition, the Tien Shan Mountains are some of the most impressive attractions surrounding Almaty, with Khan Tengri being Kazakhstan’s highest summit at more than 7,000 metres.

Mountain climbing in the Sayram-Ugam National Park.

Mountain climbing in the Sayram-Ugam National Park.

The city’s most popular recreation site is Kok Tobe, which means “Green Hill,” which can be reached by an aerial tramway line from downtown Almaty. The 350-metre-high city television tower, Alma-Ata Tower, is located on the hill, where visitors can enjoy a magnificent panorama of the city and breathtaking sunsets. Within a half-hour drive from Almaty, you can reach Medeu and its legendary ice stadium, built in the 1970s, where more than 120 world skating records have been set.
From there, you can visit Shymbulak, a popular ski resort. Both Shymbulak and Medeu provided venues for the 2011 Asian Winter Games hosted by Kazakhstan. Almaty is unique, because it offers its guests an opportunity to ski in its mountains and play golf on its fields on the same day. Since 2005, Almaty has been hosting the Kazakhstan Open, a men’s professional golf tournament on the European Challenge Tour.

Akorda Presidential Palace in Astana.

Akorda Presidential Palace in Astana.

Travelling to the east of Almaty, closer to the border with China, you will discover the 154-kilometre-long and 350-metre-deep Sharyn Canyon. Its formation began around 12 million years ago. Many rare plants and trees grow in the canyon area, some of which are found in only one other canyon — the famous Grand Canyon of Arizona.
The prevalent image of Kazakhstan is that of endless steppe. This is especially true for Sary Arka (which means “yellow back”). This area is considered the heartland of the people of Kazakhstan, home to the legendary Kypchak nation, a tribe of master horse-riders. Famous 19th-Century Kazakh poet, reformer and philosopher Abai Kunanbayev wrote about the great steppe of Sary Arka: “It is summer. The trees cast their shadows, and in the meadows the flowers bloom impetuously. Busily, the summer camps are being put up and the grass is so high in the steppe that the backs of the horses are hardly visible.”

Falconry hunting during winter.

Falconry hunting during winter.

Kazakhstan’s new capital, Astana, was established in the heart of the Sary Arka in 1997. Within a short period, the left bank of the Ishim River in Astana saw the creation of a brand new city. The decision of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to move the capital from Almaty to Astana was not an easy one, as it led to heated debates and many people had to be convinced of the need to make Astana the new capital of Kazakhstan.
Today, Astana is rightfully recognized as the brainchild of President Nazarbayev. It has become one of the biggest cities in Kazakhstan and, in fewer than 15 years, its population has tripled to more than 700,000 people. Its impressive growth reflects the dynamic development of our modern country.

Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve in Southern Kazakhstan.

Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve in Southern Kazakhstan.

Astana is also the political centre of Kazakhstan. In 2010, the city hosted the first Summit of the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe held since 1999. The Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation was organized in Astana the following year, thus placing Kazakhstan in a unique position: The country had successfully chaired the largest Euro-Atlantic Summit, and then hosted the largest Muslim international organization. Another historic event awaits Astana in 2017: hosting  the international EXPO-2017, which coincides with the capital’s 20th anniversary.

Herds of horses in the steppe.

Herds of horses in the steppe.

Because of its capital status, Astana attracts plenty of tourists, especially with its fascinating and grandiose architecture. The city’s official plan was drafted by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Various building styles give an impression of a harmonious meeting of Western and Eastern cultures. The new Presidential Palace, Baiterek Tower and Astana Opera House are just a few of the must-see sites in Astana. Another popular tourist site is the Palace of Peace and Accord, designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster in the form of a glass pyramid, and serving primarily as a venue for events held by the Congress of World and Traditional Religions. Kazakhstan’s, like Canada, is a multi-ethnic country with representatives from more than 130 ethnic groups of various religious beliefs. Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic and inter-religious unity, a driving force behind much of its political and economic progress, is often reflected in the architecture of its capital city.
Many hotels have been recently constructed in Astana to accommodate its guests, who may be pleasantly surprised by the quality and service they experience in its five-star hotels. However, one should keep in mind that Astana is the second-coldest capital in the world (by some rankings, Ottawa takes the third place and Ulan Bator, Mongolia, takes first). Thus, the best time for a visit may be during spring, summer and fall.
Burabay National Nature Park is located about 200 kilometres northeast of Astana. Because of its beautiful spring-fed lakes, mountains and forests, it is known as the “Kazakh Switzerland.” Clean air and relaxing scenery also make Burabay a great health resort that can provide its guests with sanatoriums and spas. Fishermen and hunters will also find many attractive activities in Kazakhstan, especially with the revival of falconry, which was a traditional, ancient way of hunting for the nomads in Central Asia.
Located in a very remote area of Kazakhstan, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is the world’s first and largest operational space-launch facility. It is known for launching the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space and also Kazakhstan’s cosmonaut, Talgat Musabayev, who was listed in Guinness Book of World Records after spending more than 30 hours in one month working outside the space station. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was also launched to space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Even though Baikonur is located in a very remote area of Kazakhstan, it has been attracting more and more tourists who are interested in seeing its launches. The tourism industry around the Baikonur area is expected to intensify in the future with development of additional infrastructure and new investment.
Finally, a trip to Kazakhstan would not be complete without tasting the country’s national cuisine. Traditional Kazakh dishes are mainly prepared with cooked horsemeat and mutton served with baursaki (fried dough), shorpa (meat broth), kumis (fermented horse milk drink), irimshik (sour cow’s cheese) or kurt (salted cheese balls). Hospitality is second-nature for Kazakhstan’s people, so every traveller and guest can expect to be heartily welcomed.
Given the size and diversity of my country, it is practically impossible in a brief article to share all the exciting adventures and discoveries that await in Kazakhstan. I encourage readers to contact our embassy for more information and travel options in Kazakhstan.

Reach Mr. Zhigalov at kazakhembassy@gmail.com or 613-695-8055.

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Reach Mr. Zhigalov at kazakhembassy@ gmail.com or 613-695-8055.

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