22, 2003 -> Buying Nukes in Kazakhstan
I have never been so relieved to see a machine
On the Chinese side of the Kazakhstan-China border had
been the usual difficulties: 1) a mob of confused,
frantic people trying to squeeze through one
turnstile, 2) incredulous border guards questioning
Nori's nationality ('but you look Chinese?!'), and 3)
forms only in Chinese and Russian. But on the
Kazakhstan side, the stern guard toting the
Kalashnikov demanded, and got, respect. An Asian
approximation of a queue formed, and a friendly
Russian-Kazakh spent ten minutes helping us with the
forms. When we were finished, he said warmly,
"Welcome to my beautiful country!" Looking out across
the blissfully unpopulated landscape I said, "Yes.
This is beautiful."
After thousands of kilometers of packed Chinese
Chinese, and Chinese characters, the border crossing
into Kazakhstan was dramatic. Our bus now passed
villages of white plastered cottages - trimmed with
the sky blue of the Kazakhstan flag - and endless
fields of corn. Though Cyrillic, the alphabetic
language on shopfronts was a comfort after days of
indecipherable Chinese ideograms. Tobacco leaves
dried on makeshift racks by the roadside - "Phillip
Morris," a taxi driver later informed me, "They
everything." And everywhere: watermelons and
unfamiliar pumpkin-like melons that tasted of
Kazakhstan, the 9th-largest country in the world,
the most Russian of the former Central Asian Soviet
republics, and Almaty (its commercial capital) remains
a largely Russian city. Because of close economic and
cultural ties (a large percentage of Kazakhstan's
population is Russian), Kazakhstan was the last Soviet
Republic to begrudgingly declare independence, in
1991. Two thousand kilometers to the west of Almaty
was the Caspian Sea, where large oil companies vied
for the precious reserves that had enriched the
Kazakhstan government's coffers and made it the
wealthiest country in Central Asia. In the middle of
the country was the Baykonur Cosmodrome, where Russian
astronauts still trained for flights into space.
You had to feel sorry for Kazakhstan. The Soviets
treated the republic as if it was uninhabited. Water
(and Russians) were piped into Kazakhstan in the
1950's under a scheme known as 'The Virgin Lands,'
which was designed to massively increase Soviet
agricultural output, but ended up leading to the
disastrous shrinkage of the Aral Sea. Almost 500
nuclear bombs were detonated in north-east Kazakhstan
- in an area known as the Polygon - and
radiation-related illnesses now blight the population
that live near the area. Today, Kazakhstan's
emptiness and its Soviet pedigree, combined with
general ignorance of the country outside Central Asia,
had led to a PR nightmare.
"Whenever the terrorists get a nuclear
Hollywood movies], they buy it from Kazakhstan!"
complained Dauren Valiyev, the suave brother of Kazbek
Valiyev (an accomplished mountaineer and something of
a national hero.) He hated the image that these films
were giving his country. But the Russians did test
hundreds of nukes in Kazakhstan - so the country had
not been chosen randomly by scriptwriters. And since
it could be safely assumed that no one in the USA or
Europe knew anything about Kazakhstan, why not portray
it as a rogue state?
The more I thought about this, the more examples
came up with of bad press for Kazakhstan. I
remembered that the horrible movie "Rollerball"
starring rapper L.L. Cool J - is set in "Central
Asia," where a Russian and Mongoloid audience screams
for blood in a vicious (but ultimately comic) version
of 1970's roller derby. One evening in Almaty, we
went to the Alatau Cinema and watched "Lara Croft:
Tomb Raider 2" dubbed into Russian. Early in the
movie, the scene shifts to a grim prison, where
menacing guards stare out from behind heavy gates.
Snow is falling, and the subtitle "Kazakhstan -
Zobilev (or something like that) Prison Complex"
appears. The audience roared with laughter.
One of the British comedian Ali G's best-loved
characters is Borat, a Kazakh television interviewer.
He wears a mustache (which Kazakhs never do) and looks
more Turkish than anything else. But because Borat
looks different, and has a funny accent, no one
guesses that they are being duped. Why couldn't he be
from Kazakhstan? Borat attends an animal rights march
and informs a female protester that "in Kazakhstan we
shoot bears." He interviews minor league baseball
players in the locker room and asks if he can touch
their 'hrams.' Regarding male-female relationships in
the States, Borat complains that "in US and A if you
want marry a girl, you cannot just go to her father's
house and swap her for 15 gallons of insecticide.
Before this you must do something called 'dating'"
The USSR lives on in Kazakhstan's handling of
tourists. Obtaining a visa is difficult and
expensive. Once inside the country, tourists are
required to register with authorities within 48 hours,
and must re-register in every city where they will
spend more than three days. There are frequent
passport checks along the major roads, and anyone
caught without proper registration faces a
bureaucratic nightmare or at least a hefty bribe.
Many of the "best" hotels are old
from the Soviet period. They are predictably ugly
concrete towers, with moody 'provodnitsas' - or floor
clerks, who are occasionally friendly but usually
indifferent - and extra charges for everything. We
made the mistake of spending our first night in the
country at the Hotel Kazakhstan, notable only for
being the tallest building in Almaty. Nori called
down to the front desk to ask for a blow-dryer and was
told that she had to pay an hourly rate to use it -
with a minimum charge of 1 hour. "Who uses a
blow-dryer for an hour?" she complained. As in
Russia, the restaurant menus are as thick as
encyclopedias, though two-thirds of the pages list
beers, whiskeys, vodkas and cognacs. And of the
remaining one-third devoted to actual food, most items
were not actually available.
Almaty itself was quite striking; built on the
foothills of the Zhailasky Alatau mountain range, it
sloped downward to the north. This gradient, plus the
grid of streets, made orientation easy. Wide streets,
lined with trees, ran past imposing squares and
triumphalist Soviet sculptures. But even the grim
faces of the bronze soldiers seemed softened by the
abundant greenery. In Panfilov Park, a dozen wedding
parties (in Western tuxedos and bridal gowns) waited
for their moment to take photos in front of the
eternal flame, or below the gilded onion domes of the
Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral.
We spent more than a week in Almaty: a few days
planning our trip to Kan Tengri, and a few days after
while waiting for our Uzbekistan visa to be processed.
We had expected a city more like Ulaan Baatar:
run-down, polluted; a Russian frame with Asian blood.
But Almaty was Western, and we indulged shamelessly in
familiar pleasures. Open-air cafes - serving Western
dishes (pizza, pasta, cafe lattes etc.) as well as
Central Asian standbys (shashlyk, laghman) - beckoned
along pedestrian shopping malls. Battered old trams
trundled down the streets, screeching and groaning,
but giving the place a European feel. The best
Internet cafe we have ever seen (sponsored by Samsung)
is in Almaty.
On the street, there is a peaceful, almost easy
integration between the Kazakhs and the Russians,
though I am certain that in many homes, biases and
resentment run deep. Women of all ages dressed in
tight crop-tops and hot pants; even the stunning
Kazakh girls, who seemed to me the original Eurasians,
dressed in the prevailing fashion - a sort of
J.Lo-meets-Daisy-Duke look. We saw many Russian boys
walking hand in hand with their Kazakh girlfriends,
and the Russian girls dressed even racier than the
Kazakhs - I presumed to make up for their perceived
lack of exoticism.
But all this was Russian, Western. To see Kazakh
culture in Almaty, one must visit museums. In the
State Museum, between exhibits of traditional
clothing, was a controversial (I thought) series of
diagrams that appeared to posit a Kazakh origin for
all the peoples of Central Asian (Mongol, Tajik etc.)
In the Musical Instrument museum, we listened as a
master musician played at least a dozen different
traditional instruments, accompanied by his
prodigiously talented son.
From Koktyube, a hilltop crowded with
and bars, we looked over a city that appeared to be
disappearing into the trees. Beyond the city limits,
the urban grey and green rapidly dissolved into a
uniform brown that raced to the horizon. We were in a
tiny, fertile corner of a massive, largely empty
country. Out there, I sensed, was the Kazakhstan of
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