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August 22, 2003 -> Buying Nukes in Kazakhstan

I have never been so relieved to see a machine gun. 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 towns, 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 own everything." And everywhere: watermelons and unfamiliar pumpkin-like melons that tasted of honeydews.

Kazakhstan, the 9th-largest country in the world, is 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 had 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 weapon [in 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 I 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 Intourist hotels 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 informal cafes 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 the Kazakhs.