Welcome to Astana, where two climates exist at the same time.
Outside, there is a foot and a half of snow and blinding winds. The city of Astana, Kazakhstan’s purpose-built capital and President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s multibillion-dollar vanity project, rises from the Kazakh steppe like an sub-zero Dubai—shiny, rich, rectangular, lit like a Christmas tree and totally freezing.
It’s only November and already we are dressed in thermals and down coats, shivering in the sun-less air, slipping and crashing into waist-high snowbanks. They tell me it will stay this way until May.
Inside, though, everything is heated to Borg Optimal Temperature—practically 40 degrees Celsius. The glitzy new office buildings, the mega malls, the churches and mosques, the trains, the buses, our hostel—all are sweltering. I have an American friend who believes Californians have a “God-given right to wear shorts in the winter.” Kazakhs have used their vast energy reserves to give themselves that right, no matter what climate God has placed them in. The first thing you do when you enter a Kazakh building is strip.
The Chinese could learn a thing or two from the Kazakhs. When we got back to Urumqi from Kashgar—beautiful, friendly, occupied Urumqi—the hostel had no heat at all, even though it was -2 degrees outside. Promises we could use a space heater were vetoed because they said it would trip the switches and cut the power. Only after a combination of begging and threats were we moved to another room, one that apparently had a stronger electrical supply.
On the train to Kazakhstan, we got our first inkling of the indoor tropical-theme park. It was stifling, but then we had a whole cabin to ourselves, something we’d only had once before in a decade and a half of travel.
We sloughed around in there like hogs, emerging only to fetch hot water for our instant noodles, or to allow the Chinese and Kazakh immigration authorities to question us and practice their English—they seemed bored, out here on a mostly disused stretch of border.
Our first Kazakh stop was Almaty, a stunning city surrounded by mountains that looks a lot like Vancouver, but with a river instead of the ocean on one end. The Kazakhs have only been independent for 25 years, but they’ve done some hella work. Every second building appears to be a university or college, and every second restaurant is a doner shop, which alone makes it one of my favourite places on this planet.
Unfortunately, they have kept some of the Soviet Union’s bureaucratic joys—you must register your address with the Migration Police, a pain in the ass even China doesn’t require. This involves going to a crowded and (of course) overheated Migration Police Station, where literally no one speaks a word of English.
There, after several complicated rounds of charades, you are shunted from Window 1 to Window 6 to Window 8 to Window 2 and back to Window 1, then presented with a registration form only in Kazakh—or maybe Russian.
A kindly Russian lady going through the same nightmare helped us fill it in, using our passports and letters from the hostel. We returned to Window 1 (then 3, then 6, then 2) and were informed we needed to copy it out a second time. We did so and then it was time for the office to close, so we could pick our passports up in the morning.
Next time you see one of those ads on CNN telling you how easy it is to invest in Kazakhstan, ask how onerous the registration will be.
But Migration Police aside, the premiere feature of the Kazakh people is their hospitality. They are hospitable to the point of madness. On the train from Almaty to Astana, depressed about America’s decision to elect Dr. Zaius president, our cabin-mate insisted we come drink beer with him in the bar car.
He was forced to leave he got so drunk, but the rest of the bar car—all dozen or so—insisted we stay, and we didn’t spend more than 15 seconds without a beer or glass of vodka in our hands. It proved nearly impossible to pay. Two young men who spoke excellent English turned out to be professional speed skaters—when I told them I grew up with Kristina Groves in Ottawa, they lost their minds they were so excited, though they were disappointed I didn’t also grow up with the rest of Team Canada’s speed skating team.
In Astana, I arranged to interview a restaurant manager about horsemeat in Kazakhstan for a separate food story. When she said we could sample some free, I thanked her but politely declined. We would pay—conflict of interest and so on. “Absolutely, of course,” she said, and then totally ignored me and ordered four enormous plates of grilled horse, horse sausage, horse kebab and horse steak with vegetables, bread and tea.
“This is the way Kazakh people are,” my translator said. They’re going to be nice to you, whether you want them to or not. At least once you register.