Category Archives: Kazakhstan

From Central Asia with love

My grandfather was trailblazing trade representative for the New Zealand Dairy Board. He came home with many stories and one of them was this: he remembers crossing the border from China to Russia and it feeling like home. This was remarkable to him because it emphasised how strange China was and, because in the 1960s and 1970s, with the iron curtain still firmly drawn, Russia wasn’t supposed to feel like home. It was supposed to feel like a whole other world.

Fast-forward fifty years. When we left China for Russian-speaking Kazakhstan it also felt like a homecoming. There are few places that feel less like home than rural China. But whereas my grandfather had a clear idea of the Soviet states, as being distinct and being different, we just didn’t know what to think. Our stereotypes had probably still been packaged up by Bond and Borat movies, but really, we had no idea.

It’s still hard to generalise. Almaty was a cosmopolitan city with skyscrapers and ski resorts. Bishkek, Krygyzstan’s capital, felt like a medium sized New Zealand provincial city – Gisborne maybe. The best thing it had to put on postcards was a slightly quirky clock tower surrounded by manicured gardens. Everything in between the cities has been barren country and the occasional yurt.

The native people here look a little Mongolian. Its like their genes are saying “Chinghis Khan was here”. They live in yurts and are highly dependent on horses. Many are still nomadic. In the cities there is also a large Russian population. But our kind of European features still stand out enough for little kids to stare.

Russian language, and a shared modern history, binds the states of Central Asia together (some nasty border disputes notwithstanding). There is a Russian-speaking world with a population analogous to the US. It’s relatively easy for its citizens to travel between and work within neighbouring countries.

We’ve said some places (Colombia and China) are under traveled. We can’t say the same of Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan. Not because it isn’t fascinating, but because the travel infrastructure isn’t up to much. We would have really struggled to get to grips to Almaty without a host. Krygyzstan is the only country we’ve ever been to where there really aren’t buses, not even between big cities. Its restaurants all sell the same things – noodles, plov and shashlick – but only display them on Cyrillic menus. It’s tough going. Coming here was a bit unintended on our part. We had friends to visit in Kazakhstan and Krygyzstan then made geographic sense.

What we can say of Central Asia is that it is under understood. We’d like to come back to improve our own understanding one day. Although I will always be sad that we can no longer visit Turkmentistan in the month its dictator renamed for his mother. They’ve gone back to calling it April instead.

Fast food development: Kazakhstan and its lack of McDonalds

Our quest to chart the fast food development of all the countries we develop continue. Kazakhstan is up.

We’re getting good at this now and easily able to offer a categorisation. Western fast food is reasonably available in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, and it’s priced in such a way that it’s neither exorbitantly expensive, nor the cheapest thing on offer. So Kazakhstan is a category three: Western fast food is available in most towns or cities and is an aspirational brand for the middle classes (with a price tag to match).

But Ronald’s not about

What is more noteworthy about Kazakhstan is that it has no McDonald’s. In fact it is the largest country in the world with this honour. KFC is the most prevalent, Burger King is popular, but there are no golden arches in sight (though there is talk of McDonalds on the horizon).

The best discussion of why there’s no McDees comes from an wonderfully titled blog: One Steppe at a Time. Apparently there is a popular claim that McDonald’s can’t source local beef that meets its quality standards. One Steppe doesn’t buy that, and neither do I. I’ve been to plenty of countries with poorer meat that still produce Big Macs.

A more plausible explanation is that the fragility of Kazakhstan’s logistics network doesn’t support the regular delivery of goods that McDonald’s franchises require. It’s tough to keep the country connected because its main population centres at its borders and there is a vast impassable desert in the middle where a highway should go. Plus, the main transport infrastructure is north-south, the historic route of Russian invasion, whereas the main need to move goods is east-west.

I buy the logistics argument but it better explains why McDonald’s isn’t everywhere, not why they haven’t started up in Almaty, a reasonably large and very cosmopolitan city. For now I will credit Kazakh’s superior taste in mass produced burgers. Give me a whopper over a big mac any day.

Kazakh language is making a comeback

Look at a street sign, or a menu in Kazakhstan and you’ll see a jumble of mildly dyslexic looking letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. What you probably won’t notice is that they’re spelling everything out in two separate languages: Kazakh and Russian.

When Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 less than half its population were ethnic Kazakhs. That was as a result of more than 150 years of russification – the moving in of slavs and other ethnic groups under Russian control. These groups spoke Russian with each other, and Russian became the language of commerce and government. Generations of Kazakhs let their own language tack a back seat. They spoke Russian to their children who grew up with it as their first and/or only language.

The return of Kazakh language

In the years that followed independence Russians left and Kazakhs regained the majority. In 1997 the government made Kazakh the official state language. That was partly about asserting an independent identity for Kazakhstan, and partly about redressing economic imbalance. Russians had gotten most of the best jobs. Switching the language of government – including its powerful state owned enterprises – gave Kazakhs a much better shot.

The problem was that many Kazakhs didn’t speak their ‘native’ language anymore, and no one else did. In 1997 only about 60% of the Kazakh population (meaning about 40% of the whole population) were fluent. Less than 1% of other ethnic groups were. This compared to Russian which was spoken by more than 95% of the whole population.

To its credit, the Kazakhstan government had a reasonably pragmatic response. They required all school students to learn Kazakh, but also promoted a wide range of dual language schools. They gradually phased in targets for what percentage of government documents would be in Kazakh. Many targets have been missed, but progress is being made.

Getting by with Russian, but not getting ahead

We spoke to young successful ethnic Kazakhs who speak Russian with their families and learned it in school. For the most part, lack of Kazakh is no barrier to everyday living. Most media is still in Russian (except for English pop music, at least). Government officials will default to Kazakh  but all can switch to Russian (though they may look scornful when they do).

There is a question as to whether they should be investing time learning Kazakh to provide them with greater job opportunities. Most seem to favour learning foreign languages – English, French, Spanish, Korean – as they see bigger opportunities abroad. But they tend to accept that if they’re going to stay in Kazakhstan, learning the state language is a good idea. The question might be more pressing when they have kids. At the moment, the predominantly Russian language schools are better, but their graduates don’t end up fluent in the language of their government.

Almaty bazaar

Almaty has a nice bazaar. It’s like what a farmer’s market would be like in New Zealand if it wasn’t a new and slightly pretentious invention.

Citizen taxis in Almaty

If you’re looking to flag down a taxi in Almaty you might struggle. There’s few of them and they generally only come when called by phone.

Instead you just stand by the roadside, hand out, and wait for a non-marked car to offer you a ride. You agree on a price and then you’re off. Well, when we say you, we mean your Russian speaking host. It’d be a struggle for a tourist.

Some of the cars might be looking to pick up passengers, taxi style. Most are going somewhere themselves, and happy to give you a ride for extra cash. This is pretty remarkable and has some significant upsides. First, you might pay a lower price to reflect the fact that your driver is just offsetting the cost of their own journey. Second, it’s better for the environment than having taxis cruising looking for business, and driving where you want to go and then returning to where they might pick up passengers. Efficient.

The willingness to step into a strangers’ car also says something about public attitudes and community safety. It’s hard to imagine New Zealand parents encouraging their kids, especially their young women, to get into strange and unmarked cars. But it seems safe enough to not raise any eyebrows in Almaty.

My general view is that the taxi sector in New Zealand is over regulated. In particular I think the mandatory security camera installation in taxis was an overreaction to isolated tragedies. And calls to cap the number of registered taxis seems to me a solution in search of a problem (that creates problems too). I’d stop short of complete deregulation to the point of citizen taxis Almaty style. But I think a community where we feel safe enough to get into a strangers’ car is something to which we should aspire.


The case for the winter olympics, and hosting them in Almaty

A friend of mine, Jordan Ward, has taken time away from his Masters in Public Policy, advocacy for calendar reform and the forced extinction of all animals that can’t be moved to a vegan diet to write about why we should ditch the Winter Olympics. It’s a good time to consider this idea, he says, because none of the prospective hosts for 2022 are up to scratch. In response I want to make the case for why we should hold on to the Winter Games and then, why we should hold the next ones in Almaty.

Unfreezing the diversity issue

Jordan’s most persuasive argument is the laughable qualification standards reserved for countries that don’t have ice. He slaps down classical/pop violinist Vanessa Mae who qualified for the ski slalom for Thailand, ostensibly for a lark. His most compelling example is the American man who bought citizenship from the Dominican Republic, qualified for cross country skiing as a result, and then ditched his 15km race after 300m.

The problem with these examples is that they make the case to ditch affirmative action qualification standards, not the games as a whole. Doing so would decrease the diversity in the games, though, that, Jordan says, is already wanting,: “North America, Europe and the former Soviet states sent 2,500 of the 2,900 athletes competing at Sochi, and won 267 of the 295 medals.” Jordan says this is contrary to the spirit of the Olympics where five rings represent five continents. A couple of points on this. First, you can’t reasonably bundle Uzbekistan and the United States together and imply they’re the same. Former Soviet states deserve some recognition of their very different modern history, the challenges they currently face and their significant growth in medal prospects in years since their independence. There might be less diversity in winter than summer games, but there is some, and there are also fewer sports and a smaller audience to match.

Second, if your concern is that the Global South under-performs you’ll need to scrap the Summer Olympics too. Medal tallies over time strongly correlate with wealth and the nutritional development it implies. That’s why India, with about a sixth of the world’s population, has won less than 0.0001% of Summer Olympic medals. Bangladesh has a hundred and fifteen million people and no Olympic medals. Sure, countries like Jamaica buck that trend. But they also have bobsled teams, one of which inspired what must truly be one of the best sporting films of all time.

For Almaty 2022

There’s no principled reason to put the winter games on ice, so the more pressing issue is what host city to choose for their next iteration. There are now three in the running: Oslo, Beijing and Almaty.

Beijing has an inescapable lack of hills. Bobsleigh would be 90km from the city, skiing 200km. That’s enough, to my mind, to dismiss the bid. Never mind the fact that Beijing already held an Olympics.

Oslo’s problems are less fundamental to the physics of skiing, but are fundamental. The bid lacks popular support. The Wall Street Journal says the population are “leery” about the prospect of inviting the world to come to town. The majority of Norwegians oppose the bid, and the government has yet to confirm any funding.

That brings us to Almaty. A crown of mountains that are a veritable winter sports playground surrounds Almaty. It has sound infrastructure, reliable snows and a cosmopolitan vibe. Just look at the pretty video:

Jordan has hopped on the bandwagon that wants to exclude Kazakhstan for human rights reasons. There’s no excusing its autocratic government, and questions about human rights abuses, including torture, deserve answers. But lets be honest, Beijing hosted the summer games in 2008 and its government is certainly as dastardly. Recalling that Salt Lake City hosted the winter games in 2002 the use of torture starts to seem like a prerequisite, not a reason to exclude.

More seriously the international spotlight tends to shed light on corruption and human rights abuses. Kazakhstan would be craving the world’s praise once it has its attention. A winter Olympics in Almaty may be a real chance to break the democratic ice, or at least chip away at it.

Most commentary on Almaty’s bid I’ve read reek of a kind of “where even is Kazakhstan” kind of ignorance. Maybe that’s not unreasonable for a country with a persona defined by a spoof movie. But it is both unfair and a rebuttal to the claim that Kazakhstan “isn’t ready for prime time”. Kazakhstan needs prime time. It needs exposure. It needs the world to learn what we did when we visited: that it’s beautiful, modern, and open for business.

It’s also a chance for the Kazakh nation to stand up and be proud. When it hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games (note, experience…) it was suddenly common to name baby girls Asiada after the event. No doubt there will be more strangely named girls when Almaty hosts the 2017 Winter Universiade (and more experience to boot).

Hosting major sports events is expensive. But where governments choose to foot the bill they should do so for the intangible gains their money buys. And for my money, the growth in exposure and pride that Kazakhstan would get if Almaty hosts the winter games in 2022 would be one of the rare times when it’s a worthwhile investment.

Kazakhstan at a crossoroads

There’s a website called independent travel. Its advice is normally pretty sound. Here’s what it says about Kazakhstan:

Probably the most amazing thing about Kazakhstan is that a country this big (the 9th largest) can have so little of traveler interest, be so impractical to travel within and be so expensive.

Advice like this, a cumbersome visa process, few recognised tourist sites and minimal English means we probably wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t have friends to visit. And, truth be told, we probably still wouldn’t recommend Kazakhstan to those going it alone. It’s one of those places with the frustrating chicken and egg problem of no budget travelers meaning no budget traveler infrastructure. As a result, while many other things are cheap, accommodation is not.

But our experience was great. Central Asia was such an unknown to us and, while I’m not sure what we were expecting, Kazakhstan still confounded our expectations. It was just a bus away from China, but Almaty felt European. The middle and upper classes live a reasonably comfortable life that isn’t so different from our own. And Fiona got to catch up with a good friend in her hometown.

Through our host we were lucky to be able to hang out with Kazakhs around our age. We were all so interested in each other that sometimes our conversations seemed like tennis games of questions. The young women we met were bright and successful, with good jobs in the big city. They had few complaints about life in Almaty but each had some plan or other to leave: studying in Europe, a skilled migrant visa to Canada, a boyfriend from a visit to New York to chase. The motivations to leave weren’t specific – a vague sense that life might be better in the West, resentment that corruption and autocracy was inhibiting Kazakhstan’s development, frustrations at familial expectations of speedy marriage within your own ethnic group.

Kazakhstan is a country at a crossroads. In the nearly twenty five years since it became the last republic to split from Russia, it’s managed to support modest economic growth. But it’s had a single President, and its governmental institutions are weak and its authorities corrupt. It now faces real questions of reform to reach its aspiration of joining the richest states in the world. It has significant oil and gas, which can fuel growth, but also bring the challenges of the resource curse we talked about in Venezuela and Bolivia. And, in finding a customer for its hydrocarbons it needs to decide how to position itself when it is literally and geopolitically stuck between China, Russia and the West.

In another twenty five years Kazakhstan could feel like the Austria its picture perfect postcard hills evoke. Or it could be the country you use in the joke about the place that no one has ever heard of.

No legacy for Bartlet in Central Asia

Qumar and the Republic of Equatorial Kundu won’t issue visas to New Zealanders. So I was very excited to visit Kazakhstan, the other country with a recent modern history that has captivated the world.

I keep asking Kazakhs about their views but they won’t engage. They won’t talk about the assassination of President Isitov, how they felt about American occupation to settle tensions between the Chinese and Russians. And, infuriatingly, they won’t tell me what happened after season seven ended.

It’s just like the mass Chinese amnesia following Tiananmen Square.


Kazakh airlines and the EU blacklist

The European Union (EU) blacklists airlines it considers unsafe, banning them from serving the EU. It doesn’t just pay attention to carriers that actually want to fly into the EU, it judges carriers all over the world. And so EU blacklisting has become a de facto judgement about all carriers’ safety.  It’s worth paying attention to.

Often times the reason for the black listing is a lack of trust in a safety regulator, rather than an individual airline. On this basis the EU blacklists all carriers from particular countries including, at the moment, Afghanistan (well, duh), Zambia and Nepal. Individual carriers from those jurisdictions can get an exemption from the ban if they satisfy the EU that they can prove safety independently from whatever the regulator in their home country might say about them.


In 2009 the Kazakh aviation regulator failed an international audit and Kazakh carriers were EU blacklisted. From what I’ve read the problems were basically twofold. First, there was a bunch of Soviet era regulation which hadn’t been updated. Second, the regulator was underfunded. It couldn’t hire and retain the quality staff it needed.

The EU let Air Astana keep flying to Europe, but banned it from expanding its operations. Air Astana flies a modern, Western fleet. It registers them in Aruba so they’re subject to Aruban safety regulation which is pretty well respected. So there are good reasons to treat them differently from other Kazakh airlines. But if you think they’re safe, why not let them expand in Europe? That, I have never understood, and probably never will. As of April, Air Astana can fly wherever it pleases in the EU. It’s got new routes to Paris and Prague in its sights. Very good.

With the weird case of Air Astana aside, EU judgements about carrier safety are pretty good, and probably more relevant to your travel plans than you imagine. In New Zealand’s neighbourhood most carriers from Indonesia and the Philippines are blacklisted. Notably, though, while tells travelers to be wary of flying a Chinese made plane in Tonga, it is silent about the potential hazards of carriers the EU says are unsafe.

Horses for main courses and other tales of Kazakh culture


  • For Kazakh’s horse meat is something like lamb is for us at home. A traditional meat that is a little special (because it’s more expensive than beef or chicken) but still eaten fairly often. We sampled some in a dish called Five Fingers (picture above) which is made of a kind of horse sausage, beef, fresh pasta and potato. The meat is boiled and then the carbs are cooked in stock. It’s good.
  • Under the Soviets religion was discouraged and therefore so was Christmas, and Santa. The Kazakh’s transposed their key traditions to New Year’s and now it is “Grandfather Frost” who “walks in from the North” to deliver presents to over excited kiddies. I like to think an alternative explanation is that Santa has just outsourced his CIS responsibilities.
  • (Incidentally, do you know how silly you sound explaining the Easter Bunny to someone who has never heard of it? “Okay, so, there’s this giant rabbit…“)
  • Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country, but it’s Islam-lite. Few people are practice in the sense of going to Friday prayers or even praying at all and you rarely see headscarves worn in the street. But cultural elements of Islam, like not eating pork, endure.
  • Marriage is still an important institution. There’s a sense that young women will jump at the chance to get married because there are more women than men so they’re ‘competing’ for husbands. There are also generally expectations/preferences that husbands will be older than wives and that people will marry within their ethnic group. But these norms are softening, as are traditional gender roles within marriage.
  • When you order a beer here it arrives with a straw to drink it through.