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.

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