Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I apologize for the radio silence as of late. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks now and just got to Almaty following a 36-hour train ride from Urumqi, China. This is the first solid internet connection I’ve had in a while, so it’s been hard to post reviews. So far, the trip as been exhausting but exciting, and although I’ll only be here for about 12 hours, I can tell you Almaty is gorgeous. I arrived at sunrise and the first things I saw were the snow-covered mountains looming over the city.
During a conversation on a flight, Christopher Robbins learned that his American seatmate was traveling to Kazakhstan to marry a woman he’d met online. The stranger went on and on about this country that few people know much about (other than it being where Borat is from). Robbins was intrigued by this country’s contributions to the world, but the one tidbit that stuck with him was, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” Robbins went on about his business, but after that, Kazakhstan kept calling to him. Finally, he decided to travel there and write a book about the country.
Kazakhstan is a former Soviet territory that is huge: four times the size of Texas. Parts of the country seem inhospitable to life — descriptions of the windy winters on the steppe sound particularly terrifying — yet nomadic Kazakhs lived and worked there for centuries before the Soviet Union moved to wipe them out. Communist Russia also sent a large number of its enemies to brutal gulags in Kazakhstan, and often sent intellectuals into exile there as well; Trotsky was sent into exile there for a period, as was Dostoevsky (partially inspiring Crime and Punishment). Vast areas of land have suffered irreparable environmental damage since then: the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing, and citizens in many areas are still suffering the effects of fallout from nuclear testing. The country has suffered quite a number of dark periods in its history.
Yet the country also has an amazing history of culture, ingenuity, and perseverance. Robbins manages to capture a large scope of this. He was granted incredible access throughout the writing of this book, traveling all over the country to talk to everyone from average citizens to scholars. He was even granted unprecedented access to travel with and interview President Nazarbayev, through which he gained access to areas of Kazakhstan that would otherwise have been off-limits.
His end result is one of the most fascinating and entertaining travelogues I’ve ever read. It’s part memoir, part history book. It includes the requisite foreigner-in-a-new-land experiences (in a non-gross/offensive way; this is something I’m always wary of in travel books), but what I really loved about it was how deeply Robbins dove into Kazakhstan’s political, economic, and social history but still kept everything extremely readable and accessible. Even though the book was published in 2008, I’ve seen some relevant major news stories in the past couple of months that still relate to this book, such as the desperate situation of the Aral Sea and the recent mass die-off of one-third to one-half of the saiga population. It’s given me a lot to think about for my travels. And, of course, one of my goals is to find an aport apple.