As the minibus sped, I could not help but marvel at the flat vastness of the Steppes as well as my very presence there. I was travelling to the Bayanaul National Park in Northern Kazakhstan near the Russian border, with a group of Kazakh adventurers. It was a ten-hour ride and the road was so straight that one could take a nap and keep driving. The next three days were spent hiking, camping inside forest and swimming in an icy lake. The sparse vegetation and occasional running of horses in a never ending compass of flat lands interspersed with a sudden lake or a hill, made for a surreal, out of world experience. And surreal it was to the truest sense of the term. I was in Kazakhstan on an exchange program for one semester to the Nazarbayev University in the capital city Astana. Three other students were with me on exchange: a Mexican, a Pakistani-Pilipino, and a Chinese. A truly eclectic mix!
When our plane landed in Almaty from Singapore for the first time, passengers spontaneously clapped. That is the tradition: everyone apparently claps at the end of an air journey if the ride was a smooth one. We took another connecting flight to Astana. We had reached during the peak of summer, in August; and for the people in this region, who are battered by extreme cold for most part of the year, this small summer is a respite.
Before continuing my account, let me tell you a little bit about Kazakhstan and the region in general. Geographically, Kazakhstan is a stunningly diverse country blessed with pristine mountains, vast flat lands- “Steppes”, canyons and many lakes and rivers as well as the Aral Sea. It also has a rich and colourful history and is the land of the origin of horses. The country lies in Central Asia and is a land mass linking Eastern Europe to Asia. It is the world’s largest landlocked country and the 9th largest country in size. With a population of just 18 million (much less than the population of Assam), it is sparely populated. It was one of the five “stans” that was under the Soviet regime. The other four being: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These five states along with parts of Iran and Afghanistan together are historically considered as the region of Central Asia. The majority population in Kazakhstan is ethnically “Kazakhs” (70%) while Russians form the other significant population group. Interestingly before the breakup of the Soviet Union, a significant minority was the German population which had been relocated here during the Stalin era. Another ethnic group relocated during that period were the Koreans, and even today Russian speaking Koreans form a strong minority group. It is an ethnically diverse country with Tatars, Uzbeks and Uighurs being other prominent minority groups.
Russian is widely spoken by the population though Kazakh is the official language. Like many regimes from the Soviet era, Kazakhstan is also an authoritarian system with insignificant presence of political opposition. But unlike many authoritarian regimes, the government has invested significant resources for the public good which has resulted in an extremely educated population and a high Human Development Index (.788). The resource boom of the last decade has catapulted the country to a middle income nation and the country envisions itself as a first world country in twenty years’ time.
Despite being a Muslim majority, there is a strict separation of religion from the public life and the Kazakhs are a very secular people. I remember an incident in the Hazrat Sultan mosque which I was visiting one evening with some of my cohort. The architecture is spectacular and I wandered away from the group. As I was looking up at the illuminated interior of the dome in a quieter part of the mosque, an old man with beard and skull cap came up to me and asked me if I was a Muslim. I was mildly unsettled and uncertain how to reply, merely fumbling that I was from India. He disappeared for a moment and came back with his son and grandson. Both came and shook my hands as the old man happily introduced me to his progenies!
The Kazakhs are exceptionally welcoming and friendly and would go out of their way to help strangers. I lost count of how many strangers dropped me to my destination when I had lost my way in Astana. However, they can also be “on the face” and it can be startling at times.
There are many interesting connects with India, both contemporary as well as historic. Hindi movies were a rage in the population during the Soviet era. A friend of mine from university narrated the story of his grandmother who used to finish all her Saturday work early so that no one could disturb her as “Sita aur Gita” or any one of those movies from that era rolled out. Every time I mentioned India, people would smile and cry out “Mithun Chakroborty!” Some would even sing a few lines from the movie Disco Dancer, “Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja”. Though the new generation is more into Hollywood movies, Indian tele-series are still a big draw. The historic connect is even more fascinating. Apart from the waves of migration from Central Asia to the subcontinent during the early Vedic period, the recent migrations have, in fact, shaped the course of the Indian subcontinent in a more prominent way. The first Mughal emperor, Babur, was born in the Fargana Valley in Central Asia. Not surprisingly there are plenty of words that are similar to both the Indian subcontinent and the Central Asian region: from Shaitaan to Sabaar (“Evil” to “Patience”). Tea is called “Chai”. And the Kazakhs drink a lot of “Chai”!
People in Kazakhstan are intrigued by India. They would invariably ask me about my home state. And since they drink so much tea, I would quip, “You know Assam Chai (“Assam Chai” is a popular brand there)? I am from the land of Assam Chai: Assam”.
The look on some of their faces was priceless.
October came and it started snowing in Astana. This was my first snow and we went on a rampage throwing snowballs at our Kazakh classmates, much to their amusement. But soon the real winter came with temperature dropping below minus 30 degrees and wind speed that made it impossible to walk for more than a few minutes outside. During a 10 day phase, Astana was colder than South Pole. Thankfully, sanity was restored by the third week of November.
In the meantime I also tried ice-skating and it was a major miracle that I returned home in a single piece after multiple falls. Our entire class went to watch one of the ice-hockey matches involving a very popular Astana city team playing a visiting team from Russia. Despite our hooligan level decibel of cheering, our team lost.
In December, I travelled to Almaty with my Pakistani-Pilipino friend. While there is a distinct move from the old to the new in Astana in terms of architecture and infrastructure, Almaty definitely has the old flavour and in some aspects reminds one of Eastern European cities. And it is surrounded by breath-taking mountains. It is also one of those places where you can be happily lost and keep walking just to admire the buildings and nature around. Moreover, there are also plenty of Turkish restaurants selling great food.
My story would not be complete without the tale of my trek in the Mynzhylky Mountains surrounding Almaty. I got in touch with a group of Kazakh explorers who were going on a day long trek. Our target was to reach 3,100 meter and come back. We drove to one of the last points and from there took a cable car to the base of the mountain. There was an entire white covering over the snow-capped mountains blurring any visibility. And then in matter of minutes, the sun was out with the white clouds miraculously disappearing. The trekking was slow with the snow being knee deep. It was freezing and at times I could not feel my fingers. Interestingly, on the way up, I met a trekker who was climbing down and was bare bodied! After about 5 hours, we made it to the top: 3,100 meters was done and dusted.
As we began the trek in the morning, I was mildly shivering despite all my covering. A fellow trekker (whom I had met only three hours back) offered me a hot beverage and smiled, “This will remind you of home, make you warm and you will feel better”. As I took my first sip, the taste was very familiar: “Assam Chai”.
And that is my enduring image of Kazakhstan. A mindbogglingly beautiful country, full of warm people who love their “Assam Chai”. As I flew out of the country after a stay of four months, I think I left behind a bit of Assam and India there. And I brought back a lot of the Kazakh warmth and beauty.