What does the average Westerner really know about Kazakhstan? Except perhaps that it was once part of the USSR; it probably gets a bit chilly in winter, and that ‘Borat’ comes from here?
But now Italian editor Monica Neboli has produced an anthology written by fellow expat authors about their lives and adventures in Kazakhstan called Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt: Expat Stories from Kazakhstan.
Strange to think that a country the size of the whole of Western Europe - the 9th largest on the planet; and the biggest landlocked country on earth should have enjoyed scant recognition for so long. Especially when it has such a fascinating history, and an exciting future unfolding.
Who for example, has any idea that the Kazakh nomadic tribes are of Turkic and Mongolian descent, and emerged as far back as the 8th Century; or that they were probably the first people to ride horses, thousands of years ago?
Did you know for example, that tulips, the national emblem of Holland, are indigenous to the mountains and steppes of Kazakhstan and were only introduced to the Netherlands during the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century?
And have you ever heard of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city (that was the capital up until 1997) which has, according to the Lonely Planet guide: “an almost European feel with its quality hotels, slick boutiques and chic cafés”; and provides an easy access route to the spectacular Tian Shan mountain range?
You can read about Kazakhstan on the Internet or in the Rough Guide but what you can’t get is a feel for what it’s like to live there and this is where Neboli’s book is a real eye-opener.
According to Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt, Kazakhstan is a country of extremely hardcore seasons; breathtaking big sky landscapes; welcoming local people, and an infamous national dish called ‘Beshbarmak’ which, prior to reading this book, was all news to me.
It’s one of those weird and wonderful places that few people will ever find themselves visiting of their own volition, and it’s certainly true to say that unless you have some connection with Kazakhstan (i.e. you have Kazakh friends or family, or you work in the oil industry and find yourself posted there), then at first glance this might not tickle your fancy.
But that would be a big shame, because after reading Neboli’s anthology from cover to cover, I was enthralled by what this enormous and progressive country has to offer, and I’d certainly now relish the opportunity to explore it in person.