New horizons in Kazakhstan
The average age in the city is 34, and young women from all over Kazakhstan flock here looking for husbands because of the army of single men working in its numerous ministries. Construction continues apace, and there are so many new cultural centres, museums and stadia – football, bicycle and ice-skating – popping up, that even the official guides can sometimes become confused: ‘I’m sorry – this is the National Museum and you wanted to see the President’s Museum. Perhaps you would also like to see the Palace of Independence?’
One of the more immutable disadvantages of Astana is that it is a long way from anywhere. It’s like living on a remote island – there is a reason the steppe is referred to as a sea of grass. In a country the size of Western Europe, distances are enormous. People in the city resign themselves to three-hour drives to reach the closest resort areas.
Some 106 miles to the southeast is a network of salt lakes that are home in spring and summer to vast flocks of pink flamingos. Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, covering 915 square miles, is a bird-watcher’s dream and a candidate as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But the most popular weekend location for Astana residents wishing to escape their city is Burabay National Park, an area of lakes, hills and forest billed as ‘the pearl of Kazakhstan’ or even ‘Kazakhstan’s Switzerland’. Only steppe dwellers would consider its low granite hills to be Alpine; despite its undoubted beauty, it more resembles Finland’s lakes and forests.
Mac and I set off on a Saturday morning for an overnight stay. As we leave the city limits, we drive through a wide girdle of forest, planted as a green belt designed to be both a lung and a windbreak. Stunted by wind, frozen earth and long winters, the forest has grown considerably slower than Astana itself. Beyond the green belt there is only the empty steppe.
‘Up here on the steppe you see natural phenomena you don’t see anywhere else,’ says Mac. ‘I’ve seen a rainbow at a temperature of -35°C, which was absolutely beautiful. And it’s big sky country, too – so you can see black clouds in one part of the sky and brilliant sunshine in another.’
We buy beer and delicious smoked fish in a shop on the way to the park, then drive to a comfortable hotel that retains elements of a Soviet sanatorium – a course of leeches is on offer. It’s the end of the season and almost no-one is around the lakes or forests, except for old ladies searching for mushrooms. Coloured ribbons have been tied in profusion to trees in certain ‘sacred’ groves – shamanistic rather than religious – by wedding parties.
There are a number of lakes in the national park, but Burabay is the most beautiful. Surrounded by birch forest, its waters lap a strip of sandy shore. There are various inlets where visitors can rent a rowing boat or hire an oarsman to take them to the mysterious rock known as Zhumbaktas stone. A legend surrounds it, and it is said to resemble a beautiful woman from one angle and an old hag from another. I can’t see it myself. But then neither can I make out the elephant, warrior and shoe that other outcrops are said to resemble. Zhumbaktas stone is covered in graffiti, dating back to 1905. My favourite is from 1949 and signed: ‘Nadia: Thank God for those husbands who send their wives alone for a vacation.’