Chef's special: Horses for courses

All I knew about Kazakhstan was that it was one of the old Soviet republics in the USSR (until 1991), land-locked, the size of the whole of western Europe (not quite true) and the ninth largest country in the world. Almaty, the capital until 1997, when it moved to Astana, is located where Istanbul is located in western Europe, that is in the far south east so it made sense to make the new capital more central.

OK, big deal but so what makes Almaty so significant? Politically, historically, idealogically, geographically, geologically, one hell of a lot. Four of the nine world's largest countries are within a few hundred miles from Almaty, it is where the the Russian Bear meets the Chinese Dragon and, until India gained independence in 1947, the British Empire in India and it is the Eastern-most outpost of Islam in central Asia, though of the more benign variety.

It is where the Eastern Orthodox church meets not only Islam but also secular China and Buddhist Tibet, and Christian and Muslim buildings both have major landmarks in the city. It is multi ethnic in its make-up, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks (all these from other Soviet republics) plus displaced Muslim Uyghurs from western China, repatriated Russians who were moved here to strengthen Russian control, Tartars forcibly moved from Ukraine, even similarly repatriated Mennonite Germans a hundred years ago.

So in essence this was the frontier town during what Kipling called 'the great game' when the British and the Russians slugged it out over India which made it a major pressure point in global power struggles for more then a hundred years, so I guess this justifies spending a day or two here, oh and it is a seismically active earthquake zone too, due to its proximity to the close snow-capped Tien Shan mountain range a few miles to the south forming a stunning backdrop to the city.

Yes, that's the history lesson but what's it like? At present dry and autumnal after blistering hot summer days and the prospect of bitter winter days ahead, tree-lined streets for summer shade, numerous parks, golden-domed Orthodox cathedrals, churches and mosques, tower blocks from gracious to grim, and horrendous traffic and driving. A five second lurch for a few feet of territory (probably like the battle of the Somme) and then a ninety second wait at the next traffic lights to go green again.

Culture ranges from opera and ballet, of course, to ubiquitous large TV screens hanging off trees and walls belting out semi pornographic MTV with gyrating semi-clad females and huge ugly ex-weightlifter types displayed all around the restaurant spoiling enjoyment of your breakfast porridge, well, that and the horses milk on offer in the buffet which if you put it into your tea makes it look like Chinese egg-drop soup. I had not realised that the Kazakh expertise with horses included 'dairy' farmers and even chefs, but the evening menu specialises in horse tenderloin (see image attached of the menu, not the meat), not to be missed, though pangs of guilt followed next day when the horse's milk had disappeared from the buffet. Had we cooked the golden goose?

Rather than take a flight to our next destination, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, we opted to go by road and risk a lengthy land border crossing, initially stationary surrounded by ancient gas-guzzling clapped-out cars and trucks, but eventually thinning out into almost empty roads stretching to the flat horizon ahead. We skirted the foothills of the Tien-Shan mountain range that separates the two countries across featureless steppes of scrubby grasslands dotted with isolated basic yurt-shaped dwellings, hillock-topped burial grounds with clusters of crenellated tombs like crusader outposts of yore, surrounded by occasional herds of horses, cattle or goats, right up to the border town where we met with the anticipated chaos of immigration and customs typical in ex Soviet republics. They say it was all a lot easier in the old unified days of the USSR. With uninformative signage, mostly in Russian of course, we queued with the locals until eventually being advised we should have gone to a side door marked with a 'no trespassing' sign. Self evidently. There we met our only other foreigner who claimed he was Korean (south not north or so he said). He claimed to have booked a lastminute holiday which are very popular at present in Seoul, any destination acceptable.

Only an hour overall including dragging our suitcases across no-mans-land between countries, a great improvement on the eight hours getting into Turkmenistan a few years ago. We were warned; everywhere signs said in English: Good Luck! They knew the odds of a smooth transition.

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