Land of diverse cultures
Kazakhstan is a country where nothing is definite. -ST
Dave Chua in Kazakhstan
It was not hard to find signs of prosperity in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan.
Upscale boutiques compete with cafes for space and limousine Hummers roll across the town squares where Russian tanks used to parade through.
Young people dressed in leather wait outside a disco while a grim bouncer looks on impassively.
Less than two decades after having independence thrust upon it when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan's material success has come as a surprise to many. It has avoided much of the political turmoil that has plagued some of the other former Soviet republics.
The country is not prohibitively expensive for travellers. A typical meal costs between $4 and $8. Common dishes include besh parmak (flat noodles with boiled mutton), plov (fried rice, carrots and meat), shashlik (lamb or chicken kebabs) and manty (steamed dumplings with meat and onions). A standard three-star hotel room costs between $150 and $200.
The country and its people have experienced many changes in recent years. As our guide said, Kazakhstan is a country where nothing is definite.
The country is larger than Western Europe but has a population of only about 16 million. Comprising native Kazakhs, Russians as well as Koreans who were deported there from Russia by Stalin in the 1930s, Kazakhstan is a multiracial country that embraces its diversity of cultures and religions.
How far it has come is evident in two of its principal cities: Almaty, and the new capital, Astana.
Most tourists enter the country via Almaty. It is the largest city there with a population of about 1.4 million.
The "apple city" - the word Almaty is derived from the Kazakh word for apple and the area has a wild diversity of the fruit - lies at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains, whose glacier-covered peaks form a dramatic backdrop for the city.
One of the city's main attractions is Panfilov Park, which houses the picturesque Holy Ascension Cathedral that is made entirely of wood. A century-old Russian Orthodox church, there are no pews inside so the congregation must stand.
The park is named after Russian General Ivan Panfilov, whose regiment destroyed 50 German tanks during a battle in Moscow in 1941.
A massive statue of the general and his men stands in the park, with an eternal flame blazing in front of it.
Those seeking local delicacies can try the Green Market, a short distance from the park. Dozens of stands offer fresh fruit, meat (including a section for horsemeat), herbs, honey, dates, flowers and kimchi. Caviar is available but be prepared to pay a four-figure sum for it.
A chocolate bar cost $2 to $3, beef costs $5 to $8 a kg, and horsemeat $15 a kg.
Enter with a good ear and you might leave partially deaf after hearing the cries of the more enthusiastic shopkeepers.
Outside the market are money changers, antique sellers and a little further afield, you will find sellers who hawk old communist memorabilia, cassette tapes, wool hats and mobile phones.
For those wanting to get a good view of the city, there is Koktobe, accessible by road or cable car.
It is near the foot of a skyscraper television tower where you get a magnificent view of the city and the mountains that cradle it.
The spot is a favourite with residents and couples and the evening view is particularly beautiful.
If Almaty is Kazakhstan's New York, Astana would be its Washington.
The seat of government is located closer to the centre of the nation as well as to Russia.
It is also situated in the steppes, making it less vulnerable to the flooding and earthquakes that Almaty has been historically susceptible to.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has embarked on an ambitious plan to make Astana, considered the first post-communist city in the world, a beautiful city.
It is less populous than Almaty, with a population of around 300,000, but is growing rapidly.
The city's landmark is Baiterek tower, an observation tower which has a golden orb on top of a torch-like structure. The view from the tower is tinted with gold as the glass is yellowish. You can make out all of Astana from the 97m-tall tower.
The pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Concord is on the right bank of the city.
Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the building commemorates religious harmony. At the top of the pyramid is a glass-shaped area called the Cradle, with glass panels decorated with paintings of doves.
Some might find the 130 doves kitsch, but it is a peaceful space with a good view of the surrounding area.
Another of Foster's buildings lies on the other side of town. The uncompleted 150m-high, tent-shaped cone named Khan Shatyr is meant to be a world-class recreation centre shielded from the elements by transparent plastic. When we visited, only the spire, which was tilted like a cocktail umbrella, was in place.
Another notable building is more traditional in design. It is the Nur Astana Mosque, whose 40m height symbolises the age of Mohammed when he first received his divine revelations. The 63m minarets symbolise the Prophet's age on his death.
For those who do not mind roughing it out, the ancient city Turkistan is located west of Almaty and south of Astana along the Silk Route.
Modern-day Turkistan is a typical town in Central Asia. It does have one stunning monument - the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Islamic world. A Unesco World Heritage site, the mausoleum is a prime example of architecture from the Timurid era.
Yassawi is credited with vital contributions to the spread of Islam throughout Central Asia. There are some who claim that the mausoleum is the second most holy place in Islam after Mecca and three pilgrimages here equal a single pilgrimage to Mecca.
The mausoleum is still in stunningly good shape and in the centre of the great dome is the Holy Kazakh, a huge metal basin that weighs 2 tonnes and is made of an alloy consisting of seven metals.
Water placed in the basin is said to have health benefits and this sacred basin was once displayed in St Petersburg's Hermitage museum before it was returned to Kazakhstan after independence.
As we sat in the car on the 14-hourlong drive back to Almaty, I had a chance to see the rolling plains and grasslands of the Silk Route, as well as the glaciers and mountains that filled the horizon.
Potholes and herds of cattle kept slowing down our pace but the greatest danger on the roads were the Soviet-era vehicles, most of them older than the country, that spewed gouts of black smoke.
Still one had a chance to see the beauty of the country and understand it. Kazakhstan is a young nation, but vast; a country with an ancient history reinventing itself as it writes its own future.
The writer's trip was sponsored by Air Astana.
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