There’s a lot to like about Kazakhstan. The roads were faster than we expected, traffic was minimal, and Astana a surprisingly easy town to get around in, but after 48 hours we’d had enough. Stopping overnight in the capital gave us a chance to explore some. Lonely Planet suggested a hotel that was less expensive than the Ramada at $319 US per night. Our young, Asian, receptionist spoke little English, but when we asked if we could see a room, she said, No. Why not, is it a secret?, Mike asked. She giggled charmingly and changed her mind. Our goal for the rest of the stay was to try and make her laugh. Breakfast in the morning was served by a humourless waitress and we ate in the company of a taxidermy wolf and lynx.
The Khan Shatyr tent is apparently the largest in the world and rather beautiful in its way. Turns out, though, it’s really a shopping mall, replete with stores like Addidas, Cinnabon and Levis, a monorail, water park, arcade, food court and Tower of Terror. People love it. Facing back towards the city the tourist is presented with dozens of avant-garde buildings, a huge mosque, colorful fountains and a gigantic ball on a stick, all glittering like Las Vegas. Again, it’s a melting pot of ethnicities.
Our impression is that the government is doing a fair job of investing its oil money and building out the country’s infrastructure. And, yet, with dominant party politics and a strong authoritarian streak it’s not really a democracy. As such it displays some of the aberrant behaviors that goes along with the insecurity of not having a clear mandate from your citizens. Chiefly, controlling the press and media and preventing bloggers from accessing their accounts (yet oddly allowing people to Twitter away). Police checkpoints abound and seem much more enthusiastically staffed than their Russian counterparts.
After our shakedown (see previous post), we hightailed it for the border. Kazakstan’s unchanging landscape was punctuated only by the occasional strip mine or toxic waste factory. Power stations here seem very inefficient and their brown hazy fumes, blown by the northerly winds, permanently settle on the horizon. We pined for Mother Russia and determined to make the border crossing Saturday night.