When I mentioned to friends that I was planning a trip to Kazakhstan, the most common response was “that’s where Borat is from”, referring to the fictional character portrayed by Sasha Baron Cohen in the popular 2006 comedy film. But unlike the impoverished backward nation portrayed in the movie, visitors to Kazakhstan will find a destination far different than one might imagine.
Kazakhstan is a mountainous country, nestled in Central Asia with the Tai Shan Mountains serving as a backdrop to Almaty, its largest city. Economically, Kazakhstan had benefited tremendously in the late 2000s and early 2010s when the price of oil and natural gas (its most abundant resources) peaked. But unlike other developing countries which had squandered their oil wealth due to corruption, Kazakhstan invested heavily in infrastructure and education, leading to beautiful, modern cities with wide avenues and efficient public transportation systems.
Kazakhstan’s emphasis on education, especially science and math, can be tied to its important role as the home and original launch site (which remains today as a result of a lease agreement between Kazakhstan and Russia) of the Russian Space Program. Ensuring all citizens have access to both primary and higher education is a key government priority that has led Kazakhstan to experience rapid economic growth. A visit to Astana, the capital, might confuse a weary traveler with other dynamically growing cities such as Dubai or Shanghai. Kazakhstan’s infrastructure development allowed it to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Although it lost its bid to Beijing, Kazakhstan made a positive impression on the Olympic Committee, making a future bid more likely to be successful.
And perhaps the most striking observation of Kazakhstan is its people. Most Kazakhs resemble the Chinese more than Russian in physical appearance. In terms of tourism, although there are plenty of hotels, modern airports, and beautiful attractions, one will find very few American and European tourists. For that reason, very few Kazakhs speak English, and English signs are not very common. But that should not deter one from visiting this beautiful country. Just turn on the Google Translate app, and venture out and interact with some of the most-friendly people in the world.
- Eric Chiang, Author of Economics: Principles for a Changing World