Kazakhstan: Time to Wander

Early  June 2017

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Kazakhstan was filled with an air of excitement. Set to host the EXPO 2017 which focused on a Green Economy, the country was all prepared for the major event.  Yet, sorry Astana … I was not really feeling you this time so I left early to get to Almaty or the Apple City. More interesting and historical than Astana, it is the largest city in Kazakhstan with around 1.7 million people. It used to be the capital from 1929 to 1997 before it was moved North to Astana. So why the costly change? No official reasons were given but the following does hold some truth.

a) The one and only President of the country Nazarbayev want to stop any form of the North breaking away from the rest of the country so by making a city in the North the capital, it allows development and a demographic shift (more influx of people).

b) A change in industry to increase greater variety for the country…. Almaty is known for being the once industrial base (left over from the Soviet-Era) not the North which is fairly agricultural. Shifting the capital North will ensure Kazakhstan can create a second base from scratch.

c) Almaty is endemic to earthquakes

d) Astana is the President’s hometown so what better way for people to remember him and leave behind a mark than this?

e) Almaty is to the South of the country and is only 3 hrs away from Bishkek (by car). By making it North, it is now more in the middle of the country.

Astana and Almaty felt alot like Islamabad and Karachi – Ankara and Istanbul – Canberra and Sydney.

The world’s largest landlocked country with around 18 million people (70% Muslim and 26% Christians), Kazakhstan or “The Land of the Wanderers” has one of the lowest population density in the world. Kazakhstan generates 60% of Central Asia’s GDP due to her well-developed oil/gas industry and vast mineral resources. Mostly occupied by farmers and cattle breeders, the country had a highly developed culture based on their nomadic economy even before it became a part of the Mongolian Empire after being captured by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. It also became a major stopover along the Silk Road. Trade started to decrease around the 15th to 18th century since shipping/maritime route was preferred. Fierce battles and internal struggles broke out before it became a part of the Russian Empire. Russia introduced not just language but also military garrisons and systems of administration in the country. Russia’s presence in the country was not met with a peaceful response since as Russian settlers moved into the country from 1890s onwards, they started to compete with the locals for resources. As Tsarist Russia comes to a fall, resentments and uprising broke out which led to revolts and bloodsheds. During the 1920s and 1930s, famine and mass emigration broke out and many writers, thinkers and politicians were killed on Stalin’s orders to not only wipe out any voices of opposition but to also suppress identity and culture. Kazakhstan was the last to declare independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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28 Heroes – Memorial Site

More developed when compared with the other -stans in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has always pushed for greater developments in their economy as well as participated in international events (e.g. UN, SCO). Her ‘multivector foreign policy’ (a fancy way of saying that the country is being friendly towards all countries) allows Kazakhstan to get along well with both her two bigger neighbours as well as America. The country clearly understands the industry that they excel at- Energy. Not only is the country the leading exporter of uranium, it also produces crude oil, natural gas and has an abundant supply of accessible minerals and fossil fuel resources. The country has the second largest uranium, lead, zinc and chromium reserves, the fifth largest copper reserves and ranks in the top ten for coal, iron and gold.  Due to economic developments,  the country managed to repay all the debts to the IMF 7 years ahead of schedule (much better than Mongolia who failed to repay the debt and had to be bailed out by China).

The tour started out from Metro Station 1 which is close to Almaty Tower, Art Museum, Circus and the Sports Center. In fact, the metro line passes through all the major sights in the city and although a short route, it is nevertheless affordable and convenient. Esentai Park, close to the Botanic Gardens and the Ski Jump Complex, is a newly developed posh mall like area where one can purchase luxury goods (how many can afford this though?). Republic Square, which overlooks the President’s Residence, is a quiet place which lines the main street that cuts through the center of the city.

IMG_1386 Nikolskiy Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox Church coated in emerald green.

Located in a park area in the middle of Almaty neighbourhood, the food stands and constant flow of people makes a nice stop before Panfilov Park. As the central meeting place for people in Almaty, it is home to the Museum of Instruments and the most prominent landmark + top icon in the city:  Ascension or Zenkov Cathedral. Completed in 1907,  the Russian Orthodox Cathedral was made entirely from wood without the use of any nails. It survived the 1911 earthquake with little damage and many bishops, especially the ones who were behind her construction, attributed this to ‘divine intervention.’ In fact, it is the science and architectural design that helped it to survive the tremors.  The beautiful interior of the Cathedral was made in Moscow and Kiev.

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The cathedral became the Central State Museum before being opened for religious services during the 1990’s. Panfilov Park used to be one big cemetery. Now, it is the memorial site for 28 local heroes who fought against the Nazis in WW2 and perished in the name of peace. Their commander Panfilov delayed the Nazi advancement and played a heroic role in the fight against fascism. A statue and eternal flame (placed after 1970) marks the memorial site. There were more kids than usual which made sense since it was Children’s Day. A visit throughout Almaty city center gave a quick and sufficient overview of Almaty’s development. The latter part of the day was spent around Almaty. It started with firstly Kok Tobe Park (Green Hill) which offers a nice view of the city and contains restaurants, Ferris Wheel, many amusement rides, a petting zoo, souvenir shop, the Beatles Chair and lots of benches to sit and relax in. Since no cars were allowed, the walk up to the top was a tad tiring. However, the view and greenery (especially in Almaty during June) really makes the hill live up to its name: fully green. If the short but steep walk up to Kok Tobe Summit was ‘tiring’ then I was not prepared at all for the very long “Kung Fu Panda” stairs ordeal that awaited me for Medeo Ice Stadium and Chimbulak Ski Resort. At around 1600 m and +2000 m above sea levels respectively, these two Almaty sights were much more interesting than Astana.

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 Surrounded by mountains and covered by greenery, the overall feel of Almaty is a lot like Singapore in terms of the nature to urban ratio. Whether it was at Astana Park or at Kok Tobe, it sure felt good to be surrounded by nature and friendly locals.

Other Information (Statistics and costs correct as of July 2017)

80% are agricultural land with 70% being occupied by pasture. Therefore, apart from energy and resources, Kazakhstan is also an exporter of agricultural products such as wheat, grain, vegetables,livestock etc

Alma which means apple are known to be historically grown in Kazakhstan. It can be found mostly in Almaty  “rich in apples”.

IMG_1490Meat prices are sold per kg. Horse is 2800 t or 9 usd/ kg- Sheep is 2000t or 6.4 usd/kg – Cow is 1800t or 5.8 usd/kg – Pork is 1300 t or 4.8usd/kg- Chicken is the cheapest. The Green Bazaar located between Panfilov Park and the Grand Mosque is where the locals go for everything. Food are locally produced but other products are imported from China.

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Fiscal situtations has so far been stable. Budget spending is under control and fiscal relaxation along with monetary stabilisations helped the country to weather through financial crisis.  Compared with other -stans, there is relative political and economic stability. Food prices are low for foreigners but for locals this might be a different story. Job opportunities are slightly higher when compared with other Central Asian countries however the country still experience a brain drain.

There isn’t alot of job opportunities.  2000 usd per month would be a VERY good job. On average, the monthly salary is around 200-400 usd. Some workers are even paid 80 usd/ month which is not enough at all. I’m not sure about the cost of rent in Almaty but the owner of my hostel (a three storey/ten-room house in the suburbs of Almaty) paid 1,000,000 USD for it.

This is cheap since a similar house in Australia or NZ or USA would easily reach +4 million usd. Apartments are more popular and compared with China and Australia, it is much cheaper and affordable. Apartment numbers are more in numbers than houses in Almaty and Astana. Current increase and growth in urbanisation (62.5% live in urban areas) leds to more demand in the housing market thus, the price will only soar in the future. No matter how expensive it will be, one thing for sure is that it will always be a normal and ‘sane’ price hike.

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