If there was one thing that truly surprised me about my trip, it was discovering how open and friendly Kazakhstan is. I won't be overly optimistic -- there are real problems in ensuring the rule of law, particularly in the economic zones -- but if I had to place my bets on the future development of a country, I'd put my money on Kazakhstan, especially in the context of the rest of Central Asia.
First consider one of Kazakhstan's southern neighbors, Turkmenistan. Another former Soviet Republic, it has abundant natural resources but a vicious Stalinist leader Turkmenbashy ("Father of the Turkmens"). This guy rules the country with an iron fist and is such a megalomaniac that he has renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother. It is a very closed country. Russian citizens have been told to naturalize and become Turkmen citizens or face deportation. Only Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity are legally permitted to practice their religion without a permit. It's almost impossible for foreigners to get entry visas. And the country is mired in poverty. The Economist magazine correctly predicted that Afghanistan would be the worst country to live in for the year of 2001; Liberia the worst in 2003; and Turkmenistan won that distinction for 2004.
You might be asking yourself: "Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, what's the difference?" Actually, there is a big difference. One of the first things you realize about Kazakhstan is that it's an open country. The people are (relatively) free. You can go out drinking in bars at night like any other city. And it isn't just political, it's social. People are pretty nice -- indeed, I found people significantly more patient with a bumbling foreigner in Kazakhstan than they were in China. Which brings me to the introduction of two new friends I made in my short time there.
Ashle, Roy, Charles, and I went out with Timur and Assel's brother (also called Timur!) drinking one night, visiting bars, eating good food, and seeing Kazakh bands play 1950s American and British rock music. Everyone else had left for home by 1am save Assel's brother and myself. We stayed out for two more hours, eventually going back to his place to crash. This is apparently common practice -- Timur has two extra beds for guests in his three-room apartment, including a bed in his kitchen!
The fact that a foreigner can walk around so late at night is a good sign. There was nothing to make me feel I would be mugged. The streets were well lit. We had a good time, and I can't imagine doing the same thing in most of the other Central Asian republics.
Then there was (the other) Timur, a friend of Charles and Assel who I first met at the CCCP Nostalgia bar. Timur and I also hung out for a day, and after another night of drinking he also invited me back to his place to stay -- again, the man had three beds in his four-room house! (But no bedroom in the kitchen.) Timur showed me around the local bazaar, bought me fermented horse milk and a native hat to make me feel at home. We met up with everyone else for dinner, and here is us toasting our new friendship.
Keep in mind that both these guys were Muslim and yet had no qualms whatsoever about drinking alcohol. Indeed, at Timur's place he served vodka FOR BREAKFAST!! Ugh...
I stayed in Kazakhstan for six full nights (keeping in mind that I left for the airport at 3:30am on the 22nd), but I stayed only four with my generous hosts. Once I stayed over with my new friend Timur, and the other time I stayed over at Assel's brother's house (who is also called Timur).
That sums up my travelogue for Kazakhstan, but please see the final page for information on the Turkic link between the two countries.