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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

September 26, 2013 08:23 IST

Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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From the steely town of Temirtav to the cultural capital of Almaty, the Silk Route winding through Kazakhstan has a lot to offer, finds Sudha Mahalingam

Six days after it was flagged off from Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the Silk Route Car Rally rolled into Almaty, the former capital of the country.

The rally has been organised by the India-Central Asia Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank.

After the gleaming towers and deserted avenues of spanking new Astana, Almaty feels comfortably familiar. The traffic is terrible and chokes the streets for miles during peak hours. The neighbourhoods are leafy, a majestic mountain range watches over the town and oak trees line the high streets.

The sprawling villas and bungalows are a throwback to the Madras of yore even as the chaos of traffic reminds one of the Chennai of today.

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Image: Fireworks explode in the sky above the Kazakh-British Technical University at a fireworks and light show during City Day in Almaty
Photographs: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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In the last five days, our rally had passed through a fascinating route and even forayed into China for a few hours. From Astana we had driven to Temirtav, a steel city in the heart of the steppe, where we were treated to upma and sambar in Steel Hotel, also owned by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, then to Balqash, the former watering hole of the Soviet bosses, which is now derelict.

From Balqash, we had driven to Taaldeqorgan, a lovely town that is the springboard for those seeking to cross the border into Khitai (as China is called in Kazakh) to shop for cheap Chinese goods.

At Khorgos, a glitzy township that is being built in the middle of the desert, we are let into China's Xinjiang province without any visas, because the officials of both China and Kazakhstan were eager to show off the surreal casino town being built at the border.

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Image: At Khorgos, on the Chinese side
Photographs: Sudha Mahalingam

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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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In Almaty, our driver has a huge problem on his hand. He has to find fuel for our vehicles.

Although all the towns and villages of Kazakhstan are dotted with fuel pumps every few yards, none of them seem to stock fuel.

Considering Kazakhstan is a leading oil producer -- the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian is called an elephant field because of its size -- finding fuel for your tank is not an easy task. Kazakhstan may have millions of barrels of crude oil, but no refining capacity that would enable them to use the fuel in vehicles.

Astana has saved Almaty from becoming a Kolkata. It has taken off much of the city's load by moving its government away, leaving Astana to nurture its cultural and artistic identity.

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Image: The Silk Route Car Rally
Photographs: Sudha Mahalingam
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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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Most embassies were reluctant to move to Astana but eventually did so. The Indian embassy moved there only five years ago but still maintains an office in Almaty.

Ambassador Ashok Kumar Sharma, who has stayed with the delegates during most of the journey through Kazakhstan, is full of nuggets of information about the country.

Even better, we are treated to authentic Indian meals everywhere, at his home and in Indian restaurants that dot this country with predictable names like 'Namaste' and 'Tandoori'. 

Gulnara, a friend of one of the delegates, rolls out a lavish spread of Kazakh delicacies on the lawns of her well-appointed villa in Almaty. The dish of the evening is horse meat. 

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Image: A newly built mosque in Zharkent on the China border
Photographs: Sudha Mahalingam
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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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Our meeting with the scholars of the delightfully abbreviated Kazakh Institute of Strategic Studies turns out to be more than a pleasant encounter.

Bulat Sultanov, the institute's director, does some tough talking. He admonishes Indians for not conveying Kazakh perspectives effectively to our government back home.

We, of course, could not admit to him that we did not have the ears of the government.

Kazakhs, he told us in no uncertain terms, fancy themselves as Eurasians and look to the West for inspiration and lifestyle. Then they look to the east to China to provide the goods and make the investments. The Russians have traditionally been their rulers and the Kazakhs have to keep looking over their soldiers as well.

That leaves no room for the rest of the world, least of all for India. If we can send them IT professionals to train their workforce, we are welcome, but if all we want are licenses to mine oil or gas, we were told, not so politely, to get lost!

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Image: A teenager rides a bicycle near the Baiterek in Astana
Photographs: Reuters

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Retracing the Silk Route in breathtaking Kazakhstan

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But at the Al Farabi University, our delegation got its fix of goodwill when the students chose our visit to commemorate Hindi Divas.

We were subjected to mercifully sanitised versions of Bollywood dances by lithe Kazakh girls in Indian dresses. We come away with the false satisfaction that all is well with our Kazakh bhais and behens and the Indian appeal remains undiminished since the days of Raj Kapoor.

A ride up to the mountains in a cable car gives us a bird's eye view of this beautiful town.

The Altai range, with some of its peaks dusted with snow, loom in the horizon with yellow, mustard, brown and russet leaves announcing the arrival of autumn. Bishkek lies three hours away through a lovely ribbon of asphalt slicing the steppe carpeted with golden grass.

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Image: At the Al Farabi University
Photographs: Sudha Mahalingam

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