Kazakhstan - the land of remarkable contrasts
Kazakhstan is a state in Central Asia and is roughly half the size of mainland USA. The largest city in Kazakhstan is Almaty with the population of more than 1.300,000 people. It is a multinational city, and recent exposure to the outside world has turned it into Central Asia's most cosmopolitan city with shops, restaurants, hotels and casinos that would make the place unrecognizable to anyone who had been away since 1990.
In recent years lots of mosques and churches are under construction and the number of religious people is growing. But Kazakhstan is not as religious as other republics of Central Asia, and as a heritage of the Soviet Union a great number of people are not religious at all.
To many foreigners, the Kazakh language has been seen as very difficult to understand and to pronounce. Since the country was in USSR for many decades if you understand the Russian language, then you should be fine. The good thing is that many people under age 20 know some English as well as many customs officials and airport people. And if you are lost there's no need to panic. Have your place of residence written on a card and get a cab if you get lost (you might be somewhat overcharged by the cab, but it is better than being lost).
Although it's a relatively less-known country, Kazakhstan is a very friendly country where foreigners are respected because the hospitality is one of the Kazakh main traditions. It is good to have a passport and migration card or copy of them in pocket, cause the policeman may to want to check it in any time, especially at night.
Kazakhstan is country rich with minerals and many companies involved in extraction and processing of coal, oil, gas, non-ferrous and ferrous metals play a leading role in the Kazakhstan national economy. But, the nature is the main reason to travel to this newly-discovered country. Central Kazakhstan has one of the largest lakes in the world. The unique Lake Balkhash is half saline, half fresh water. The Bayan-Aul National Park has rock drawings, stone sculptures, clean, sparkling lakes and pines clinging to the rocks.
The famous Baikonur Cosmodrome, located 5km (for our American friends: 3 miles) from the garrison city of Leninsk is the Central Asian answer to Cape Canaveral. Tours are available, during which visitors can witness space launches. It was from here, on 12 April 1961, that Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, took off.
Thanks to its closeness in recent decades, Kazakhstan is home of many unique and protected plants and animals. Aksu-Zhabagly is s biosphere reserve in the southern part of the country, under UNESCO protection, and it is a home to 239 species of birds, 47 species of animals and 1,400 species of plants.
Barsa Kelmes - "The land of no return" - is the name of the island off the northwestern Aral Sea coast. It is the home of the rarest hoofed animal in the world, the kulan - Asiatic wild ass. The West-Altai in the Altai Mountains is home of 30 species of mammals and 120 species of birds.
Kurgaldjino, located in central Kazakhstan, is a nature reserve of international importance, and its feather-grass steppe is home to 300 types of plant and the most northerly settlement of flamingos in the world - probably the most beautiful thing to see is Bayan-Aul National Nature Park. It is called "The museum of nature" - that is the best description of that natural reserve. As Kazakh proverb says: "Native land is a paradise for everybody", and the nature in Kazakhstan should be seen. ■