Fluent in Russian and fully immersed in the culture (so much so that he met his wife there during this time), Rosten provides a brief overview of the country and its cultures and sights with interlacing political commentary and personal observations of daily life. He bears witness to Kazakhstan’s fledgling attempts at democracy leading up to its first parliamentary elections and transitioning its currency from the Soviet Ruble to the Tenge.
The times were marked with a resurgence of the Kazakh language and a shift in political power from a Russian to Kazakh bias, resulting in ethnic tensions and mass exoduses of Germans and Russians. With good humor, he tells his survival tales… battles with a decrepit infrastructure, devaluating currency, shortages, cold showers as the new monetary system was stabilizing, and clever tactics to stay sober despite intense peer pressure.
While you would barely recognize today’s Kazakhstan from the one described in Rosten’s book just twelve years earlier, his retrospective provides substantive insight into the history, politics, customs and character of the place, wrapping up with an update in present time, the likes of which I could find nowhere else.
Tango Diva asked if I would like to interview Rosten just two days after I ordered the book from Amazon. I jumped at the opportunity to match up my perceptions with his more intimate knowledge of the country. Following is our dialogue:
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Q: On the surface much has changed since the early days of Kazakhstan’s independence. Oil money has brought designer fashions, fabulous international restaurants, vibrant nightlight and a wide variety of international goods to Western style supermarkets. I had no problem finding organic vanilla soymilk at the grocery store. What are some of the more profound changes you’ve observed?
A: Maybe the question to ask is what hasn’t changed since I lived in Almaty. You mention some of the profound changes just in daily life. The turmoil in the early 1990s pervaded every aspect of what you could do: every single day I had to think just about the basics: how to get around and how to get fed. There were no Western-style markets until 1994. You couldn’t even find basic commodities like milk or eggs on many days. Buses were old and overcrowded.
I was there at the height of the chaos, and basic public services such as transportation and collecting the garbage had completely broken down. In my neighborhood, the street was almost blocked because there was so much garbage that had not been picked up. Now, if you have the money, you can treat yourself to any number of different cuisines at numerous restaurants, and there are two five star hotels in Almaty. Even those on a budget can still eat out relatively reasonably.
Q: When I traveled to Kazakhstan last winter, I prepared for an extended stay in a developing country. I was surprised that so many designer fashions and luxury goods were being touted on billboards and stores across town. Who can afford these?
A: Per capita income has increased to $2,250, a fourfold increase since I lived there. The economy has been on the move since 2000. Last year alone, it grew more than 9%. And this money finds its way into the hands of the population. Of course, the money is concentrated in the hands of the upper 10% of the population, but there is an emerging middle class. Most of the economy is in private hands, so what you are seeing is the fruit of a rapidly expanding economy. And you see the new riches everywhere, from the new airport to the hotels, swank mall and new homes. But there’s still a wide gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”—over 16% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Q: Aside from feeling extremely underdressed in my ski jacket, jeans and walking shoes compared to the more style-conscious local women, I felt very comfortable walking on my own on the major streets of Almaty. What safety concerns are there for foreign travelers to Kazakhstan?
A: You are of course right. People in Kazakhstan, particularly the women, are fastidiously dressed. It never ceased to surprise me that even in the early 1990s, when wages were critically low, my students, both men and women, would come dressed up to class. It was very easy to pick out the foreigners who dress in their jeans and tennis shoes. When foreigners would carry around lots of money, they were an easy target. But now there are ATMs around town and no longer any reason to carry around money. There is not nearly as much street crime as there used to be and if you take the proper precautions knowing that you are in a big city in a strange land, then you should feel pretty safe.
I would hasten to add that if you are traveling with Sacha Cohen of Da Ali G Show fame, you may have a problem. He portrays the fictional character Borat on an HBO program and has portrayed Kazakhs in an uncivilized light—none of which is true. Unfortunately, the government of Kazakhstan has taken Cohen way too seriously and has even threatened legal action. Officials do not take too kindly to criticism–even in jest.
Q: Are there any health concerns?
A: I would not drink water from the tap, but you can get bottled water everywhere. The sanitary conditions are good, especially in the large cities. I would be careful in any event with what you eat. Go easy on the horsemeat, which locals consider a delicacy. Probably more of a concern is traffic safety. There are still too many needless traffic accidents. Always ride in a safe car.
Q: How hospitable is Kazakhstan to foreign travelers, and women travelers in particular?
A: Kazakhstan is many things, and especially hospitable. If your trip is planned well, then you should have a great time. There used to be many overwhelming bureaucratic hassles that could dominate and overwhelm your trip to Kazakhstan. Now, you do not need a visa invitation letter, so it is relatively easy to obtain a visa. But you still have to get registered once you are in the country. And there are some unsavory characters that may try to take advantage of you, but no more than in other countries. It is a male-dominated society, which may be one of the reasons you will find few Western women with local men.
Q: What travel tips do you have for someone visiting Kazakhstan for the first time?
A: Plan your trip well, and expect the unexpected… Enjoy how exotic the country is. It may not be the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from there. The distances are vast and the people are engaging. Meet the people. They will make your visit worthwhile.
On weekends, you should go to Medeo, one of the world’s largest skating rinks, 10 miles from Almaty at about 5000 feet above sea level, and more importantly above the smog of Almaty. The rink is almost twice the size of a football field. Skating is the sport of choice at Medeo, but I have also seen motocross there. Above Medeo is a ski resort known as Chembulak. You should not miss the Arasan Baths in the middle of town. You have your choice of three different kinds of baths: Eastern, Russian and Finnish.
For climbers, Kazakhstan is probably best known for the Tien Shan Mountains. The highest peak is a mountain called Khan Tengri (Lord of Spirits), which is almost 23,000 feet high, in the Central Tien—near the border with China. Conquest of the northern slope of Khan Tengri Peak is a dream of many climbers and usually requires 6 days. For the eco adventurers, there are several rivers such as the Chilik, the Ili, Chu or Charyn, with excellent river rafting. As the country has developed, the infrastructure for foreign tourists has as well and there are some very good outfitters that cater to foreign tourists.
Q: So how was the skiing at Chembulak?
A: It could not be confused with Switzerland. Chembulak has only five lifts, two of which are chair lifts. When they are all open, there is a 3,000 foot vertical drop, which is very good for a skier. It is a good weekend getaway, and only 10 miles from the city center.
Q: How would you describe the spirit of the people of Kazakhstan?
A: The Kazakhs are a proud people, but have been subject to the influences
of the surrounding peoples from the Mongols in the 13th century to the
Russians in the 19th and 20th centuries. Kazakhs are hospitable and
generous and are looking to find their way in leadership in Central
The president thinks that the rare and majestic snow leopard
should be the model for the new Kazakh of the 21st century. According
to [President] Nazarbayev, the snow leopard is independent, intelligent,
courageous, brave and cunning. It doesn’t attack first and avoids
direct confrontation. When under threat, it defends its family and home
at any cost.
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While Kazakhstan has undergone a complete transformation since the time of the book’s writing, Rosten’s detailed account of the political and social issues of the day gave me a context for understanding recent developments and help put my travel experiences into perspective. Rosten and his book are amazing resources for anyone interested in or traveling to Kazakhstan. *However, if you are seeking to adopt a baby or would like tips on shopping, you should talk to me.
About the Author:
Keith Rosten is a lawyer who has specialized in Soviet and post-Soviet studies for over 20 years. Since the publication of his book, he has revisited Kazakhstan over 20 times as a lecturer on contract law, and for work with the US Agency for International Development. He lives in Washington D.C. with his wife Tania, whom he met in Kazakhstan, and their sons, Phillip and Daniel.
Genice Jacobs is a consulting high-tech recruiter living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her incredibly precious and inquisitive daughter Jiana (now 22 months old). Jiana is preparing for a lifetime of roaming around the world and has already mastered the ability to say “cat” in both English and Spanish. Both passport ready, they are looking forward to hitting the road soon as an independent mother and daughter travel team.
“Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges,” by Keith Rosten
ISBN: 0-595-32782-6• 6 x 9 • Trade Paper • 254 pages • $19.95US
You can find this title on www.amazon.com.