In lieu of my own introduction, here are some excerpts from The Times of Central Asia
(oddly enough, the text was identical to the one that used to be found at the Lonely Planet site
“If you're not a fan of endless semi-arid steppe and decaying industrial cities, Kazakhstan may seem bleak as a month old biscuit. And if it sometimes looks like the landscape has suffered from hundreds of
nuclear explosions, well, parts of it have - ever since Russian rocket
scientists started using Kazakhstan as a sandpit in the late 1940s. But any country which uses a headless goat's carcass as a polo puck obviously has lots to offer.
The chief exceptions to this relentless desolation are the cosmopolitan city of
Almaty (you'll never believe how many ways there are to cook mutton) and the spectacular spurs of the Tian Shan and Altai mountains on the country's southern and
eastern borders. Most travellers use Kazakhstan as a staging post to visit the more famous Central Asian destinations, but those who enjoy remoteness, wide open spaces, long hypnotic train rides and horse sausage will definitely be in their
Back on top of the crust, Kazakhstan has been badly ravaged by dodgy Soviet schemes
which have poisoned, denuded and drained. The country was set aside for massive wheat production in the 1960s, setting off a train of ecological
nightmares. Water from the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers was diverted for irrigation, causing the Aral Sea, which they fed, to shrink dramatically. The fishing port of Aralsk was left high and dry and became a ghost town; the fish died out from
rising salt levels; rains stopped; salt, sand and dust blew in storms for hundreds of km around; birds and animals have fled the river delta. Chemical residues from agriculture have found their way into the rivers and into Kazakhstan's drinking
water, while the Kazakh steppe has become eroded, arid and salinised from over-cultivation. In case Kazakhstan hadn't had enough, Moscow used the area between Semey and Pavlodar as a testing ground for nuclear weapons between 1949
and 1989; around 40 million people have been adversely affected by radiation.
Amazingly, there's still a reasonably good chance you'll see some memorable beasts and plants
once you get out of the dead zones. At the very least there are the millions of rooks that inhabit the towns and the Cannabis indica that grows
thick and wild by the roadsides. You're likely to spot antelope, brown bear, wild boar, lynx, and eagles in Kazakhstan's mountains, though sighting the elusive snow leopard may take a tad longer. Poppies and tulips grow wild in the grassy
steppes, trampled upon by roe deer, wolves, foxes and badgers.
is sizzingly hot with desert temperatures topping 40°C (105°F) during the day, but often dropping to less than half that at night. Snow starts to fall around November and the mountain passes fill with snow until April, sometimes even
are bitterly cold, even in the desert. Annual precipitation ranges from less than 100mm (3.9in) a year in the deserts to 1500mm (58.5in) in the mountains. Much of the summer rain on the steppes comes from violent thunderstorms which often cause local flash floods.
History: Central Asia's recorded history begins in the 6th century BC, when the Achaemenid Empire of Persia held sway beyond the Amu-Darya River. In 330 BC
Alexander the Great led his army to victory over the last Achaemenid emperor and by 328 had reached Kabul and the Hindu Kush.
The aftermath of Alexander's short-lived Central Asian empire saw an increase in cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. Hellenistic successor states disseminated the aesthetic values of the classical world deep into Asia, while trade bought such goods as the walnut to Europe.
No one knows for sure when the miraculously fine, sensuous fabric spun from the cocoon of the Bombyx caterpillar first reached the west from China. Even after the secret of sericulture arrived in the Mediterranean world, Chinese silk producers consistently exercised the advantage of centuries of
know-how. The demand for this thread saw unprecedented trade upon what became known as the Silk Road - a shifting web of caravan tracks rather than a single road.
For a thousand years after the birth of Christ, Central Asia was the scene of pendulum-like shifts of power between nomadic hordes and the sedentary civilisations of Eurasia's periphery. Horses
, rather than silk, had the greatest influence over regional events, since the vast grasslands fed millions
of them. Mounted archers were the most potent military force in the region. The Huns, the Western Turks, Arabs and the Chinese all ventured into the region during this period.
From 1219, Mongol hordes
under the leadership of Jenghiz Khan swept through most of Eurasia. The ravages inflicted on the region were so harsh that settled civilisation in Central Asia did not begin to recover until Russian colonisation some 600 years later. Jenghiz was brutal but he also
perceived the importance of reliable trade and communications, laying down networks of guard and post stations and introducing tax breaks to boost economic activity. In modern terms, the streets were safe and the trains ran on time. The resulting flurry of trade on the Silk Road
background to many famous medieval travellers' journeys, including Marco Polo's.
Don’t you just love those characters, as used to be depicted on the former local currency?
The splits and religious divisions which followed the death of Jenghiz led to the fracturing of the Mongol Empire, the rise of the tyrant's tyrant Timur the Lame (aka Tamerlaine) at the end of the 14th century and the emergence of Kazakhs as a distinct people for the first time. Springing from the
descendants of Mongols, Turkic and other peoples, the Kazakhs went on to form one of the world's last great nomadic empires, stretching across the steppe and desert north, east and west of the Syr-Darya and capable of bringing 200,000 horsemen into the field. The ruin of the Kazakhs came
thanks to the Oyrats, a warlike, expansionist Mongolian people who subjugated eastern Kazakhstan, the Tian Shan and parts of Xinjiang to form the Zhungarian Empire in the 1630s. The Kazakhs were savagely and repeatedly pummelled, particularly between 1690 and 1720. This 'Great Disaster'
made them susceptible to the Russian expansion of the 19th century.
Enter the Bolsheviks
(stage Left), who quickly liberated the Central Asians from any ideas of self-determination. Although there were frequent demonstrations of discontent, these were quickly and soundly defeated by the communists. Meanwhile a charismatic Young Turk named Enver Pasha
had bent Lenin's ear and convinced the Soviet leader he could deliver him all of Central Asia and British India. In reality Pasha had decided to ditch Lenin and win himself a Pan Turkic state with Central Asia as its core. A large army and some clever concessions to the Islamic religion saw
Pasha's support wane and Moscow's reign prevail.
Kazakhstan's traditional tribal divisions - the Great Horde in the south, the Middle Horde in the centre and north-east, and the Little Horde in the west - were pasted over by the Russians and simply ignored by the Soviets but remained important as social and ethnic identifiers. In fact,
is one of the major legacies of Soviet rule. Since the republics of Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek began to be created in the 1920s each was carefully shaped to contain pockets of differing nationalities with long-standing claims to the land. The present face of Central Asia
is a product of this ‘divide and rule’ policy.
in Central Asia was a parade of ridiculous ideas: assimilating the region's ethnic groups, converting the steppe into a giant cotton plantation, using Kazakhstan as a 'secret' nuclear testing zone. The political, social, economic and ecological disasters resulting from these experiments
meant all five republics had little to lose by declaring their sovereignty when glasnost and perestroyka led to the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. Later that year they joined with 11 other former Soviet states to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Today Kazakhstan is grappling with the free market and an enthusiastic brand of deregulation which tends toward anarchy. President Nazarbayev, a former Communist, is imposing his peculiar ideas about democracy (weakened parliament, handy constitutional changes) on the country he hopes
to turn into Central Asia's economic tiger. Nazarbayev's sweeping election victory in early 1999 was aided by the banning of major opponents on frivolous grounds and the fact that one of the remaining candidates based his campaign on an ability to crush glass with his bare hands.”
A highly recommended source for a more businesslike assessment of Kazakhstan is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Country