It takes a good solid 6-hour drive to reach Almaty, a former capital with a permanent backdrop of the Zailisky Altau mountain range covered in snow. It’s hammering down with rain as we arrive on a busy Saturday, and many of the streets are flooded. Only in the morning do we get to see the mountains and it’s a beautiful sunny day for exploring. Panfilov Park contains a classic Soviet monument to the small brigade of men who prevented the Germans from reaching Moscow in WWII. It’s next to the immaculately rebuilt Zenkov Cathedral, a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church. Some guidebooks will tell you it’s made of wood and held together without nails, which is no longer true.

Wander over to the Green Bazaar – the central market – which is a much more orderly affair than Osh in Kyrgyzstan. It’s precise and clean, and organized with military precision. Then on to the Central State Museum, which is highly informative and pleasantly deserted. Here you can learn huge amounts about the history of the whole region from ancient times, following the path of the Scythians around 1000 BC through to the spread of the Mongols and Genghis Khan until he died in 1227. Coming right up to date, we discover that the long-standing president Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital from here closer to the Russian border to dissuade them from expanding in their direction, and that, in March 2019, he decided to name pretty much everything after himself. Astana is now officially called Nur-Sultan, as is the airport and the university. He must be quite pleased with himself.

We round off a really interesting tour with a trip up the cable car for a panoramic view in every direction – the city, the mountains, and everything else. Thoroughly enjoyable. In the evening we stroll from our hotel – the Rixos, large but excellent – through a park to, of all things, the Hard Rock Café. After a week of lamb, bread and potatoes it’s good to have something different whilst listening to Bon Jovi. Almaty is a good city and it is fascinating to contrast Kyrgyzstan with Kazakhstan. The latter has so much more cash and resources, but the latter has a hell of a spirit. On to Tajikistan. On this quick visit, 7 out of 10.


After a month on the road covering six countries, it’s time to sweep up thoughts on this part of the world whilst decompressing at the Intercontinental Hotel in Istanbul before returning to the UK. This has been a fascinating trip, thoroughly vindicating our attitude of “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” For a more detailed picture, head to the relevant country report, but do try to see the whole region in context. Looking back over the notes, the country scores came in as (out of 10):

Kyrgyzstan  9

Tajikistan    8

Turkmenistan 8

Uzbekistan   8/6

Kazakhstan  7

Turkey          6

Kyrgyzstan lacks money but it makes up for it in attitude. There is a strong influence from the Chinese border to the east, and their style remains very Soviet. Kazakhstan also retains a Soviet obsession, and paranoia. They have huge gas resources and the president is very keen on himself, with a strong inclination to name everything after himself. Uzbekistan aligns much more closely to Iran. The split score here reflects strong cultural assets on the one hand, and anachronistic views on marriage and women’s rights on the other.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also look south to Iran and/or Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is maniacally state controlled under the guise of beauty and order. The rules are the rules. Tajikistan has serious power at the top, and yet the borders to the south are porous and, for all the control at the top, there is a serious lawless black market. You can enjoy the beauty, seeming wealth and orderliness of the cities, but don’t believe that’s the whole story. Usually there is a significant underbelly of people working the land to make ends meet, often hampered by punitive laws or lack of economic back-up.

On top of all this, a prevailing theme around here is what we were never told over the last century by the Soviets. A lot of things happened in the Russian revolution, both world wars, and the iron curtain era that was never mentioned in the west. Huge chunks of it even now are not in the history books, so this is a place to come and learn. It’s a fascinating blend of cultures interacting over the last 1,000 years or more, highly varied landscape, and often brutal political history. Something for everyone you might say.

See also Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.