Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Kazakhstan’s metamorphosis: from nuclear testing ground to future tourist capital

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Converting a country into a tourist destination desired by the masses is not an easy task. The first step to take is usually to clean up the possible negative image that the country may have abroad .

Once this image has been cleared up, either through persuasive means such as cinema and literature (although social networks work wonders today) or more direct ones such as tourist advertising, a first market niche will be determined (generally the countries surroundings) before fully opening up to the world.

Now I will tell you a trick to travel to interesting, cheap and little crowded places, that is, what in a few months will be the traveling fashion. This trick is to visit areas that are in this middle ground between the tourist emptiness and their crowded future , when their tourism is still reduced to small groups of the market. The perfect example today would be Kazakhstan.

Wide plains combined with a nomadic tradition

Let’s talk about them. Many could not even locate it on the map. Some will know its past immersed in the Russian Empire (and the later Soviet Union) and fewer will know that it is the ninth largest country in the world, with a small population of 18 million inhabitants. The new Nur-Astaná Mosque, built in 2005.The new Nur-Astaná Mosque, built in 2005.

Sometimes his frown causes us discomfort. And it is not necessary to go that far, the Uzbeks and Turkmen themselves have told me on occasions that the Kazakhs are not trustworthy people, that the cities are insecure and the countryside even less so. Something similar happened with the nomadic peoples of North America. Their silences, their customs, their wanderings through lands that we cannot understand, are strange to us and it is common for the strange to turn into a mirage with an aggressive, dangerous form. The strange is scary at times.

What did the Kazakh government do to remove this trace of fear that their strange nomadic ways could instill in potential tourists? You will not believe. They built a capital practically from scratch, starting from an already existing small city. And as if they were new to this tourism advertising business, they called it Astana (which in the Kazakh language means precisely “capital”). There were more reasons, this is clear, but the idea of ​​moving their capital from old Almaty to this new city sent an unmistakable message: change is coming. We are no longer a culture alien to the world, we are part of the world and it is our desire to join it.

For a country that had served as a nuclear testing ground for the Soviet Union, this new city demonstrated a new dimension to Kazakhstan: its definitive independence from Russia, its growing economic power (oil is a mainstay among its riches), its interest in receiving foreigners… Its anonymity from the world had made it the perfect location to secretly test the nuclear weapons of the Soviet Empire, at the Semipalatinsk test site. An uninhabited area of ​​18,000 km2 where 456 nuclear tests were carried out between 1949 and 1989. And Kazakhstan does not seem willing to suffer this anonymity anymore.

The lakes, the highlight of Kazakh tourism

And what are the draws in Kazakh tourism, what can it offer the world that no one else could? In the first instance, hunting. Kazakhstan is considered by many expert hunters as a paradise to practice this sport, and ibex stalking is especially coveted. But hunting currently has too many enemies, apart from being an expensive pastime, to entrust its tourism exclusively to this sector.Camping in Kazakhstan is memorable and can be practiced freely almost anywhere.Camping in Kazakhstan is memorable and can be practiced freely almost anywhere. 

Nature is the great Kazakh attraction. Arid and leafy plains, icy mountains, amazing deserts, a variety of flora and fauna that is difficult to match in the countries of the area… make this country perfect for practicing high mountain sports.

The lakes of Kazakhstan, the country’s main dish, come to the fore. They are for them something like the beaches for us. Up to 48,262 lakes cross its territory, among which are parts of the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea, in addition to Lake Balkhash – the 12th largest in the world – , and there is a relatively extensive niche of lake tourism. In them the water does not sting due to the salt and the beaches are usually made up of tiny black stones, giving them a curious aspect of an alien landscape and which do not stick to the skin. Also, you can fish in them. 

Numerous campsites – some of which are considered luxury hotels – dot the shores of these lakes. I had the opportunity to sleep in one (of the luxurious ones, not the normal ones) and the festive climate twenty-four hours a day, where tourists from Russia, Central Asia and Europe mix to form a unique and fun race , can turn Kazakhstan in a destination that is not only exotic, but also fun.Lakes that look like seas.  In the image, Lake Alakol.Lakes that look like mothers. In the image, Lake Alakol. 

A redoubt of History that is worth visiting (as a condiment to the trip)

Kazakh history goes mainly through its importance on the Silk Road, and a specific city stands out for lovers of this ancestral route: Turkestan. It is known as “the second Mecca of the East” and they say that three pilgrimages to it are equivalent to one to the emblematic Muslim religious center.

Kazakhstan has jumped on the bandwagon of tourist destinations to position itself as a preferred place in Central Asia, in competition with the already well-positioned Uzbekistan and betting heavily on nature tourism. Will your strategy work?

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