I have just returned from a business trip to Almaty in Kazakhstan, my first visit to an ex Soviet Union country.
Mountains behind Almaty
Almaty is six hours ahead of us and in spite of being there for four nights, I never managed to overcome the jet lag issue. The trip was very successful but I am now on my knees with fatigue and trying desperately to stay awake to try and slot straight back into the UK sleep pattern. This is really important because we are moving the boat to Stafford boat club tomorrow, where it is being slipped and re blacked over the next week.
So what did I make of Kazakhstan? Well it has to be said that it is different, its people are warm and welcoming but as a non Russian speaker, communication is a complete nightmare.
I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with a local who provided a fascinating insight into the city. In a nutshell, till the time of Stalin, Kazakhstan was a nation of about three million nomadic herders, devoid of any significant settlements. All that changed when Stalin decided to establish communities in the area, shipping in a broad assortment of ethnic minorities which has resulted in an unusual blend of races and a very tolerant population.
Rixos Hotel Almaty
Kazakhstan was the last country to leave the Soviet Union and you get the impression that they were not entirely unhappy with rule coming from Moscow. The city is therefore very young, laid out in a gridiron pattern, with long straight dual carriageways, just right for a speeding tank. Whilst the city has everything you need, it has no real centre and certainly no "old area". The traffic lights at the many intersections do come with a twist - the countdown boxes which tell you how long till the lights change. This results is a huge number of close calls among drivers who are, how shall we put it? - somewhat competitive and embrace an automotive version of Russian Roulette as something of a national support.
I stayed at the Rixos, a posh up market hotel with prices which eclipse even those of London. This location necessitated a four mile commute to the office, most of which was in Gypsy Taxis. Now these need a bit of explanation - basically you stand by the road, stick your hand out and most times someone will stop, a price will be agreed and off you go. Hopefully, the car will be safe and the driver honest, but this informal approach to taxis appears to be a potential rapist's paradise.
Inside the Rixos
Kazakhstan is therefore a relatively new country and dosn't have a democratic constitution that we would recognise. It has been stable with just one president in office since independence, but as he ages and succession is unclear, clouds are gathering on the horizon. Logic says that the country has a bright future, with massive mineral potential and about 5% of the worlds undeveloped oil reserves. But the country needs stability to encourage inward investment to realise this potential - how many times have we seen dictatorships come to a destructive end.
The city has a lot going for it, close proximity to lovely mountains and skiing, lakes and of course a lot of the great out doors - a country which is the size of Western Europe and only 15m inhabitants - mostly in Almaty and the new capital Astana. Almaty does have one other remarkable natural resource - the girls. Now don't get me wrong, I am a happily married man and no one can hold a candle to Belle's charms, but the Kazak girls are simple stunning, pettite, dark, slim, oriental with just a touch on Mongol - mix it all together, add a racy line of micro skirts and high heeled knee boots and the end result is remarkable. Not that I noticed of course....