Kazakhstan: The real Boratstan
If your impressions of Kazakhstan are based on the ramblings of Sacha Baron Cohen, think again. The planet's ninth largest country left Richard Conway mesmerised
It tastes pretty familiar. A little like something my mam used to make. There are definitely carrots in there, potatoes too, a bit of onion maybe and a huge hunk of lamb. It all comes in a decorative porcelain bowl and it's best eaten, I'm told, a little while after it has been made.
It looks pretty good, laid out on a long, wooden table, with piping-hot tea and doughy bread on the side. I'm on my second helping now and should probably hold back. But, damn it, I'm on holiday.
Nearby, families picnic, as songs blare out the windows of parked cars. Further away, kids play what looks like a game of rounders with badminton racquets and a small squash ball.
You'd be forgiven for thinking I might be polishing off Irish stew and slurping a cuppa outside a pub somewhere in Wicklow. But I'm much, much further away. I'm at the foothills of the soaring Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains in southern Kazakhstan.
I'm in a small, white yurt, sitting at a low-to-the-ground table. It's warm, carpeted and I'm eating shorpa (a national dish that bears a striking resemblance to Irish stew), baursaki (the bread) and sipping green tea. This is a sort of mountainside restaurant for day trippers, Central Asian style: three other yurts and an outdoor grill cater for families, as, all around, vast snowcapped peaks loom.
I've hooked up with local guide Gakif. We've just finished a short, morning drive to the Ile-Alatau National Park (a sort of Kazakh version of Glendalough) and are on our way back to nearby Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, where I've been staying for the past few days.
We came up here early to take in the view, and stopped in the yurt café because I wanted to see something authentically Kazakh.
And while looking back at the city from on high was everything I hoped for, my search for native 'simplicity' turns out to be slightly misguided. The dishes I just polished off are also Uzbek, the green tea I enjoyed is served in Mongolia, China and Kyrgyzstan, and when we get the bill, it comes typed in Russian.
"Kazakh, Russian and other cultures exist side by side here -- it's complex," Gakif says, gesturing at the receipt. "And today, with some of the food, maybe even Irish."
He's right. Irish-like food aside, this country could only play host to a complex culture. It's huge. Once the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, it's bigger than Western Europe. It stretches from its shores on the Caspian Sea in the west, to its border with China in the east. It has been invaded, colonised, plundered and has only recently emerged as a relatively prosperous independent state.
I tell him that most Westerners don't know much about the place. When my friends found out I was coming here, most looked at me blankly (where?), others wondered if I'd be safe (is it like Afghanistan?), while others made the inevitable Borat joke (will you be bringing back 'cultural learnings'?).
Gakif laughs. Of course, it's safe, and it's not surprising people don't know what to think. 'Borat' is incredibly inaccurate, not least because it appears to mock every nation east of Europe, and therefore none at all. Later, back in Almaty, I can see he's right again. With the mountains acting as an ever-present backdrop, it really is a wonderful, curious place. Nothing like Sacha Baron Cohen's mocking representation.
Gakif takes me to the leafy surrounds of Panfilov Park, a beautiful, well-maintained municipal garden, where the city's Soviet past is obvious. Locals play outdoor chess in the shade of the striking, multicoloured Orthodox Holy Ascension Cathedral -- the world's second-tallest wooden building, no less. And nearby, the kitsch Glory Memorial commemorates those who gave their lives for the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for part of the Second World War). It's amazing, looking for all the world like something out of a Marvel comic.
Originally called Verniy, then Alma-Ata and now Almaty, the city's Russian past can also be seen in its grid-pattern layout. Its broad boulevards are both easy to navigate and pleasing to walk along.
Structures such as the imposing Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre on Kabanbai Batyr Street, the space age, mountainside TV Tower and even just the bilingual street signs (Russian and Kazakh) also hint at one-time Moscow rule.
The nearby Presidential Palace, too, and Republic Square, conjure up images of busy apparatchiks and the politburo. But this is also a city in an Islamic 'stan', Gakif reminds me.
Approximately 70 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim, with most of the rest being Christian, Jewish and Buddhist. And as we make our way to the Central Mosque, I see a different side to the place. This relatively new marble-covered wonder certainly isn't Soviet. It feels almost Persian; its blue dome and white minarets piercing the sky.
And as in many Islamic countries, the heart of the city is undoubtedly the bazaar. The Green Market on Zhibek Zholy is a sight.
It has stalls selling fruit, vegetables, spices and even Korean food, beside those selling hardware, plants and household goods. It's a bustling place, but is pleasingly less chaotic than those in North Africa and Asia.
Elsewhere, trendy shops are the thing. This is recently a town with an edition of the 'Time Out' magazine franchise.
And for a while now, it has been jokingly referred to as the Big Apple of Kazakhstan. Though it's mostly tongue in cheek: the alma part of Almaty literally means apple, and it was once said to be the only place in Central Asia one could use a credit card.
Likewise, coffee is really in. There has been a mini-explosion of cool cafés. The global chains haven't quite made it here yet, though, and the local scene is all the better for it. Gakif points me toward 4A Coffee on Zhibek Zholy, run by an American expat. This place is modern Almaty defined. Here, purveyors roast their own coffee every day, as trendy locals pop in for their caffeine fix.
We've been strolling around for some time now. And on my last night, it really is the best way to see the place. I've got to see the mountains, and now I'm pretty happy getting lost amid all this Soviet order.
As we make our way back to the hotel, Gakif asks me if I will come back. I say yes, of course, without a doubt. There's lots more to see. "There is," he says. He stops me. There's one thing I really should see before I leave.
There are three of them, he thinks. And it's fitting, considering my stew experience earlier today. It may make me want to run back up the mountains, though. "Um, okay," I respond, with some trepidation.
We move toward Tole Bi Street. Nothing too strange seems to be happening yet. "What the hell is he going to show me?" I wonder.
Finally, we round the corner and I see it in the distance. Hanging from a decorative metal pole is a huge sign, shaped something like a bottle label.
I burst into laughter when I finally get to read it: Mad Murphy's Irish Pub. Oh dear.