Most of us had never heard of Kazakhstan before Sasha Baron Cohen lampooned it in his Borat film. That ‘mockumentary’ has little to do with the real place. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became the world’s ninth largest country. Characterized by its vast steppes, Kazakhstan remains largely untrodden by the feet of tourists. However, those seeking adventure will find a surprisingly large amount to do and see in Central Asia’s most prosperous country. The following 10 facts might surprise you, particularly if you’ve only heard about the country from Borat.
1. It Is One of The World’s Most Multicultural Countries
The vast country of Kazakhstan has a population a little over 18 million. It happens to be one of the most multicultural countries in the world, with only 64% of the population being native Kazakhs. Although by far the largest minority group is Russian, Kazakhstan’s major cities, particularly Almaty, have large expat communities comprising nationalities from all over the world including Germans, Ukrainians and Koreans. Who knew?
2. It Is the World’s Largest Landlocked Country
With a land area of over a million square miles (about a quarter of the size of the US), Kazakhstan is also the world’s largest landlocked country. Despite this fact, the country maintains a large navy, founded in 2003. The navy operates on the Caspian Sea, which is the largest enclosed body of water in the world. Other countries with coastlines along the Caspian Sea include Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and Azerbaijan.
3. Kazakhs Celebrate 3 New Years’ Eves
Oddly, the people of Kazakhstan celebrate New Year’s Eve three times per year, two of which are officially public holidays. In addition to the same New Year’s Eve that we celebrate in the west, the Kazakhs celebrate the Persian New Year on March 21. Known locally as Nauryz, this very important public holiday has been celebrated across the country since ancient times. A third unofficial New Year takes place on January 14, according to the Julian Calendar.
4. The Country Has Three Time Zones
Owing to its vastness, Kazakhstan has three time zones. The westernmost regions of the country are four hours ahead of GMT, extending to six hours ahead in the eastern reaches. You’ll definitely want to take this into consideration if you’re planning to travel across the country by rail or plane.
5. Almost Every Car Is a Taxi
Like many post-Soviet republics, official taxi companies are a rare thing. Instead, practically every car is a taxi, since most drivers make a bit of extra money by taking the occasional fare. Call it the local Kazak version of Uber. This is completely normal in the country, but tourists will need to know the rules before they go. Always negotiate a price before getting in any car, since meters are practically unheard of.
6. It’s Home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome
The Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the heart of the Kazakh steppes, is one of the world’s most famous places when it comes to space exploration. It was here that the world’s first orbital spaceflight, Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957. Visitors generally stay in the nearby town of the same name, which was built to accommodate the workers of the facility. Guided tours are possible, but they are very expensive.
7. The Country Has Many Climactic Zones
Most of Kazakhstan is a sprawling expanse of inhospitable steppe country that gets very cold in the winter and very hot during the summer, hence the low population. However, while this continental climate dominates most of the country, Kazakhstan is home to many other microclimates. It has everything from subtropical regions on the Caspian Sea to eternally snowy mountains reaching far above the clouds to barren deserts.
8. Tourism Is Very Rare
Due in part to its remoteness, Kazakhstan is very much off the beaten track for tourists, and you’ll find very little in the way of tourism infrastructure. The country is typically difficult and expensive to get to, but that is exactly what makes it appeal to adventurous trailblazing travelers. Having said that, there is a large expat community in Almaty and Astana, in particular, so you won’t have to look too far to find the ubiquitous Irish Bar expat hangout.
9. It Borders the Aral Sea
Both Kazakhstan and neighboring Uzbekistan border the Aral Sea, sight of one of the worst environmental disasters the world has ever known. Due to irresponsible irrigation projects under the Soviet regime, the Aral Sea, formerly one of the largest lakes in the world, has shrunk to a fraction of its size. A sense of foreboding sets in when you see the endless desert, littered with the rusty husks of ships atop the vanished sea.
10. It’s Not as Portrayed in Borat
Kazakhstan is not a country many Westerners know a thing about, and when Sasha Baron Cohen satirized it in his hilarious movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, it was the first time many people had even heard the name. Despite an understandably negative first reaction to the movie, Kazakhstan is now capitalizing on the publicity. The country, which is really nothing like as portrayed in Borat, is actually Central Asia’s most prosperous and forward-thinking nation. Are you interested in visiting someday?