A Guide to Kazakhstan
Steve Jones
Steve Jones • Jul 15

A Guide to Kazakhstan

by Steve Jones

Jay and Taryn, in their excellent guide to Edinburgh, said it is impossible to give an impartial view of anywhere you visit.  So, I will preface this view of Almaty, Kazakhstan by making it clear that I was there in 2004, which by any measure is quite a long time ago.  I should also mention that much of my international travel has been prompted by the presence of deadly diseases.  I know that many of you deliberately choose places free of fatal infections. I understand that you like to relax on holidays, but what can I tell you? I am weird.  

Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet Republics to become independent during the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The official capital had been moved to Astana by the time of my visit. However, Almaty was still a significant city economically, politically and culturally.

Indirectly it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union that brought me to Almaty.   Kazakhstan was strategically significant to the FSU. It is a transcontinental country bridging Asia and Europe.  It is home to a nuclear test site at the  Semipalatinsk Test Site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the largest launch site in the World (which is still leased to Russia), and was also home to critical parts of Biopreparat, the Soviet Union's biological warfare agency.  After the collapse of the FSU, the West was very concerned about the fate of weapons of mass destruction and the technical experts as their old jobs disappeared.  The cooperative threat reduction program CTRP was born to foster collaboration between former soviet scientists and their western counterparts and keep all of that expertise working on the side of the angels.  It was the CTRP that funded the meeting I attend in Almaty organised by the Anti-Plague Institute. 

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I was extensively warned before leaving for Almaty that under no circumstances should I leave the airport with anyone other than the official driver from the hotel. 

Western visitors were at that time subject to being kidnapped, robbed and murdered by unlicensed drivers working for the airport.  This information put me a little on edge.  I was pretty keen to see the Tian Shan mountains, but not as I was being dragged from the boot of a Lada.   My official driver was late, and since it was 130am when I arrived, I was not at my best. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see him when he finally did come, and the drive to the hotel was deceptively quiet, presumably because of the time.  

The hotel was at that time only six years old and was palatial, particularly in comparison to the airport, which was the only other building I had been inside.  I found out in the morning that the view from my beautiful steel and glass window was of a very depressing Soviet-era prefabricated housing development that was probably constructed to accommodate the thousands of people forcibly relocated from other parts of the Soviet Union.

The actual conference wasn't taking place in my hotel, but at a resort centre initially built for the Communist Party elite, in the foothills of the mountains outside Almaty.  My colleague and I were collected from the hotel and driven to the meeting venue.  I cannot possibly express how terrifying that journey was.  The road was pretty broad, I would guess three lanes going in each direction, but at any time, there were between 7 and 9 lanes of traffic going in whatever direction irrespective of the lane they were supposedly driving in.  When we arrived at the conference centre, it was in a beautiful location and grounds. But, unfortunately, it was as brutal an example of brutalist architecture as you are likely to find anywhere.  

The meeting was great. I found out that there was a significant wild reservoir of plague infection in the local Guyant Gurbel population (simultaneous translators are fantastic, but it took two days to work out that they meant Giant Gerbils).  These are not the cute pocket pets of childhood. Oh no! These guys live in large colonies and grow to 20cm or 8 inches in length, and each colony can be quite large with burrows 5-6 m in length.  They also carry Yersinia pestis,the bacteria that causes bubonic plague and live in approximately 1M sq km of Steppe.  The silk road of old ran right through this area, and this is the source of the black death epidemic in Europe, accidentally brought along the caravan routes by merchants.  

The meal was served with ... of course vodka for toasts. Everyone made a toast; the vodka glasses were small, but there were A LOT of us.

We were very fortunate to be taken on a field trip to inspect the Giant Gerbil habitat and the work of the Anti-plague institute to identify and control plague in the wild gerbil colonies.  The real highlight of this day trip was lunch by the river Ili, which flows from China into Kazakhstan.  We were treated to a traditional meal of Koktal.  Butterflied carp covered with onions, tomatoes etc. it was genuinely delicious.  The fish was accompanied by salads that can only be described as works of art multicoloured patterns laid on platters like edible stain glass windows. It was tragic to mix the beautifully arrange shredded vegetables so we could eat them.  The next course was Beshbarmak, which was, let's say, not my favourite despite being the national dish and culturally very important.  Essentially a sheep was boiled curt into small pieces. It was interesting.  The meal was served with wine or beer for refreshment, sparkling water if you wanted it, and of course vodka for toasts. Everyone made a toast; the vodka glasses were small, but there were A LOT of us. A European colleague who shall remain nameless decided at one point to fill his vodka glass with sparkling water only to have this ruse very quickly discovered, leading to water flying out of the glass and a fresh shot of vodka flying in. Nevertheless, it was tremendous fun, and our Kazakh hosts were excellent and so hospitable.

I have to say that since this time, I have travelled all over the World in search of bacteria and viruses, good food and fun times, and Almaty was fun, but it remains the only place that I was genuinely nervous about leaving the hotel on my own.  The contrast between the rich and the poor was so stark and the rule of law so tenuous that it would have been genuinely foolish to venture out on my own. Fortunately, the hotel had an absolutely fantastic gym and spa, in which I spent hours before my flight home.   I would love to return but this time just for fun and not for the plague.

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Steve Jones
Steve Jones

Steve is a recovering public health scientist and academic. He is a Terry Pratchett fanatic (which explains a lot when you know him). He loves Dr. Who and can now watch almost every episode from the sofa not behind it. He has the great good fortune to be the COO of Bright and work with this amazing team. He has travelled a lot often to places with dangerous diseases. He thinks this was fun.

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