The Country that Disappeared

Beautiful RedDestination: Kazakhstan

Book: Apples Are From Kazakhstan, The Land That Disappeared by Christoher Robbins (Originally published in 2008, NEW release in paperback, September 2010)

The title sounds like a gross exaggeration. Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared. And the book is packed with outrageous statements like that. More tulips than Holland. The original home of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A country larger than all of Western Europe and five times larger than Texas, yet a country made to “disappear” by the Russians and then the Soviet Union. The home of a race of warrior women known as Amazons. A country with a quarter of the planet’s oil reserves.

But in this book, British writer Christopher Robbins sets out to explore and shows the reader that those claims are actually true.  Well, maybe not King Arthur, who is a chimerical myth floating between France and England. But even the Arthur myth’s origin in Kazakhstan has some pretty good evidence. Read a terrific interview with Robbins at this British book site.

When the author talks to people about Kazakhstan, they generally are aware only of the satire of the comic Sacha Baron Cohen, who created the ridiculous Kazhak, Borat. And those people generally believe that the comic “invented a country.”

It would be hard to invent a country more intriguing than the real Kazakhstan. I first became aware of Kazakhstan when I was asked to speak to a group of women visiting Tucson to learn about grass roots politics.  Like many of the states that separated from the former Soviet Union, this “stan” was struggling to form a democratic tradition that worked.

Tucson has an active city sister program with Almaty, the major city of Kazakhstan.  A friend of mine who is a nurse, also accompanied a medical team to consult with health care officials in the country.

From her, and from the women politicians, I learned about the physical beauty of the land and its tremendous potential as a tourism destination and an economic driver.

Robbins writes:

Modern Kazakhstan occupies a region of Central Asia that is not only a lacuna in the knowledge of the West, but has also been shrouded in mystery form the beginning of time….Herodotus wrote of impenetrable deserts and impassable mountains wreathed in eternal mists and of a tribe of fearsome female warriors known as Amazons.

It was so unknown that Alexander the Great never conquered the territory and the intrepid Marco Polo saw its mountains, but did not cross them.

This re-creation of the author’s travels in Kazakhstan never disappoints as he meets trendy young people, a traditional trainer of eagles, and even is invited to travel with the President of the country.

He adds meat to the impressions and character sketches with research in history, the economy and the natural world of the country.

Anyone who reads this book surely will want to visit. Kazakhstan appeals not only because it is terra incognita, but also, unlike the few other unknown places on the planet, it is safe and welcoming to guests. Disclaimer: I would not want to go there in the winter! The high steppes and the mountains guarantee freezing weather, plenty of snow and hardship for a people who have learned to cope with both natural challenges and the man-made faux pas of the Soviets who tried to turn sparse soil of grazing land into cotton farms and nearly destroyed the fourth largest lakes in the world. A city that once was a fishing port on the edge of the Aral Sea is now 45 miles from the shore. (Just as one example of Stalin-era planning gone horribly awry.)

But lest you think the country is too challenging to attract tourists, it has its good seasons, and a great variety of geography and climate.  Although severe budget problems have dismantled the Tucson sister city program, the friendships created over the years have meant that contacts continue with Almaty.  For instance, the Tucson Boys Chorus made the long trek to entertain there, and just in the last year, the Tucson group sent a sculpture by a local artist, Mark Rossi, to Almaty.

The women who I met several years ago, said “If you are a travel writer, you should visit Kazakhstan. We have many things for people to see.”  I think she was right. I would like to know more. My knowledge is greater having read this book, but still, I would like to see.

The publishers provided the book for this review, and the photo of the beautiful red apple, while not a giant Kazakh apple, came from Flickr and you can learn more by clicking on the picture.

What had you heard about Kazakhstan? Any idea where it is located on your globe? Would you like to go there? Let’s share.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

One thought on “The Country that Disappeared

  1. I had heard about Kazakhstan, and in fact someone I know passed through there briefly on his way elsewhere. He said he’d like to go back, and it sounds interesting to me too.

    About that King Arthur myth, though — it does travel the globe in many guises. For an English version, have you read or seen the movie Mists of Avalon?

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