Blaise Hopkinson
Blaise Hopkinson

Finding a gig on Craigslist to write propaganda for the dictator for life of Kazakhstan, BLAISE HOPKINSON knew all would not be what it seemed

Dame Barbara Cartland shot through in 2000 and when I went in search of Borat’s sister, Kazakhstan’s number 4 rated hooker, I had a feeling I’d discover a clue to the late novelist’s influence on Boratistan fashion and décor. With just Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as a reference, the world’s ninth largest country, liberated just two decades ago from the collapsing Soviet Union, turned out be … well, judge for yourself.

The atrocious modern buildings and sprawling spread-eagled byways of the capital Astana, invented only in 1997, are gauche and without charm. The mountains are breathtaking, but the airport at Almaty is a Soviet era tip, staffed by escapees from a Lina Wertmuller cast who seem to regard Westerners as alien life forms to be abused when not being ignored. Baron Cohen created stereotypes that may never die. Being nomads of old the K-stanners use horses for milk, which they ferment for health and recreational purposes, and meat they boil and serve as their national dish, besbarmak.

the gleaming Norman Foster designed glass pyramid
The Norman Foster designed glass pyramid

Playing host to Expo 2017, Astana hopes to show the world that the country is one of Eurasia’s leading players. With 100 ethnicities calling the country home, religious freedom guaranteed and a polyglot of languages – Russian, Tatar, Kazakh and a smattering of English, Kazakhstan has money, ambition and attitude, ranked among the world’s top five countries for oil and gas exports and rich seams of uranium. Behold the gleaming Norman Foster designed glass pyramid and the world’s largest tent – the Khan Satyr shopping and entertainment complex. Then a house straight out of Borat, complete with the filthy old Lada in the yard, lurks in the shadow of the King Hotel, the largest inn in the region, or so it boasts.

Upcycling an old Barbara Cartland fascinator. Picture; Blaise Hopkinson
Upcycling an old Barbara Cartland fascinator. Picture; Blaise Hopkinson

The décor in my rented apartment would have startled Tretchikoff – shimmering purple nylon curtains, tangerine tiles in the bathroom – but the prize came in the boudoir, where I discovered Barbara Cartland’s missing lilac fascinator. Historians scoured the globe for this piece – unique because the old dame preferred pink. She must have left it on the Trans-Siberian Express where it found itself into a local Akmola market and my Russian landlady made the score of a lifetime.

You don’t get much change from $1,500 for such an apartment in the old section of the new capital. Astana has plenty of branded hotels including a Radisson and Marriott and there is plenty of choice lower down the scale, starting with the Soviet-ugly King Hotel and some no-name brand monstrosities.

Getting around is fairly easy, both in Almaty and Astana, although the taxis don’t have meters and the rip-off reading is off the scale. Get the hotel to order you a cab. It’s worth paying the exorbitant charge just to avoid haggling in broken Uzbek with a driver who resembles a reject Caliban from The Tempest.

Air Astana, a joint venture with the UK’s BAE and the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund, dominates air travel. They have about 30 new planes but fares are steep and service is iffy. Kazakhstan’s relentless quest for acceptance, respect and recognition in the eyes of the West will stop at nothing.

Prince Harry was feted there on a ski trip and Prince Andrew rubs shoulders with the Kazakh oligarchs, one of whom is rumoured to have overpaid spectacularly for Andy and Fergie’s former marital pile Sunninghill in the UK. The “born free” generation – after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s – grew up with a benign leadership, little opposition and the massive oil wealth, but their parents endured repressive rule and the people who run the country still come from that era.

I met the former Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union, who was on a trip to Astana for a conference. He told me he was out photographing the surreal sights of Astana that afternoon when some goon in a silly police cap arrested him. Few over 20 speak English in K-stan and the goon was just doing what his Iron Curtain upbringing had taught him but the ambassador said it was a frightening experience until some students rescued him.

Don’t visit Kazakhstan as a tourist. It’s simply too far and expensive and there is better skiing and mountain climbing in friendlier climes. Go on business, or to write bon mots for the hagiography, or score a corrupt oil deal or seek out the rusty vintage Lada of your dreams, rather.

Oh, and if you happen upon Borat’s sister, you’ll find her eight-inch FMSs and Snow Queen vodka pong all just part of the charm. Just button up in winter as it gets to minus 50C.