I HAD sworn a solemn oath, ratified with a swig of the finest Snow Queen vodka, never to mention Borat in my musings about Kazakhstan. But, somehow, as the haze of the Snow Queen lifted I realised that without Sacha Baron Cohen, nobody would ever have heard of the ninth-largest country in the world, not to mention its Top Five ranking as an oil and gas exporter.
When you fly into the toy-town capital Astana, a strange amalgam of Lego and Meccano mixed with Steppe design and decor, you are greeted with a vision of surreal proportions.
They picked an ersatz Dubai out of the catalogue but got the red-stamp version, a city dotted with bizarre buildings that somehow all pay tribute to the dictator for life, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose iron grip on the country predates the collapse of the Soviet Union and will last, no doubt, until he is entombed in a glass mausoleum in downtown Astana.
Aged English architect Sir Norman Foster will no doubt make another killing on the commission, like his peace pyramid, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, and grandiose transparent tent complex, Khan Shatyr. Underneath the tent in an area larger than 10 football stadiums, is an urban-scale internal park, shopping and entertainment venue with squares and cobbled streets, a boating river, shopping centre, minigolf and indoor beach resort.
Astana is the capital but money and business reside in Almaty, a two-hour commute on a packed Air Astana jet and also the best airport to make international connections. Doing business in Kazakhstan involves seldom actually meeting a Kazakh, as most movers and shakers are Russian or from some other realm in the old Soviet conglomerate.
You need an interpreter, first and foremost. This is not so much because language is a barrier but more so that your paid-for language companion can pick up the local nuances and asides that are the real basis of deals and transactions, from renting a car to buying into an oil well.
All is not what it seems and with the newly inked economic union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, things are more opaque than ever — deciphering anyone’s true intentions is almost impossible.
Russia is first among equals, Belarus needs the boodle and Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources, not to mention it being host to the Russian space centre Baikunor Cosmodrome, launch pad for South African billionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s 2002 space odyssey.
Brands are no stranger to Kazakhstan and the roads, particularly of Almaty, are full of the latest S-Class Mercedes and Lexus 4x4s. Marriott, Radisson and several other branded international hotel chains are ensconced in Astana and Almaty, and behind their edifices lurks an almost European or American aura of calm and comfort.
Banking is largely local or Russian, although HSBC and Citi have had a presence for more than a decade.
English really is a foreign language, hence the tame interpreter, and remember that in local culture, smiling is regarded as the expression of a moron. I went there direct from Bangkok, capital of the Land of Smiles Thailand, and developed a rictus frown that hurt my facial muscles!
Kazakhstan has paid millions of petrodollars to the likes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and a host of dodgy nation-branding firms to polish its post-Borat image. The money has largely been wasted, because on the ground the reality is far from the invented polish intended by paid-for features on CNN and CNBC, yards of glossy financial magazine coverage and puff pieces in mainstream newspapers that have bent their ethics policies for the sake of a dollar. Even the buses in Washington DC had Nursultan Nazarbayev branding during one of the dictator’s shopping sprees to the US.
Kazakhstan has paid millions of petrodollars to the likes of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and a host of dodgy nation-branding firms to polish its post-Borat image. The money has largely been wasted.
Another ploy is to hold international conferences at the lavish facilities in Astana, including the Asian Development Bank annual meetings earlier this year. The irony of these meetings was the backdrop of a massive rehearsal for a military parade to mark national day. The tanks and screeching fighter jets above the conference facilities reminded the development bank poobahs that the days of handouts were over and Kazakh oil, gas and uranium was now king.
About eight years after the hilarious anti-hagiography Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan burst onto the international scene, Kazakhstan is only now beginning to feel less embarrassed.
Some wags even suggested to the government that it employ Sacha Baron Cohen as the ambassador for the world fair Astana EXPO 2017. I was at a meeting where this was raised and nobody actually said nyet!
Nazarbayev, a devout Muslim, has made religious tolerance a cornerstone of his dictatorship and, with 100 ethnic groupings calling Kazakhstan home, this sentiment filters down to street level, although there is a policy of localisation that sees ethnic Kazakhs replacing Russians and other "foreigners" in all key government posts.
Kazakh cuisine is pretty limited but there are okay European and American restaurants in Astana and Almaty. The brave may wish to sample besbarmak, the national dish. That is only if boiled horsemeat served with tasteless sheet noodle in a kind of Gulag gruel appeals to your taste buds.
The weather in Kazakhstan is atrocious. Fly-blown and hot during the short summer and down to -50ºC in the ghastly winters. Even the burly men wear mink coats to keep the cold at bay.
The population is petite, at just over 17-million, which means local consumption is not as attractive to investors as the enormous state subsidies offered for the creation of manufacturing facilities. Toyota and Hyundai have invested billions in made-for-export facilities, mainly to service the Chinese market next door.
Air Astana is an interesting beast, half-owned by Britain’s BAE in a joint venture with the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund. It is run by a former Cathay Pacific "Swire boy" (referring to its parent) and has a virtually new fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes, together with some regional jets from Bombardier and other manufacturers.
You still see loads of grotesque Soviet-era aircraft, many abandoned at the airports around the country. They have been kept flying by cannibalising other flying monstrosities but frequent crashes have led to attrition and also a shocking reputation for air safety. Air Astana was only recently rehabilitated to fly to European destinations after years in prang purgatory.
I had the opportunity to work in the capital briefly, writing hagiography for the various government rags, including The Astana Times, a totally invented national newspaper that carries dozens of stories about the dictator and his benign rule.
Accommodation was a condo in Akmola, the old part of the capital city. Outside my window loomed the King Hotel, once the biggest inn in the region. In its shadow was a house straight out of Borat, including the rotting Lada in the front yard.
The décor was, literally, to die for. Turquoise kitchen, tangerine bathroom, beige living room and, the piece de resistance, a lilac-hued boudoir complete with a gorgeous lavender chandelier. Even Borat’s sister Natalya, reputedly the fourth-best prostitute in Kazakhstan (in the movie, at least!), would have balked at that light fitting.
You have been warned.