Saturday, September 03, 2011

Nightmares from the USSR

Yes, that is the actual name of a tour of Kazakhstan organized by Kazakh Tours (,) a company operating from the Netherlands that runs many itineraries in the far-away country that sound absolutely fascinating. On the Nightmares tour you visit not just two labour camps that once formed part of the Soviet gulag system, but also the remains of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and some other attractions. Except for the price (1000 euros for six days,) sign me up.
When I returned from Siberia earlier this summer, the question I was asked most often was whether I had an opportunity to visit any of the gulag camps, and my answer was no. I think it probably takes an outsider to understand the somewhat morbid appeal of places like this to the Western tourist. (Consider all the Nazi concentration camps and Holocaust memorials that now draw droves of tourists.)
Kazakh Tours also offers a number of other interesting glimpses of this little-known but very large country, the ninth largest in the world. Kazakhstan still retains close ties with Russia and has had the same ruler since independence in 1991. About a decade ago the capital of the country was moved from Almaty in the south east of the country near the border of China, to Astansa on the northern steppes not far from western Siberia. Astana has received mixed reviews, but it sounds very intriguing for its monumental modern architecture if nothing else.
If you have ever watched a Russian space mission on television, you may not have realized it was actually taking place at the space centre in Kazakhstan. Unlike many of the other "stans," Kazakhstan is relatively rich because of its oil and mineral wealth.
Now that this part of the world is opening up to tourism, it is good that a company like Kazakh Tours is developing options to see it. While independent travel in the region is possible, it sounds as if it would be pretty difficult without a lot of patience and a good command of Russian.

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