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Friday, 13 July 2012

   That night i found a better place to sleep, in an unfrequented stairwell next to a high-rise block of flats. On the morning of Tuesday 7th June, St Colman’s day, just before 9am i made for the consular department of the Russian embassy. Numerous people were already waiting, but in quite a civilised manner my name was added to a list, so i knew approximately how long i would have to wait; i had time to go back to the internet cafe for an hour or so, before going inside at about 11am. Chatting to a young Englishman, accompanied by an Australian lady, the name of Borat came up for the first time. Sacha Baron Cohen’s paradigm of buffoonery was originally Moldovan, evolving later into a native of Kazakhstan, though his creator never bothered to pay the country a visit. To borrow Neville Chamberlain's ill-famed phrase, Kazakhstan has the advantage of being a "far-away country [with] people of whom we know nothing"[1]. This, combined with Baron Cohen himself being a member of an ethnic minority (so it must be ‘kosher’ – poppycock) gave him carte blanche to make a savage mockery of a country and its people, yet escape any meaningful charges of racism or xenophobia. Personally i was never tempted to see the film, since Baron Cohen's previous incarnation, Ali "Is it because I is c**p?" G had ushered in a new 'dying away' of British comedy. But millions did, to the extent that in September 2006, Kazakhstan's ‘post-Borat international image’ was among the items on the agenda in a meeting between the Kazakh and US Presidents.

   When my turn came i had a constructive conversation with the young Russian official, who took a photocopy of the Bristol Evening Post article about my walk, but i learnt that only a very short-term transit visa (10 days maximum) would be available to me, and then only on production of relevant travel tickets. I now understood clearly that the people in the consulate in Lviv had been able to bend the rules in order to provide a tourist visa outside my country of residence, but i couldn’t expect this to be repeated.
   It therefore seemed as if China might offer the best prospect of eastward progress; i capered off to another internet place to find the address of their embassy. Vaguely the wiser, at the counter afterwards a young Kazakh with excellent English introduced himself to me. He was Muslim, and like many of his co-religionists, saw it as his duty to provide me with assistance, offering to take me directly to the Chinese embassy. His car with driver(!) was waiting outside, and we motored to the ‘new city’, a district of vast neo-modern architecture, on something like a Texan[2] scale. The Chinese consulate in fact was closed until the next day, after which it would be closed for a week, to accommodate the arrangements for the 10th anniversary summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, held in Astana from the 14th to 15th June[3]. My new acquaintance suggested i come back to his place for a wash, and then we could do lunch. A novelty of the lift in his apartment block was that it needed to be paid for by credit card. After my shower a native Russian-speaking friend of his arrived, who had lived for some time in western Germany. At first i thought he said he worked in ‘Icelandic’ finance, but it turned out to be ‘Islamic’ finance. We headed over the road to a diner for a splendid lunch which i wasn’t allowed to pay for, including my first ever taste of kumis, horse’s milk, though i never got around to trying another local speciality, camel’s milk.
'Palace of Peace and Accord', Astana
   Before parting company i put my email address on the back of a couple of photos for these guys, and also gave my last remaining German language Marys Meals leaflet to the Russian fellow. Then i was taken in the chauffeur-driven motor to a shiny pyramid structure, called the ‘Palace of Peace and Accord’. In describing this place, how long i wonder before i succumb to the urge to say something rude? It is pyramid shaped, so in that sense you’d have to concede that the building does physically have a ‘point’. Inside though, it’s not so much a ‘curate’s egg’ as a ‘pig’s breakfast’ ...oh dear, not very long. Sir Norman Foster must have won the competition to design this turkey by dint of his international reputation, but the preparatory sketches, exhibited inside, give the impression of having been cobbled together one lunchtime – they wouldn’t look out of place in a GCSE portfolio. I felt sorry for the young woman with outstanding English, whose lot was to guide visitors around. Briefly, at the top/apex there’s a sort of ‘sanctuary’ area, with quite pretty doves on the windows, in which there are costumes in glass cases, representing all the world’s major religions. The building in fact was always intended to function primarily as a venue for the triennial ‘Congress of World and Traditional Religions’, a forum for senior religious figures to seek to improve mutual understanding[4]. But Sir Norman just wasn’t equipped with the right theological or diplomatic tools to create a meaningful environment. There’s a lift which rises diagonally from the first floor, a snug fit inside the wall of a pyramid, you see – but to what end? Especially since it doesn’t have windows, so it’s not as if one is thereby afforded a marvellous vista. And then the core of the building, where Pharaoh’s tomb would be, is taken up with a Victorian-looking opera house. In summary, the whole thing looks like the set for the climactic scene in a straight-to-video James Bond film – ‘A Licence to Kill off Borat’, perhaps.

[1] “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It seems still more impossible that a quarrel that has already been settled in principle should be the subject of war.” Radio address to the nation, 27th September 1938.
[2] “Everything’s bigger in Texas.”
[3] Not as well-known in western countries as it deserves to be, the SCO currently has six full members; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, accounting for a quarter of the world's entire population. Additionally however, since 2005 Pakistan, India, Iran and Mongolia have all had observer status, to which in June 2012 was added Afghanistan. At the same summit, Turkey was granted dialogue partner status. This means that SCO summits are forums in which well over half the human race is represented. In 2011 its six full members accounted for 13% of total world trade. This figure is not expected to fall any time soon.
[4] This makes very good sense in Kazakhstan, a country said to have 90 or more ethnicities and a wide array of different religious faiths.

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