The largest country in Central Asia—it’s as big as all of Western Europe combined—turns 20 years old today, and to celebrate, here’s a list of ten random facts about everyone’s favorite Kazakh-speaking ‘Stan.
1. For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Borat, the fictional reporter invented by the English comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, hails from Kazakhstan. In Baron Cohen’s 2006 blockbuster movie, Borat describes his native land in less than flattering terms, as an impoverished region where prostitution and child marriage are rife, and people drink “horse urine” for fun. In response to such bad—if genuinely comedic—publicity, the Kazakhstan government bought full-page ads in The New York Times and the U.S. News and World Report, and commercials on CNN and the local ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., begging Americans to get to know the real Kazakhstan, too.
2. How You Like Them Apples?
Those Granny Smiths sitting in your fruit bowl right now? They’re the great- great- great- granddaughters of wild apples, Malus sieversii, which are originally from modern-day Kazakhstan. According to Christopher Robbins’ 2008 travel book, Apples Are From Kazakstan (required reading for any visitor of that wind-parched land), the wild apples were brought to the Middle East 2,300 years ago, where they were cultivated and eventually exported worldwide.
3. Tiptoe Through the…
Tulips are from the mountains within, and surrounding, modern-day Kazakhstan, too. They were also later cultivated in Turkey and then exported to Europe, causing what historians refer to as “Tulipmania” in the Netherlands. The 17th-century Dutch were reportedly so taken with the waxen flowers that a single bulb was sometimes sold for the price of an entire house in Amsterdam.
4. Horsing Around
Horses and cattle have been so vital to nomadic Kazakh culture for so long, a common greeting in the countryside asks not if you are OK, but “Are your cattle OK?” A 2009 archeological study found that people in modern day Kazakhstan are among the first in the world to tame horses, and to use them for riding, work, milk and meat. Besparmak, boiled hunks of horsemeat, is still on traditional Kazakh menus today.
5. King Arthur was a Kazakh?
According to Robbins’ book, the famous, supposedly Celtic, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table may have actually been Kazakh horsemen. While that’s hardly a point of historical certainty, Robbins describes the claim as “serious scholarly speculation.” And it kind of makes sense: If King Arthur lived at all, he would have lived around 1500 years ago—right around the time that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent thousands of cavalrymen from modern-day Kazakhstan to defend the fringes of the Roman Empire in the modern British Isles. The commander of those Central Asian cavalrymen just happened to be named Lucius Artorius Castus, or “Artyr” in Welsh.
Despite its gorgeous, lunar countryside—not to mention its handful of historical claims to fame—Kazakhstan, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, remains a largely repressive, corrupt and undemocratic bastion for some pretty grim human rights abuses. In July this year, the famous English rocker, Sting, cancelled a concert the day before it was scheduled—on President Nazarbayev’s birthday, no less—in the Kazakh capital, citing human rights concerns.
7. The Naked Truth
In June this year, one of Kazakhstan’s most famous and fearless investigative journalists, Guljan Yergaliyeva, quit her job as editor of a major Kazakh newspaper and started her own news website. To publicize the new portal, Yergaliyeva released an advertisement on YouTube in she strips down to a pair of shiny stilettos, leaving viewers with nothing more than the site’s chirpy slogan: “Better the naked truth than a dandy lie.” We’d like to have seen Walter Cronkite perform stunt like that.
8. Big Buildings
The World’s Biggest Tent, built by world-famous architect Norman Foster, is in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. But that’s not all: Astana, this futuristic, frigid blip upon the Kazakh steppe, was built by the sheer force of will of President Nazarbayev, who also commissioned a massive pyramid (also built by Foster), a shimmering concert hall (a nod to the Sydney Opera House), and a rather hideous tower, called the Bayterek (pictured), shaped like a Poplar tree crowed by a giant golden egg and decorated by—what else?—Nazarbayev’s gilded hand print.
9. Family Feud!
Politics in Kazakhstan are fifty percent ex-Soviet machinations and fifty percent afternoon soap opera. For example, for the last half-decade, President Nazarbayev has been locked in feisty, international power struggle—alternately described as a “war of attrition” and a “blood feud” by Western newspapers—with his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev, who has publically criticized his father-in-law’s human rights abuses, has also been accused of torturing people. Both men's names bubble up in political gossip circles from D.C. to Beijing.
10. Dances With Horses
An equestrian-themed dance craze has been sweeping Kazakhstan for the last couple years, with flash mobs the size of small cities gathering in malls, streets and public parks to perform a galloping traditional dance, called Kara Zhorga. In September this year, nearly 60,000 people turned out on the streets of Oskemen, a city in eastern Kazakhstan, according to EurasiaNet. The year before, 15,000 turned out in the western city of Atyrau to shake, shimmy and gallop the night away. Giddy-up!