Sometimes you can tell a book by the cover. One of the many charms of Robbins’ work is a striking cover image/photo of a bright red apple with a Kazakhstan-shaped bite on the fruit’s faintly imposed map of the Russian Federation. Apples, specifically the Aport, indeed did originate in this Central Asian -stan, once part of the Soviet Union, as did tulips–30 of the world’s 80 species. No Kazakhstan, no Johnny Appleseed, no 17-century Dutch tulip scam.
Robbins lived and traveled for two years in this huge country, four times the size of Texas, and gives us a well-distributed Niagara flow of little-known remarkables and factoids: here is the world’s highest density of wolves; the exile destination of Trotsky and Dostoevsky; an airport shaped like the traditional Kazakh hat; Ekibastuz, Solzhenitsyn’s gulag that inspired “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”; adam, the Kazakh word for man; Baiklonur, the site of all Russian space flights since 1961, and Kurchatov, the principal Soviet nuclear test center since 1949.
When Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, it found itself the world’s fourth largest nuclear power. Go to the country’s embassy website (www.kazakhembus.com) and you’ll find a banner, “Nuclear Nightmare of Kazakhstan” in red capitals. Click on the mushroom cloud and up pops a one-eyed, formaldehyde-bottled “Cyclops” baby photo, allegedly caused by atomic fallout. Very Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen-ish except it’s a plea to raise money for Kazakh radiation cancer victims.
Odd that Cohen would choose Kazakhstan to mock in his movie since it’s far and away the most stable and prosperous of the former Central Asian Soviet republics, thanks to huge oil and gas reserves, a growing contented petroletariat, and the 18-year rule of the popular, autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. I know of no other published travel writer who extensively traveled with and interviewed a country’s president, most poignantly to, arguably, the world’s worst ecological disaster, the shrinking Aral Sea, and to Kazakhstan’s Brasilia-esque new capital, the astonishing Astana (the former name, Akhmola, means “white grave.”–rewrite, give me the marketing dept.). In 14 years it has grown from architectural plans to a city of 400,000.
Unlike hummingbird journalists who dip in and out of their destinations, Robbins came and stayed and patiently traveled the landscape. He ate besbarmak, the national dish (traditionally boiled horse cooked with onions, served on large pasta squares). He learned a Kazakh doesn’t ask your family or tribe origin but to what horde do you belong. He notes the usual anti-diarrhea remedy (shot glass equally filled with vodka and salt). He doesn’t violate custom by pointing at the moon or spitting near a well.
His writing is brisk, skeptical but not sneering or patronizing. And the book is handsomely illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings and a helpful map.
“Apples are from Kazakhstan,” Christopher Robbins (Atlas & Co., 296 pp; $24).