|Map of Kazakhstan|
Imagine, if you can, what Aspen, Colorado, must have been like before the arrival of highways, hotels, ski lifts, and cell-phone towers. Imagine broad sweeping valleys of alpine grassland dotted with flowers of every color and species. Imagine rolling summits, clear creeks, grass-covered passes, and no sign whatever of humans: no fences, no tree stumps, no jeep tracks, no trails. Overhead, there are no jet trails, no man-made sounds of any kind. Congratulations . . . you've imagined the Tien Shan of Kazakhstan.
Your destination is the city of Almaty (which means"father of apples," on account of the huge fruit grown there). This is the best jumping-off spot for the Tien Shan. Like a powder avalanche that has come to rest at the base of the mountain, the city spills outward from the Tien Shan. From your hotel window you can see the near ranges just outside the city limits, rising in green swaths to 12,000 feet. Behind them are snow-covered spires and glaciated summits soaring to 16,000 feet or more.
Most people are a bit rusty on where Kazakhstan is . . . or Uzbekistan . . . or any of the other 'stans. There seem to be a lot of them, and they kind of drift in and out of the headlines from time to time, without really being around long enough for you to know exactly where they are.
Kazakhstan is the big 'stan, just below Russia, in Central Asia. It's the size of Western Europe, with a population of under 17 million. It's large and empty and beautiful and wild. It became part of the expanding Russian Empire (later the Soviet Union) in the 1850s, and gained independence in 1991. Within its borders are vast mineral wealth (mostly undeveloped), the third largest oil fields in the world (mostly undeveloped), Russia's main space base (very developed, but officially"not on the map" for many years), and an area known simply as "the Polygon," where for 50 years the Soviet military tested their nuclear capability, and which is uninhabitable today.
The reason that Kazakhstan isn't heavily populated is obvious when you fly over it. Between barren mountain ranges, huge empty steppes stretch away to the horizon. Much of the central and northern regions are bleak, over 3,000 feet in elevation, and prone to blistering heat in summer and jagged cold in winter.
You will also see another prominent and more inviting part of the landscape on your flight: the Tien Shan. The "Celestial Mountains" (translated from the Chinese) are a range stretching 1,800 miles from east to west, more than 500 miles wide in places, with peaks over 23,000 feet.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication