Closed to foreigners under Romanov and Soviet rule, Kazakhstan has remained largely hidden from the world – a remarkable feat for a country the size of Western Europe. Few would guess that Kazakhstan – a blank in Westerner’s collective geography – turns out to be diverse, tolerant, and surprisingly modern, the country that gave the world apples, trousers, and even perhaps, King Arthur.
This was a wonderful book, yet whenever I talk to anyone about it, their eyes start to glaze over or they give me the “oh yeah, really?” But, it is a very interesting look at a country most of us know nothing about. Robbins wrote the book because he was intrigued by a conversation he had on a plane with a man from Little Rock, Arkansas. A widow who met a woman from Kazakhstan online, Robbins’s fellow passenger was flying to Kazakhstan to marry her. Before he departed he mentioned that apples are from Kazakhstan. This image stuck with Robbins and he couldn’t look at apples without thinking about this elusive country. In order to get to know it better, he scoured it’s hidden places sometimes with a driver, sometimes in the enigmatic President Nazarbayev’s helicopter and onetime in a blizzard with an art critic and a slightly off-kilter restorer of ancient Kazakh artifacts who is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. He visited the Kazakh version of the Grand Canyon, the elusive eagle hunters, the Gulags, Soviet nuclear test sites, the dramatic new capital city rising out of the steppe and the vanishing Aral Sea. Full of treasures and sorrows, Kazakhstan has a history worth knowing and a future worth watching and Robbins provides an excellent introduction to both.