“What did you think about the Borat film?” Saken asked, a bit aggressively, on day one of my trip to Kazakhstan. I was there with a group of journalists to look at oilfields and meet energy executives from the state oil company. “Very impolite,” I answered, and mumbled some other platitudes about stereotypes and Western ignorance. I’d wanted to say “offensive and over-the-top” but my Russian was rusty and I was jet-lagged. I was determined to like Kazakhstan. Dictatorships aren’t my favourite destination — especially ones where journalists have a habit of dying unnatural deaths — but they have their attractions. Millions love Dubai, a building site in a dictatorship staffed by slaves, so just because a place goes in for a bit of repression doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, too.
But by day two, when I’d begun to suspect that Saken was the minder charged with looking after the visiting journalists, my enthusiasm for him — if not for his country — was beginning to wane. Then we had a tour of Astana. A quick trip to see an aquarium, a short ride up a tower where we could put our palms in a moulding of president Nazarbaev’s and make a wish. “The president must be a very busy man,” I remarked to the guide after she told us of the excellent histories of Astana he had written and the superlative city plans he had created. She agreed.
By day three we’d flown from bizarre Astana to a rough port on the Caspian. Our reward was another banquet, more toasts, and more greasy horse meat. Saken’s incessant photographing of us was getting tedious. “They keep files on you,” said a reporter from the FT. I had visions of secret policemen looking at pictures of me turning down yet another plate of horse salami, and swore I’d be a more gracious guest at the next meal. Then I saw the sheep’s head on the platter at the lunchtime banquet. Trapped between local enthusiasts at the end of the table, I held my breath, chewed twice and washed down an overloaded forkful of gristly ear with a glass of fermented camel’s milk.
Later that afternoon, after a short helicopter trip down the Caspian coastline, we were in the small resort of Kenderli. It isn’t for the average Kazakh. With just thirty or so pristine houses, a glorious swimming pool and recreation centre, its location — hours by dodgy road across the steppe from the nearest town — is for those who fly helicopters to their dachas on the sea. Vladimir Putin had met Nazarbaev in Kenderli for an energy summit just a week before. A gleaming billboard greeted us. “Always together! Always forward!” it said, beneath a picture of the two smiling presidents.
Day four and I was in Almaty, with the stunning Tian Shan mountains in the background. No more banquets, no more Saken, no more vodka. Just the prospect of sleeping through a long flight back to London. My affection for Kazakhstan had returned. I went on a shopping spree for traditional tat and some camel’s milk fudge — using some of the money I’d won off Saken during high-stakes pool games the night before . By the time I’d got onto the plane the tat was gone from my bag. A portly woman in Heathrow confiscated the fudge.