Thursday, April 10, 2008

Apples Are From Kazakhstan

Apples Are From Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins
$16.32 in the Hansisgreat Store
ISBN: 978-0-9777-433-84
This is an exciting new travel memoir that caught me totally by surprise. Kazakhstan is larger than all of the nations of western Europe combined, yet it's almost completely unknown to the rest of the world. 
It wasn't always this way. In fact, Kazakhstan has often had an important role on the world stage. Many of its towns have been occupied since ancient times, and were critical staging posts on the famous Silk Road, the route which supplied Chinese silk to the Roman Empire.
In the nineteenth century, it became part of the Russian empire. 
Russian czars closed the country to foreigners, a policy which remained in place under the Soviets. Today, the Kazakhs have independence, which for various reasons has proved to be a mixed blessing. It also controls a significant portion of the Caspian Sea, which is estimated to contain a quarter of the world's remaining oil reserves.
This book doesn't delve too heavily into the nation's history. The author spent a considerable amount of time there, and focuses more on the culture and his interactions with the natives.
Apples were indeed first farmed here, a fact discovered by one Nikolai Vavilov, the country's most famous scientist. He traveled over five continents, and identified the birthplace of more plants than anyone else in history. Sadly, this brilliant geneticist was arrested as a supposed traitor under the Soviet shadow government, and died of starvation in prison.
The author also visits sites associated with Leon Trotsky, a key figure in the creation of the Soviet Union. Trotsky was later unseated and expelled by the ruthless Joseph Stalin.
In spite of centuries of bullying by its more powerful neighbors, the people of Kazakhstan seem optimistic and inviting to visitors. After reading Robbins' book, I don't think I'll be booking a trip for myself just yet, but I'm still awed by the spirit and accomplishments of this neglected and mistreated nation.
There are a lot of fun anecdotes, the type that make travel stories a thrill to read, and it's informative to learn about one of the mysterious and misunderstood patches at the edge of the map.

No comments: