WEEK 28: Oh, Kazakhstan…

Version 2Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head and say, “Oh, Kazakhstan.” The epic short-sightedness of Kazakhstan’s latest legal gaffe is mind blowing. Read on:

Recent legislation has deemed many of the popular tourist areas in Kazakhstan, and other (as of yet, unspecified) locations within 25 kilometers of the border “closed zones.” In order for foreigners (yup, even diplomats like us) to legally visit any of these sites, they must send a written request on official Consulate letterhead to the Almaty Immigration Police Department 20 business days in advance. Each request is good for one visit only. There is no clear information about how the new law will be enforced, but perpetrators will either be arrested or fined a hearty sum.

Sam’s first reaction to this news was, “Congratulations, Kazakhstan, on losing your 2022 Olympic bid!” (Another of Sam’s reactions: “Wait, isn’t our apartment within 25 kilometers of the border?” Why yes. Yes it is.)

But seriously now folks, let’s discuss:

Almaty’s southernmost border clings to the foothills of the Tien Shan mountain range, which marks the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The best hiking, camping, and skiing that Kazakhstan has to offer take place in these foothills and surrounding mountain peaks and passes—all of it within 25 kilometers of the country’s border.

Some people who we imagine will be affected by the new law:

Olympic athletes—who tend to be (duh) foreigners—will certainly want to visit before the games, practice on Medeu’s sky-high skating rink, and build red blood cells on Shymbulak’s ski slopes. Assuming the law sticks (and KZ wins the Olympic bid), they’ll be required to obtain a permit for each of their visits to these locations. Meanwhile, do I even need to mention the foreign spectators who hope to see the Olympic athletes in action?

Tourists looking for an unique destination for outdoor adventures are no doubt attracted to southern Kazakhstan’s mountains. But personal experience tells us that the requirement to obtain a permit for these visits will be minimally publicized. Off-the-beaten-path adventures might end instead in arrest—for a broken law that foreign hikers had no idea existed.

And on a personal note, I believe that Kazakhstan’s great outdoors is its greatest asset. The bureaucratic black hole into which our requests will undoubtedly disappear, in combination with the difficulty of choosing hiking, camping, or skiing destinations nearly a month in advance (due to weather conditions, avalanche risk, etc.), makes Kazakhstan’s single most attractive characteristic off-limits to the very population that it should be courting.

Oh, Kazakhstan…

{Above: “The Lenin Hut” is a well-known landmark to those who frequent Kim-Asar Gorge—now off-limits to foreigners.}

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