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I was at a loss for something to read one day and, since I was also short on cash, I popped into The Works - purveyor of cheap, end-of-the-line, throw-away reading matter - where I came across this book which surprised me by being actually rather good. At £2.99, it was an absolute snip.
Ask yourself 'what do I know about Kazakhstan?'. Before I picked up this book, my answer would have been about the same - 'um...it's a country...?'
Did you know, for instance, that apples are from Kazakhstan? Or that it is the birth-place of trousers? Or that the barren Steppe at the heart of the country was, for the Russians, a site for launching rockets into space and for testing nuclear weapons (with catastrophic effect)? Robbins sets about enlightening us with an account of the country, its customs and its history which is, at different times, fascinating, mystifying, funny, and appalling, but always immensely readable.
What comes across most of all is the courage of the Kazakh people, sandwiched for so long between two great empires, and yet now emerging as a stable, oil and mineral-rich democracy under their (apparently) universally loved president, Nazarbayev - himself a steel-worker in harder times.
The narrative achieves a certain gravitas through Robbins' success in securing several lengthy talks with the president, and although the latter stages of the book do become slightly bogged down in politics, Nazarbayev is, in many ways, indicative of the strength of character that has guided the Kazakh people through so many trials and tribulations. Robbins' clear admiration of the man is a little infectious, and yet also tempered slightly by his understanding of the machinations of political spin.
For the most part, it's an easy read - more of a page-turner than a lot of travel-writing that I've come across. Robbins injects his own witty (and occasionally cynical) slant on all that he sees - an effective foil against what is at times a bleak landscape containing bleaker stories. Overall, I found it to be informative, compelling, slightly moving, and thoroughly enjoyable.