Nightbus N 22 to “Schlebusch ueber Klinikum” stops just in front of the station. Supermarket shelves are filled with German brands like Kuehne, Ehrmann and Bahlsen. And the little cafe around the corner serves huge, delicious pieces of German-style cheese cake with berries.
We are not in Nordrhein-Westfalen, but in Almaty, and geographically Europe is still at least 1500 km to the West (the Volga at Astrakhan). The bus is bought second hand and nobody bothered to take out the German destination signboard. The cheese cake as well as the Kuehne Pickles cost twice as much as any Kazakh or Russian brand.
Kazakhstan, one of the former Soviet republics, became independent in 1991. Since then, in a system our guidebook kindly describes as “‘presidential democracy’”, President Nursultan Nazarbajev has led the world’s 9th largest country into an ever brighter future. Thanks to newly developed oil fields at the Caspian Sea, the economy is expanding, and hotel and restaurant prices in cities like Almaty, Astana and Atyrau (an oil boom city) reach European levels (often without offering European standard).
What today is Kazakhstan became Russian territory during the so-called „Great Game.“ In this 19th century version of the Cold War, Britain and Russia struggled for military control over Central Asia, which was seen as a buffer between Russia and British India. The scattered Kazakh nomads were quickly integrated into the Tsarist Empire and later became part of the Soviet Union. Under Stalin hundred thousands of German-Russians (as well as other minorities such as Koreans) were forced to resettle in Kazakhstan - making the country a melting pot of different ethnicities (and cuisines).
The wide Kazakh steppe offered not only empty areas for the Soviet Union’s space rocket launches and nuclear tests, but also for some of the largest Gulags. These were concentrated around Karaganda, south of today’s capital Astana.
Today most of the German-Kazakhs have emigrated to Germany. But almost everyone we talk to knows at least a few words of German and / or has a relative or a friend of German origin. Due to the government’s promotion of return programmes for Kazakhs abroad (mostly from China and the other “Stan” countries), Kazakhs are now again the largest ethnic group in Kazakhstan, followed by Russians. Kazakh traditions are held up, and we have had ample chance to try the national drink Kumys (fermented mare’s milk). But we are also looking forward to another visit to the cake shop in Almaty…