5365 kilometers. That's the distance between Switzerland and my beautiful hometown of Almaty in Kazakhstan.
And if you were to ask the people there to compare Kazakhstan to another country, they would not hesitate to answer: Switzerland! As you read along, try to guess whether each photograph shows a part of Switzerland or Kazakhstan - the solution is at the bottom of the article.
Many people would never consider putting Kazakhstan and Switzerland on the same page: Switzerland is regarded as highly developed, civilized and extremely beautiful. Kazakhstan is little known to tourists. And the little bit that is known is often falsely associated with the infamous film Borat.
But the Kazakhstan I know and love shares the beauty of Switzerland. It has been ranked by the Global Peace Index to be safer than prominent tourist attractions such as the United States, Greece and Thailand (with Switzerland dropping two places in the ranking in 2017). Also, it is quickly crossing the line from a “developing” country into a modern and "developed" nation.
Of course, it would not be fair to compare the entirety of Kazakhstan, with its extremely diverse landscapes including steppes, deserts, forests, and the sea. So, I have decided to cover the area I am familiar with and which reminds people of Switzerland. What you are reading is the perspective of a Kazakh national.
It is no secret that Switzerland is home to many breathtaking mountain landscapes, lakes, rivers and luxury ski resorts. When you open any tourist guide on Switzerland, one of the first things you will see is Jungfrau, Pilatus, or the Matterhorn. Each mountain is unique and worth a visit.
My hometown of Almaty is famous for a few such places as well. The most popular and most frequently visited at any season is the mountain resort of Shymbulak. Located at 2200 m above sea, it is popular among ski and snowboard fans. You will also find those who prefer enjoying the fresh air and beautiful landscapes at one of the cafés or restaurants. Shymbulak has all the necessary facilities that make you forget that you are in the heart of Central Asia - and not at a famous Alpine resort.
Just a little lower we have one of the most stunning outdoor ice skating rinks, Medeu. It is located at 1691 m above sea. Unfortunately, a whole range of other destinations in Kazakhstan lie outside of travelers' reach. Poor infrastructure has meant that many amazing mountain sceneries have been left untouched by those visiting the country.
I suppose, in a way, the same could be said of Switzerland in the past: The days when poets wrote of the unconquerable heights and untameable nature of Mt. Blanc are long gone. Today, any able-bodied tourist has the possibility of visiting the sight in the safety and comfort of a cable car.
Another similarity between Switzerland and Kazakhstan can be drawn with mountain lakes. What can be better than the beauty of a mountain lake, calm and refreshing on a hot summer day?
The first comparison that comes to mind is Lake Blausee in Switzerland and Kolsai Lake of Kazakhstan. Also, Oeschinensee in Switzerland and the Big Almaty Lake of Kazakhstan. Yet again, the main difference is that in Switzerland, the hiking paths are safe and well-travelled, while in Kazakhstan, such lakes are often left in the wilderness.
One of my most favorite topics to talk about is food! I suppose the similarity is that both nations consume a lot of meat and a lot of heavy foods. I have been quite surprised to find out that Swiss also eat horse meat, which is one of the main national dishes of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhs love their cheeses as well as traditional meat based dishes. Moreover, being a country sitting in the center of Russia, China, and other Asian countries, you can only imagine the mix of ingredients and dishes at our disposal.
In a similar fashion, with Switzerland placed in the middle of France, Germany and Italy, it is host to a wide variety of traditions. You often do not have to travel far in order to notice the change in local foods and tastes.
So, what do you think? Are Switzerland and Kazakhstan more similar rather than different?
No doubt, the richness of the food and the beauty of the landscapes give both Swiss and Kazakhs their characteristic national identity: A mixture of strong traditional roots with a love for adventure and innovation. It is that challenge to conquer the tallest mountain and travel the wild, untrodden paths to discover a solitary lake.
And who would have known? Despite a big difference in size, both countries have roughly the same population! Perhaps we are closer than we think after all...
(Feature photograph copyright Mattias Neuhaus, Kazakh landscapes copyright Irina Vorozhcova, Kazakh cheese platter copyright Askar-tau.com)
(And here is the solution, from top to bottom: Kazakhstan - Switzerland - Switzerland - Kazakhstan - Switzerland - Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan - Switzerland)
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