What it's really like to travel in the home of Borat: Kazakhstan

What if Borat had been Australian? What if Sacha Baron Cohen's famous character had been a boorish anti-Semitic ignoramus who hailed from, say, Wagga Wagga? What if the joke was on us?

That's something I'm pondering as I'm travelling through the country that Borat was making fun of: Kazakhstan. You all know Kazakhstan, of course – and that's mostly due to Baron Cohen's swaggering moustachioed journalist with a penchant for mankinis, racism, and making people deeply uncomfortable. The movie came out 12 years ago, but it's still one of the only things most people know about Kazakhstan.

So it's strange to be here and to see this place and its people and to know that they're real. This is the home of Borat. And the joke is on them.

"I guess I have two feelings about him," says Dana, my tour guide in the Kazakh capital of Astana, as we sit down for coffee in a big, modern shopping mall. She'd asked a few seconds ago if I had any questions about her country, and I decided to broach a topic I'd been afraid to mention. What do people here think of Borat?

"On one hand I don't like him," Dana continues, "because he's making these jokes about us. And why us? What did we do? But on the other hand," she sighs, "I guess now everyone has heard of Kazakhstan."

We've heard of Kazakhstan, it's true – but we don't know what to make of it. The Central Asian country almost didn't seem real when we were watching Borat. That was kind of the point, I guess. Baron Cohen purposefully chose a country that people knew absolutely nothing about, but could easily believe was pretty crap.

Kazakhstan was an abstract concept to viewers. The actual country, the real place, felt so far removed from reality that it was hard to feel sorry for any people who might live there. Baron Cohen played on his American hosts' ignorance in the film, but he also played on his viewers'; it was a victimless crime. And anyway, they probably don't even have TVs in Kazakhstan – it's not like people there would even know.

Though, they did know. Of course. They do have TVs in Kazakhstan. And they were fairly bewildered, and then angry, at having unwittingly become the butt of an international joke. Why us? What did we do? There was anger at the parts of the film that were so blatantly untrue; but there was also anger, I would imagine, at the parts of the film that felt a little too familiar.

If you look close enough, after all, you can see shades of the dictatorial Kazakhstan Borat described in its leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was last re-elected with a highly suspicious 98 per cent of the vote, and who has several museums dedicated to his life and work in Astana. The country isn't known for anti-Semitism, but there have been accusations of human rights abuses: no free press, no free speech, no free elections. And Borat's claim that the national dietary staples are horse meat and horse urine isn't quite true – they're horse meat and horse milk.

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Still, there's plenty here that puts the lie to the man in the mankini. No one in Kazakhstan talks like Borat, for starters. No one says, "It's niiiiice." Kazakhstan is also surprisingly modern – the country ranks   No. 56 on the UN's Human Development Index, which makes it by far the most advanced of the 'Stans, and puts it alongside the likes of Oman and Malaysia, and well ahead of Brazil, Thailand, and even China.

This is a country of genuine wealth, thanks to deposits of oil and natural gas and some good financial management. In Astana it has some of the most impressive modern architecture on the planet. It also seems, on face value at least, a broadly tolerant place, where people of different ethnicities and religions mix freely and peacefully. It's safe here. It's comfortable. The horse meat and the horse milk are pretty gross, but if you avoid them everything's fine.

It's nice to see that. It's nice, in fact, to visit any country that's the butt of others' jokes to see what they're really like. The English love making fun of the Irish, but then you go there and you realise what a friendly and fun place Ireland is. Australians make jokes about Kiwis, but we also should acknowledge that we've got one of the world's great tourist destinations just across the ditch.

The whole world was laughing at Kazakhstan, and you have to feel for them. Australians wouldn't have been too happy if Borat was an Aussie. We can make fun of ourselves, but it's different when someone else does it. It's mean. It creates stereotypes that can last a lifetime.

That's why you have to go to Kazakhstan to see it for yourself, to see that the nation doesn't match up to the satire. It's not backwards. It's not racist. In fact, to quote a well-known figure in that country: It's niiiice.

Have you visited a destination that's the butt of people's jokes? How did you find it?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

​The writer is visiting Kazakhstan as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours.

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