Arriving at the Tan Sholpan hotel - 10 storeys of grim Soviet concrete on the outskirts of Almaty - I'm asked where I'd like to sleep: judging by the fact that every key is on offer, I assume I must be the only guest. High up please, with a view. And when the clapped-out lift finally gets me there, what a view: behind the low roofs of the city stretches a wide horizon of sun-kissed, snow- capped peaks.
I'd made allowances for exaggeration in my guidebook's claim that here "every car is a taxi", but when I flag down a newish Mercedes containing an entire Kazakh family, I discover it's actually true. As we make our way towards those peaks, they ply me with the questions I shall find myself answering many times over the next fortnight: what brought me here, do I like it, and why do so few other Europeans come to visit? Answers: (a) to record Kazakh music, (b) very much indeed, and (c) because they generally don't even know where Kazakhstan is. When you tell them the country's the same size as Western Europe, they stare in disbelief.
A heavily loaded cable car swings me to the top of the nearest snowy peak, where I have further encounters. Two teenage girls are eating their horsemeat lunch under a tree whose branches bear hundreds of coloured ribbons: every one represents a wish, they explain, according to ancient shamanistic lore. Then a retired postal worker and his wife emerge from Orthodox mass, and their English is infinitely better than my creaky Russian. As we speak, the sound of a muezzin wafts up from the mists below. I share cognac toasts out of plastic cups with a shopkeeper and his family, who ask in a puzzled way why democratic Britain is following Bush on Iraq: this may be a predominantly Muslim country, yet they're anything but fanatical and, so far, this looming division has not damped their overwhelming friendliness towards the West.
But who are these people? Their country was created in the Twenties when Stalin carved up that vast territory known as Turkestan, in which the Kazakhs were nomads without a state of any kind. The streets of Almaty are filled with broad faces suggesting Chinese origins, plus a liberal smattering of Koreans (Stalin forced many ethnic Koreans to settle there in the Forties), plus a fair number of blond and blue-eyed Russians. Hence the mixed social signals on that mountain top.
Moreover, the architecture of Almaty - which was flattened by an earthquake in 1911 - still shows strong traces of the Tsars in its broad straight avenues; other buildings reflect its former status as a favourite holiday haunt of the Soviets. To get my bearings, I stroll through Panfilov Park and admire the piquant contrast between the massive war memorial and the ethereal beauty of the marzipan- coloured Zenkov Cathedral. As it's Sunday, all the world is strolling with me. And sliding - every child has its toboggan, with the adults taking their turn as well. The sun may be shining, but the snow is deep, the ice is rock solid, and it's very, very cold.
The streets are notably quiet, partly because the snow deadens all sound, and partly because the Kazakhs are careful drivers who never use the horn. …