Kazakhstsan is emerging from decades of a Soviet system, and some of the remote rural areas are getting left behind. There is plenty of money in this land full of oil and natural resources, but it stays in the hands of the few. Big cities grow, rich people get richer, and the rural poor are left to struggle.
In an effort to address this, a network of homestay accommodation is slowly being established across the country. Here visitors can enjoy simple living and home-cooked food and experience the way of life of places where life is relaxing.
One such place is Karkaraly, a small town a long way from anywhere. I travelled overnight from Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and still the main city. The train was hot and stuffy, and the freezing air struck my face when I emerged 14 hours later. Gratefully, I found the car that was waiting to drive me and my companions the 300km to Karkaraly. This was a memorable journey, mostly because nothing happened. We travelled over bleak, beautiful snow-covered land. In the 3-hour journey, the only signs of life were a tiny rodent and a huge eagle. No signs of habitation were visible, except occasionally a hut in the distance. No cars travelled in either direction until we came very close to Karkaraly.
On arrival we were greeted warmly, but we were not allowed to stay in a homestay, as our host decided that our weak European constitutions weren't up to the cold. Instead we went to the sanitorium, still a popular place for people to visit. The room was fine, but the food and service retained something of its former Soviet glory.
We had gone to give training to future homestay owners, though by the way they welcomed us, it seemed that it was us who had more to learn. We were invited home one evening to huge quantities of food and lots of vodka. Both went down well. There was perhaps more vodka than was good for me, but I used the cold as an excuse. Plus it was quite hard to refuse.
Karkaraly is not blessed with obvious tourist attractions, which is part of the appeal. In the depths of winter we were wonderfully well looked after but could not get a taste of the place for tourists.
There is a national park with a range of species unique to it. A knowledgeable guide will lead you by foot, or go by horse. There is a lake for swimming, with a beach that is probably about as far away from the sea as it is possible to be.
But most of all there are the people: warm, friendly, welcoming, and keen to introduce you to their simple way of life. There might be traditional dancing or singing, and the people of the area are fine craftsmen. Come to Karkaraly for rest and relaxation and a slice of culture unlike any other. Not only will you have a good time, but by choosing to take a holiday here, you will be helping the regeneration of the region.
Having a good time and feeling good about it: what more could you ask in a holiday?