The title of this blog post is a title I never anticipated using when I started blogging a little over two years ago but am I ever glad that I have the opportunity to use it! And no, this is not some Borat-like put on, I actually am in Kazakhstan (I wrote this post several days before I left). You see, Swarovski Optik, the company that agreed back at the beginning of the year to trade advertising on 10,000 Birds for optics, was putting together a trip to Kazakhstan a couple of months ago to highlight their involvement as a Birdlife International Species Champion for the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius), which breeds almost entirely just in Kazakhstan (and a tiny bit in Russia), and they asked we three 10,000 Birds bloggers if one of us was interested in going. Neither Mike nor Charlie could manage it so, by default, I was the lucky one who was tapped to take the trip!
Of course, like most Americans, I knew virtually nothing about Kazakhstan. What I did know was that the Borat character of Sacha Baron Cohen was a fictional Kazakhi, that Kazakhstan was a big country in Central Asia (really far away) and had been a part of the Soviet Union, and that Sociable Lapwings breed there. That’s it. So I had quite a bit of studying to do so when I told people I was going to Kazakhstan and they asked what I knew about the country I could say more than a sentence and manage to not sound like an idiot (really the goal of most of the learning I have done in my life).
So what have I learned? Well Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and is the largest country that does not border an ocean. It is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China and the Caspian Sea. A slight majority of the population are ethnic Kazakhis but many Russians still live there too, as well as a host of other ethnicities because of Stalin’s practice of using the vast steppe of Kazakhstan the same way he used Siberia, to dump populations of people who he did not like. Kazakhstan has a host of fossil fuel reserves, and is considered a Central Asian financial powerhouse. The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, while democratically elected, has managed to get himself exempted from the constitutional limitation of two terms, but the exemption will only apply to him. So while it is in name a full-fledged democracy it seems that Kazakhstan might not be a happy land of freedom for all.
So now that we all have a tiny bit of understanding about Kazakhstan I think a brief explanation of what I’ll be doing there is in order. First off, this trip is not just me and some Swarovski representatives. The American contigent consists of me, Sharon Stiteler, and Clay Taylor (Clay is the “Naturalist Market Manager” for Swarovski Optik North America). The European contigent, much larger, consists of birding journalists, magazine editors, birding equipment store owners, professional photographers, biologists, and a folks with a host of other impressive-sounding job titles.
Once we reach Kazakhstan we will spend our first night in Astana, Kazakhstan’s relatively recently-built capital city. The next two days will be spent exploring the steppe and wetlands near the capital, including the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an Important Bird Area (IBA), and then we fly to Almaty, in the south of the country. We will spend a full two days exploring the bird life there in the foothills and mountains, including a trip to Big Almaty Lake in the Tien Shan Mountains. If my head hasn’t exploded by this point the flight back to the states via Germany will be next, and I should be back in New York City by the afternoon of Saturday the 16th.
And the birds, the birds! In addition to the endangered Sociable Lapwing there are a host of great species to see! Species like Ibisbill, Fire-fronted Serin, White-crowned Penduline-tit, Greater Flamingo, Himalayan Rubythroat, Long-legged Buzzard and a ton of others. It should a heck of a trip and I would like to thank Swarovski Optik for giving me and 10,000 Birds the opportunity to be a part of it. Hope you are looking forward to reading the blog posts as much as I am to writing them!