The truth about wild life in Borat's homeland

The truth about wild life in Borat's homeland
22nd September 2006

Poking fun: The Kazakh president has threatened to sue British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, pictured here as Kazakhstani TV presenter Borat as his movie opened at the Toronto Film Festival

The Kazakhs don't like how Borat has made fun of their country

Do you have any horse urine on the menu?' I ask, timidly. 'Of course not!' roars the aggrieved waitress Leila, brandishing her menu aggressively. 'You are mad. Stupid. Who would drink p***? Not my people - who told you that?'

Oh dear. I have been horribly and cruelly misinformed. I can, however, choose from kumys (fermented mare's milk), shubat (fermented camel's milk) and airan (fermented cow's milk) to help wash down my huge steaming stew of boiled horse and camel, with a boiled sheep's head perched jauntily on top.

Happy days. 'Enjoy,' beams Leila as she presents it all with a flourish. 'Let me know if you want more. There is plenty. And you are special guest.'

Welcome to Kazakhstan, where the people are delightful, the food dire and the president in a terrible lather. It's little wonder. His country has become a laughing stock thanks to British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Or, more specifically, to Baron Cohen's alter ego, Borat Sagdiyev, the racist, anti-Semitic, sexist spoof TV presenter and 'sixth most famous man in Kazakhstan', who has proved even more popular in Britain and America than the comedian's other creation, Ali G.

Now Borat is to make his cinematic debut in a big screen mocumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan in which the inept presenter travels around the U.S., insulting everyone he meets and spreading rumours about the primitive and bizarre traditions of his homeland.

According to Borat, the people of Kazakhstan are a bunch of urine-drinking, women-caging anti-Semites whose favourite hobbies are 'disco-dancing, archery, rape and table tennis'. At the film's world premiere in Toronto earlier this month, 'Borat' provoked near-hysteria after arriving in an ox cart pulled by six women dressed in peasant rags with a donkey in the back.

Since then, he has been the toast of U.S. newspapers and chatshows and is all set to turn Kazakhstan into a huge Hollywood joke. A joke which the red-faced Kazakh government has found highly unamusing.

Indeed, so enraged is President Nazarbayev by the American-financed film, that he has demanded that Baron Cohen and Borat are listed on the agenda at his inter-governmental summit with George W. Bush, which is taking place at the White House today.

The President has already threatened to sue Baron Cohen, hired two Western PR companies to denounce Borat's jokes and published a four-page advert in The New York Times. It is all part of a desperate bid to convince the world that Kazakhstan is a civilised nation and not, as Borat puts it, a place where residents defecate in public and where the age of consent has recently been raised - to eight years old.

So I have come here to the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, to see for myself if the country really is full of moustached, sex-mad idiots, as Borat claims, and to find out if each town really does have a 'designated rapist and a mechanic who doubles as an abortionist'.

Not surprisingly, the few Kazakhs I meet who have heard of Borat are far from happy. 'Do we look like we'd have a town rapist?' shrieks Zhanar, 30, an immaculately turned-out banker, waving her Gucci bag at me. 'It is complete fantasy - don't people realise? This Baron Cohen man is making a mockery. It is the craziest thing I ever heard. We are a modern society.'

Ramov, a 52-year-old businessman, is rather more sanguine. 'It is just a silly joke. We could go ahead and make the same joke out of the UK and British people, or the Americans, but we don't because we were brought up to respect other nations. 'I don't expect this Borat has ever even been to our country.' Well, if he hasn't, then he's made some pretty good guesses. For example, Borat claims that the Kazakhs' favourite activities include naked mud-wrestling, shooting dogs and punching goats.

Wrong. It's Kokpar, in which eight grown men on horseback fight over a freshly killed headless goat. Oh, and performing the national dance, Orteke, in which you flap your arms, kick up your heels a lot and mimic a panicky goat.

Goats, it seems, are quite a feature of Kazakh culture. Borat's not so very far off when it comes to the food, either, as I discover over lunch in a traditional Kazakh restaurant. My glass of fermented mare's milk is the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted - bitter, brackish, gag-making and with a dirty brown scum on the top. So disgusting that, in comparison, the national dish of Beshkarmak - with its huge grey chunks of boiled horse and camel scattered with bits of smashed pelvis and shin bone - is really not so bad. Even the camel - dry and chewy - is do-able.

The sheep's head, however, with its crinkled ears, stupid grin and little lolling tongue is a step too far. At least the eyes are gone. 'The tongue and the brain are the best bit a great delicacy. You're lucky to have them all to yourself,' my waitress, Leila, beams happily. 'Everywhere you go you will be invited to eat Beshkarmak. Whatever bad people say, we are a very hospitable nation.'

Understatement of the year. Despite its eccentricities, Kazakhstan is perhaps the friendliest nation on earth. In the good old days, the Kazakhs (the word means 'independent', 'free' or 'wanderer') roamed the country and lived in yurts portable dome-shaped tents made of boiled camel's wool. Their door or should that be Yurtflap? was reportedly always open, and anything they had, they would share.

Evidently, things haven't changed. Ten minutes after my boiled horse banquet, I am accosted in the street by a group of very enthusiastic wedding guests sporting enormous moustaches, impossibly shiny suits and a fabulous array of gold teeth (so far, so very Borat) who invite me to pop along to the reception later.

Even as I'm making my au revoirs, two extremely friendly men clutch me very tight, invite me for dinner in their homes and ask if I know Benny Hill and whether I eat porridge like Sherlock Holmes.

I am lost for words. So in preparation for my big night out, I head back to my hotel to mug up on some background reading about Borat's homeland. As well as being the world's most welcoming country, Kazakhstan boasts the tenth highest number of horses in the world and became the first former Soviet republic to repay all of its debt to the IMF, seven years ahead of schedule.

On top of that, it has 98 per cent literacy (compared with 97% in Canada and the US and 99% in Britain) something it's difficult to believe out in the donkey-carted sticks and, with President Nazarbayev in power since independence from the USSR in 1991, is pretty stable politically. (At the last election, one of the President's opponents based his electoral campaign on his ability to crush glass in his bare hands.)

Just don't mention drugs. Of a population of just 15 million, more than 600,000 are registered drug addicts. Oh, and prostitutes. Borat claims that his sister is a prostitute 'maybe second or third in whole of Kazakhstan' and judging by some of the gaudy, short-skirted lovelies I saw plying their trade on Almaty's street corners, she is far from alone.

But enough doom and gloom. I have a wedding to go to. And, barely an hour after 'lunch', I arrive at a huge, 200-guest affair in the swanky part of town. It is not the casual 'pop in' I was expecting. I am greeted at the door like a celebrity, seated on the top table and looked after by 18-year-old Alua, a beautiful student and niece of the bride.

'Please try this,' she says, piling my plate full before I've had a chance to take my coat off. 'It is a delicacy of Kazakhstan it is horse salad. Very tasty.' Lovely. Thank you. Delicious. Just a little, please.

Aside from the food, the wedding is epic. I haven't seen so many shiny suits in all my life. Or, indeed, such enthusiastic and extraordinary dancing. Everyone, from children to pensioners, is dancing the Orteke to a weird Kazakh-techno tune.

There are myriad speeches I am obliged to make one myself and a toast from General Amir Togisov, apparently an ex-government minister, who very pleasingly invites the guests to raise their glasses to me 'Mister Jane, Baroness of London'.

Given we're all having such a lovely time, I don't have the heart to bring up Borat's take on Kazakh romance ('In U.S. and A., if you want to marry a girl you cannot just go to her father's house and swap her for 15 gallons of insecticide').

And somehow, it doesn't seem appropriate to ask if the bride, Samal, is her new husband's first wife, or simply one among many. Polygamy remains common in Kazakhstan, particularly in the countryside where it's all shacks, outside loos and wood piles.

Besides, I'm too busy downing a shot of vodka and taking part in a dancing competition (me and my partner Vlad come second-last and I am kissed a lot). Next comes another vodka shot, a knobbly knees competition, a couple more vodka shots I'm beginning to lose count now a slow dance with the general and, finally, a long and bewildering joke from a Kazakh comedian called Timur about an Englishman, an Italian, a Kazakh and a badly cooked lamb dish.

Sacha Baron Cohen, eat your heart out. The low point comes when I tentatively mention Borat. 'He is doing us a favour,' says a very worse-for-wear businessman, Yurmek Shagambaev, 41. 'He is highlighting the shortcomings in our society.'

'No, no, no, you are wrong,' says Saule Massolina, 25 a banker from the new capital, Astana. 'It is terrible what he is saying and it isn't funny, not like Benny Hill. My friends, they go to England and they're all told they're stupid and backwards and are treated like village idiots.' Particularly distressing are Borat's joke-claims that the Kazakhs are anti-semitic (Baron Cohen, incidentally, is Jewish).

In his new film, Borat encourages a group of puzzled Texans to join him in singing his favourite anti-semitic song, in which the chorus line goes: 'Throw the Jew down the well/So my country can be free/You must grab him by his horns/Then we have a big party.'

All very insulting to intelligent Kazakh women like Saule. So I decide not to tell her about my meeting, earlier in the day in Almaty's central park, when I showed a group of grumpy chess players a photo of Borat and asked if he'd pass for a Kazakh.

'Don't be daft. He's a bloody Jew,' snapped back Morarv, 34. 'You only have to look at him. And we would never wear our moustache so bushy. It looks most unstylish.' Back at the wedding, another three lambs are wheeled in and added to the mounds of congealed meat weighing down the tables. Enthusiastic clutching on the dancefloor merges into drunken wrestling, and one very well-refreshed Russian guest falls off his chair and blames Sacha Baron Cohen. It is definitely time to go. Actually, it's already too late. As I retch over the loo the following day, fiercely ill from a combination of mule's milk, horse, camel, lamb, sheep's head and neat vodka, I reflect on my time in 'Borat's land'.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Would I return? Like a shot. Would I bring my own food? Of course. Even now, the waitress's parting words are still ringing in my ears. 'Can you not finish?' asked Leila, as I struggled through my mound of boiled farmyard. So sorry. It was lovely though, honestly.

'Take it with you in a bag, it is such a waste.'

Er, no. Please.

'At least take the sheep's head then. That's the best bit.'

Give me fish and chips or sausages and mashed potatoes anyday over Kazakh food.
Now THAT was a funny article.... makes me want to go there and check it out, tho my vegetarian diet would likely be the death of me from the sounds of it

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