Steppes into the Unknown


“Was Marilyn Monroe Kazakh?”      

Christopher Robbins, Apples are from Kazakhstan

This quote comes towards the beginning of the book, which I have been using to educate myself about the 9th biggest country in the world. I began looking for it over the summer and finding it out of print, finally ordered it from Amazon. I prefer bookstores and eventually, after I had waited weeks for Amazon, I stopped into a Half Price Book location and found their last, single copy. So now I will have two copies, which is wonderful, because it’s an absolutely fantastic travel read.

Last spring, strange doubts about my move had begun to creep in. I liked Dubai: the beautiful beaches, futuristic buildings, ease of communication and the ability to order anything and everything to my apartment door. I had friends and routines. At the same time, I wanted more adventure, more new experiences, more challenge.

I wanted to read unreadable signs and communicate with pointing. But a fear was there too and all summer I had conflicting feelings. I got Apples are from Kazakhstan just days before flying with my life packed up to this unknown place, where I didn’t know anything or anyone.

The book made me believe in my choice again. It made me excited for the journey, hopeful and energized. From the moment I opened it, Robbins pulled me in and made me want to go.

A couple years ago I read, The Botany of Desire, about apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. Plants humans have cultivated for sweetness, beauty, altered states of consciousness and control. That book fascinated me too, especially the bit about tulips. It changed forever how I looked at this cliché spring blooms. I’d thought them bland. Pedestrian pastel things. The book enlightened me to the history of tulipomani of the Dutch Golden Age, when tulips were exotic, highly desired, and ridiculously expensive.

The Botany of Desire begged the question: Do we cultivate the plants or do they cultivate us? Apples, it said, were bitter and tiny when they originated in Kazakhstan.

I had this idea of the wild, bitter apples and finding the first apple trees when I ordered Apples are from Kazakhstan. Robbins wants to find these origin trees too and many Kazakhs are skeptical. They wonder why he isn’t looking for tulips.

It turns out tulips are from Kazakhstan too.

When the guide brings him to Shymkent National Park to look for apples, she talks about bringing people from around the world to these fields of wild, blooming tulips, poppies and other wildflowers.

I was moving to Shymkent! This seemed like a fortuitous sign.

As Robbins meets Kazakhs historians, guides and intellectuals they share more of the fabulous history of this mysterious place.

Even before the Iron Curtain of the U.S.S.R., the Czars closed Kazakhstan to outsiders. The subtitle to Apples are Kazakhstan, is The Land that Disappeared. Robbins discusses the world amnesia towards this place. It is a collective, massive blank spot.

King Arthur may have been a Kazakh. This is the premise of the quote about Marilyn Monroe, where after Robbins learns of all these marvelous things born from the Asian Steppes, he jokes about the blond icons birth place.

I have taught Middle School Social Studies, which includes history of the Greeks, Romans and Egypt. Textbooks and courses have added the Kingdoms of Ghana, China, Japan and India into the mix, but I had never heard of the Golden Man. The Golden treasures of Issyk Kurgan. Intricately carved relics, with complex designs and incredible craftsmanship, sharply contradict the concept of unsophisticated nomads. I want to see these treasures.

The more recent history caught my imagination too. Here in Kazakhstan I’m in the land of the exiled. Leon Trotsky, Revolution outcast, had a pleasant exile, while authors Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered in forced labor camps.

This is a huge country, with a long and rich history, unique traditions, and beautiful landscapes.

I’ve been here almost a month, learned a lot from Apples are from Kazakhstan and I still have a couple chapters to go. So far, Shymkent is a charming city, not too small, not too big; bursting with parks and tree lined boulevards full of cafes. Random, roadside roses.


2 thoughts on “Steppes into the Unknown

  1. “Apples are from Kazakhstan” sounds such an intriguing read, I am looking forward to hunting for this one. This is a country which seems rich in history, most of which I would never have imagined occurred there. Have you found your tulips and your apple trees yet?


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