Pakistan and Kazakhstan exist in a weird space vis-à-vis each other. An outsider, armed with a map and some knowledge of history but none of what the two countries are like now, is likely to assume two nations would be more similar than not. Take the names for instance. Or the fact that they were once bound by world’s original superhighway of ideas – the Silk Route. And yet, in modern times, locals in both countries may look upon each other with a sense of exoticism, even though the vestiges of that shared heritage still exist.
When Pakistanis with the means seek out a better education or express a desire to travel their usual approach is to look westwards, to the US, UK, Europe or Canada. Or they look to Australia, which may lie eastwards geographically, but culturally is still viewed as very much part of the ‘West’. Choosing a country that is lesser-known for travel and education amongst the Pakistani sphere as your destination for your educational pursuits is both unusual and risky. However, 36-year-old Rizwan Muneer did just that.
When Rizwan received his MSc in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore, he was awarded two gold medals and also offered a lectureship job. But upon graduation, he instead chose to leave his position of Assistant Professor in the Department of Petroleum Engineering and pursue a PhD in Petroleum Engineering at Nazarbayev University (NU) School of Mining and Geoscience in Kazakhstan.
In an online interview, he told The Express Tribune, “I feel that getting an education in a country other than one's own is an education itself. Living in such an environment with people having similar goals and aspiration is an experience in one's academic life and has considerable importance in one's professional career.”
"Knowledge has no end and this is especially truer for science and technology. The study of technology in more technologically advanced universities can only ensure that the journey in the pursuit of knowledge will not end,” he added. “Kazakhstan is rich in oil, gas, coal, and metal resources. It is the second–largest endowment in Eurasia after Russia, and the 12th–largest in the world based on its petroleum reserves.”
Rizwan, from a practical viewpoint, decided to study at NU because that is where the petroleum industry and university interaction were sturdy and where the focus is more on the development of skills and application of theory rather than theory alone.
“I took into consideration the highly qualified international faculty of NU, its research environment with state-of-the-art labs, the peaceful living environment at the campus and in Nur-Sultan and the possibility of getting field experience of oil and gas sites in Kazakhstan for real data analysis. Based on these factors, I applied here, was offered admission on a full scholarship, and then subsequently decided to join NU in 2019," he said.
According to Rizwan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan have some similarities in culture, clothing and cuisine. There are in fact, some shared words in the languages of the two nations too. “Kazakhstan’s culture is steeped into the nomadic rural economy of the inhabitants. Besides lamb, many other traditional foods retain symbolic value in Kazakh culture,” he said.
Basit Gulzar also moved to Kazakhstan four years ago from Lahore. The 32-year-old moved there to pursue a Masters in Political Science and International Relations.
However, both Rizwan and Basit’s time in Kazakhstan hasn’t been without its challenges either. “I had done all the research about the culture, their mindset, governments approach towards youth, and the thing that I missed was the language. You have to have a basic knowledge of the language. Some basic words can help you communicate basic things outside the university,” said Basit.
“Although the local and foreign students have made an International Students Association (ISA) which helps foreign students in settling into the country, I still faced some difficulties when I ventured out to explore my new surroundings on my own,” he said. “But the good thing is that the people here pay a lot of respect to Pakistani people. They watch us like we are from some other world,” he joked, adding that the reason for that perhaps may be because of the limited number of Pakistanis here.
Rizwan's first six months as an international student were also not without its challenges. The transition and relocation, new environment, new people, different food options and a harsh but manageable winter season – were all reasons why he struggled to adjust to Kazakhstan. “Of course, nothing is perfect anywhere in the world and there is always room for improvement. But instead of complaining and giving up, I prefer to find a solution to any problem,” he said.
“I overcame these challenges by making local friends and adapting myself to a new setting, new culture, and now I like some of the Kazakhstani food dishes,” he said, adding that most of the Kazakhstani people are warm-hearted by nature, helpful, well-mannered, humble, hospitable, and always ready to help.
Talking about tourism in Kazakhstan, Rizwan said, “Tourism in Kazakhstan is not a major component of the economy due to the extreme and long winter season in most parts of the country. The country inherited the culture of the prehistoric Silk Road, the nomadic lifestyle and the Soviet Union which had a great influence on its formation.”
The Kazakhstan government has started an initiative named the ‘Tourism Industry Development Plan 2020.’ This initiative aims to establish five main tourism clusters in Kazakhstan: Astana city, Almaty city, East Kazakhstan, South Kazakhstan, and West Kazakhstan. It also seeks investment of $4 billion and the creation of around 300,000 new jobs in the tourism industry.
Basit, who loves to travel, said that the landscapes in Kazakhstan are somewhat similar to the northern areas of Pakistan. “Kazakhstan has beautiful landscapes just like we do up north. One of its most beautiful and scenic cities is Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. It is surrounded by snowy mountains and mesmerising nature. This summer I plan to visit Almaty. The beautiful capital of Kazakhstan is Nur-Sultan which is constructed and planned in a way to attract more business investment from other countries," he said.
Rizwan, who lives in the city Nur-Sultan, said that during last summer, he visited some beautiful places near Nur-Sultan like Borabay, Shchuchinsk, and Kokshetau and enjoyed the landscapes and scenery all around.
Talking about the entertainment in Kazakhstan, Basit said that there is every type of music available there. "If you like Opera, classic, or cultural music, you'll find every taste of music and at a meagre rate than other European countries. Domra is their cultural instrument played with people dancing dressed up in special clothing," he said. “They are also very much into sports and you can find many venues for football, cycling, ice hockey and tennis.”
He also said that the job opportunities after completing the education are quite much. “If you know the language, it is much easier. But fields like oil and gas, petroleum, construction and labor are quite famous here and if chosen, one can easily find a job here,” he said.
Currently, due to Covid-19, the job opportunities in Kazakhstan are not encouraging. Kazakhstan is an oil-dependent country, and since December 2019, oil prices are under pressure, and so is the economy of Kazakhstan. “The economy of Kazakhstan is flourishing rapidly. It has a good job market in big cities, Nur-Sultan and Almaty, and most of the jobs are highly paid. This is one of the reasons most foreigners are coming to Kazakhstan," said Rizwan.
Both the students who are happy with their decisions and say that they wouldn't have enjoyed this much if they had opted for some other country. "Going to a new place is always a new experience from which you learn a lot. The government here also supports international students to come in and study as they bring diversity to the country," said Basit.
Meanwhile Rizwan, who has students back home in Pakistan, says that he strongly recommends students from all over the world to join the global research community of NU in Kazakhstan to fulfil their future goals. “I am already advising and guiding Pakistani students to apply for Master and PhD programs, and based on my recommendation, one student has already joined PhD the physics programme last and two Masters students are expected to come this year,” he said. “I would advise international students, especially from Pakistan, to define their goals and targets and try hard to achieve them in the best possible way. Be in touch with their seniors and get benefits from their experience in higher studies,” concluded Rizwan.