When the invitation to visit Kazakhstan was floated to me, I was intrigued. Bucolic images of stark deserts, mountainous vistas, wild horses and nomadic living came to mind. It was to be more than that, much to my pleasant surprise. Kazakhstan is the largest of the five ‘stans’, the other four being Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
ALMATY, OLD WORLD CHARM
My first stop was the old capital of Almaty. Oozing old world charm suffused with Russian influence, Almaty is also known as ‘City of Apple Trees’, located in the south-eastern corner surrounded by the panoramic Tien Shan Mountains which borders China and Kyrgyzstan.
At the Sky Eagle Resort, we were greeted by ‘Genghis Khan’ soldiers on horseback and maidens in flowing robes tossing candies in our path, a traditional gesture of welcome. Venturing into the hillside, my eyes were transfixed on an eagle and falcon swooping swiftly on their prey. I learnt that the female species of the falcons and eagles are actually the real hunters. I was also thrilled to witness the horse-riding prowess of the Steppes executed by strapping hunks and lissome lasses on galloping horses. Not for the faint-hearted.
It would be unthinkable to leave this magnificent landscape without a sleepover in a Yurt – a traditional, circular dwelling that was home to nomadic families. The yurt is a basic wooden structure covered by a thick fabric or canvas with a floor bedding.
Being a landlocked country, seafood is not abundantly available. I had my first taste of horse meat, a common meat in Central Asia. Hearty, robust fare such as sausages, cured or salted meat and stews with lots of potatoes and crisp vegetables in season are traditionally served. Meals are cooked in an open hearth on wooden stoves.
In the city, we made a stop at The Museum of Folk Musical Instruments which traces the history of musical instruments from Central Asian tribes, Turkey and China via a well-put collection of over 60 types with near unpronounceable names such as Konyrau, Sazgen, Zhetigen and Asatayak. Upon leaving the Museum, we strolled through the leafy 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park in honour of General Ivan Panfilov and his 28 guardsmen who lost their lives against the Germans in a battle. An eternal flame stands poignantly in front of the monument.
I have always felt that one of the most meaningful insights into a destination is through its food market.The Green Bazaar does not disappoint. The bustling market place is wonderful repository of Central Asian produce and products – all manner of meat types, fresh & dried fruits, vegetables, bread, herbs, pastries, confectionery and heaps more. Be warned, photo taking is frowned upon.
Skis and coffee
Not to be missed is a visit to Chimbulak Ski Resort, a popular ski playground in the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains with varying slopes to cater for the aspiring to the advanced skier. A 15-minute cable car ride brought us to the Resort base, sited at 2260 metres above sea level. What could be more surreal than sipping hot coffee in front of the snow-capped ranges with Christmas tunes blaring in May?
NUR-SULTAN, MODERN METROPOLIS
While Almaty exudes an old, beloved soul the new capital of Nur-sultan, previously called Astana and named by UNESCO as the ‘City of Peace’, is a glistening futuristic metropolis created out of a flat terrain in less than 20 years. Both capitals are like chalk and cheese. Much credit goes to the far-sightedness of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Republic’s first leader since 1991 when it became a Republic. All this is part of the strategy towards Kazakhstan 2050, an ambitious plan calling for widespread economic, social and political reforms to position Kazakhstan among the top 30 global economies by 2050.
Endless superlatives come to mind on a walk around the city which provides many instagrammable moments. Its conspicuous affluence is powered by the country’s immense wealth, generated from uranium, oil and other resources. The best vantage point to take in the city’s well-planned layout is from the top of the lofty 97- metre high Baiterek observation tower purposely dimensioned to coincide with the founding of Astana in 1997.
Mosque and Church
With 70% of the population Islamic, it was only appropriate that we paid a visit to the Hazrat Sultan Mosque, the largest mosque in Kazakhstan and Central Asia holding up to 10,000 worshippers. My attention was drawn to the old 40-kg Koran in Arabic discovered in Russia and now proudly displayed in a glass casing.
At the Russian Orthodox Church, I was awe struck by its gold-leafed wall murals and detailed artwork, depicting Russian ecclesiastical art. It’s certainly worth a visit regardless of your religious inclination.
Rivalling La Scala in Milan, Teatro Real in Madrid and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the stately Opera House is a mind-blowing work of the finest classical architectural traditions reflecting Kazakh national motifs and sophisticated sound acoustics and technology. The massive blue and white National Museum is an incredible showpiece of Kazakh history and culture from ancient times and its hopes for the future. I was captivated by the gargantuan golden eagle with flapping wings in the main lobby. One does require a fair amount of time as the exhibits are themed in various halls and spread over nine floors. I came face to face with the ‘Golden Warrior’ (now a national symbol of Kazakhstan) – an early-century decorated soldier discovered in a burial mound in 1969. Another eye-catching structure is the spectacular 62-metre high pyramid-like Palace of Peace and Concord which serves as the permanent site for the triennial Congress for Leaders of World and Traditional Religions and best photographed from the banks of Yesil River.
The Artem Bazaar is a delightful discovery of locally grown and made produce. In the butchery section, I was particularly fascinated by the chunky slabs of horse meat and in the dairy section, horse cheese and horse milk! Souvenir gifts worth a purchase are horse-riding accessories, leather-bound water vessels and miniature yurts.
Wining and Dining
With over 100 ethnic groups, meal times can often be quite interesting to say the least! Apples, the state emblem of Almaty, are crunchy at its best while cherries and the refreshing kompot (non-alcoholic drink) are just as popular as the delicious bread buns. I loved the kefir, a milky beverage, similar to the yoghurt drink and known for its healthful properties. I tasted beshbarmak, a classic Kazakh dish of tender braised horsemeat served with flat sheet-like pasta in a light broth. The Alasha Restaurant in Almaty offers a magical introduction into Central Asian cuisine and entertainment. Donning traditional regal robes, we tucked into crisp salads, sausages and kebabs made with lamb, mutton and chicken, and pilaf rice with horse meat while dancers from the various ‘stans’ performed. In Nur-Sultan, we had a taste of Ukrainia in the farm-like interior of the Gorilka Melnitsa and relished traditional Georgian dishes at the Daredzhani Restaurant.
While English is not widely spoken, the warmth and hospitality shown more than spoke for the country. It was all in all, a very nice experience in Kazakhstan!
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