The Failed First Day
To say that my Kazakh trip did not get off to the most successful of starts quite possibly understates it a little. I was originally scheduled to arrive at Almaty airport, as per the tour itinerary, on Sunday morning. Due to a delay in my flight from Birmingham, though, it was going to be impossible to make my connection in Istanbul. To make things worse, the only flight that Turkish Airways could book me onto was a flight with British Airways scheduled to depart from Heathrow Airport a full 24 hours later, delaying my arrival in Kazakhstan until Monday morning.
This alteration of my flights meant that I had to miss several brilliant excursions in, and around, Almaty. I shall not spend too long on what I missed. In fact, I shall list them, as I cannot really pass comment on what I was not actually present to experience!
- Panfilovtzev Park, a park dedicated to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War (World War Two).
- The Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral, a building that is made entirely of wood; there were no nails used in its construction, so it is pretty unique!
- The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, a museum that even offers music classes, including on the traditional Kazakh Dombyra.
- Almaty Central Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan, standing 47 metres tall with a capacity of 7000.
- Republic Square and Monument of Independence, dedicated to Kazakhstan’s rich history.
- Big Almaty Lake, a stunning lake that is 2,511m above sea level and surrounded by mountains topping 4,000m.
- Sunkar Falcon Farm, where guests are taught the importance of falconry in the lives of Central Asia’s nomads.
Arrival on the Actual First Day
With that out of the way, what I did manage to experience, once I had arrived, was two relative extremes. The morning was spent visiting the Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Tian Shan mountains, with five inches of snow on the ground, and the afternoon was spent half-way across the country, under a clear blue sky in a ‘semi-desert’ that left me wishing I was wearing shorts!
But first, I shall back up a bit.
Back to my descent out of the clouds over Almaty. I do not think I have ever had as stunning a view greet me while landing as I had that morning. Having expected ‘dry and arid’, as I mentioned in my introductory blog, I genuinely thought, if only for a moment, that the aircraft had taken a U-turn over Europe and flown back to the UK. To the north, the landscape was a rich green as far as the eye could see but, as lovely as this view was, it was not this that took my breath away. It was when I turned to look south that I was stunned. The northern section of the Tian Shan mountain system looms large over Almaty, covered in snow and rising to over 4000m. After the incredible flatness of the landscape leading up to them, one could be easily forgiven for seeing the Tian Shan and thinking that this is the edge of the world, that this mountain range, stretching as far as the eye can see, both east and west, is the wall that stops us from falling over the edge.
Almaty and Skymbulak Ski Resort
And what about Almaty itself? It seemed to me that they had decided to build a city in the middle of a forest. Every road appeared to be lined with trees on either side, making it one of the greenest, leafiest, cities I have had the pleasure of visiting. An opinion that only further cemented itself upon landing and being transferred into the city itself.
Unfortunately, though, I did not have much time in Almaty itself, as no sooner had I joined the tour group than we were whisked away to Shymbulak, our first port of call.
The thoroughly modern resort of Shymbulak is around 16 miles south of Almaty and was recently completely renovated in preparation for the 2011 Asian Winter Games. Shymbulak is perhaps the most ‘westernised’ of all the places that we visited in Kazakhstan. While I would love to tell you how good the skiing is there, we were limited to a short photo opportunity. Given the amount of snow on the ground though, particularly given this was the end of April, I can only imagine the skiing conditions are pretty good throughout the winter.
We were lucky to have the resort to ourselves that morning, so we were afforded a peaceful and serene view of the Medeo Valley with the whole of Almaty spread out below us. In the near distance we could even see our next destination, the Medeo Skating Rink.
The Medeo Skating Rink is the highest rink in the world, sitting 1,691 metres above sea level, and is also absolutely enormous, with a surface area of 10,500 square metres. Unfortunately there is no ice coverage in April as, due to the weather, it would be too costly to keep it at the correct temperature as it is completely open air, so our view of it was less than spectacular. In fact, it more closely resembled a car park with spectator seating; though, given the quality of some of the driving I witnessed in Kazakhstan, watching people attempt to park could be quite an entertaining spectator sport!
We were then rushed down to the National Museum of Kazakhstan for a disappointingly brief visit. I won’t go into detail on everything we were told, this isn’t a lecture, but I will say that the museum itself seemed to be very good. It is relatively modern, open, spacious and well laid out, with a lot of items on display. The only negative really is the lack of world languages on any of the signage, so if you want to get the most out of your trip there I would highly recommend a guide to talk you through all of the exhibits.
Following our short time here we were back on our coach and heading to the airport for an internal flight to Kyzylorda. Upon arrival the airport is every bit the regional airport one would expect, lacking even a luggage conveyor; all the bags are left in a pile in the arrivals lounge, leading to a bit of a scrum as people try to get their bags as quickly as possible.
The slightly basic airport does not represent Kyzylorda as a whole though, as the town itself is very nice. There has obviously been a lot of investment here since Kazakhstan became independent and, alongside the many green spaces and colourful flower displays, the city has a very modern feel.
After a quick refresh at our hotel, we were offered a quick drive around Kyzylorda, including a visit to the local train station which, in true Soviet style, is an incredible building, with a lovely large open square in front. This station offers journeys to both Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and its largest city, Almaty, both of which are easily accessible thanks to a direct train from Moscow; though I would recommend making the journey part of a tour, covering the distance in stages, as Moscow to Almaty alone can take over three days!
Our last port of call for the day was dinner, an official function that was being held for international businesses and tourism agencies. This was my first chance to try local Kazakh cuisine, though given the ‘silver service’ offered, it was not really offered to us in a traditional way! Of everything that was offered I had most been looking forward to trying the horse meat. I was also quite pleased to try baursak, a kind of fried bread. Our entertainment for the evening was a mixture of local folk singers, and folk music. Unfortunately my manners got the best of me in this instance, meaning I took no photos or videos, so I have nothing to show you, but rest assured, it was very good.
And so ended a 36 hour day for me; from the UK, through a frustrating inability to sleep sat upright on a plane, to a long day travelling half way across Kazakhstan. Sleep came very quickly, though I was not to get very much as it was after 11pm when we returned to the hotel, and we were expected to be up for breakfast by just after 6am the following morning for another busy day!
FULL DISCLOSURE: I originally posted this on www.realrussia.co.uk/blog under the title ‘Real Russia’s 2015 Visit to Kazakhstan’. Words and images are all my own.