So, I just went to Kazakhstan.
I really do not know where to start when I talk about my most recent epic trip. Even the word epic does not do it justice. With the pandemic causing chaos on all our international travel plans, it was difficult to see how these kinds of adventures were going to happen again.
I had resigned myself to local travel and the odd small getaway for the rest of 2021. But then a couple of months ago, unexpectedly an agency called We Are Komodo contacted me to check my availability for a potential trip to Kazakhstan.
I even chuckled a bit when I read it. Initially thinking “that’s not ever going to happen”.
Well, it did happen. I won’t bore you with all the details as I am sure you want to get down to the Kazakhstan details and to answering all your questions. Questions like what does Kazakhstan have to offer? Should Kazakhstan be on my bucket list? What are the people like and what is there to see?
I am going to come to all of that very soon.
I will answer one question now though. Yes, it should absolutely be on your Bucket List! Near the top. Extremely near the top.
The Nursultan Foundation
Let me introduce you to the Foundation that made all of this happen. The Nursultan Foundation was set up in the name of the First and former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. A President in power from 1991 until just two years ago, and responsible for effectively guiding the country through a turbulent 30 years.
And it was a successful term at that. One that has seen the country recover from the fall of the Soviet Union to become what it is today. A thriving, international, peaceful, and productive country looking towards a positive future.
The Foundation was set up in his honour, to support the community, schools, and tourism. That is where this trip came in. Part of the 2021 goals has been to show the world where Kazakhstan is today and promote all the incredible things this country has to offer. To put it on the tourism map so to say. Needless to say, I was in. Sign me up.
On a personal note. Kazakhstan has been high on my travel list for years. I have friends from Kazakhstan who have given me recommendations and have since developed a fascination for the country and its culture.
If you look at my Google Maps you will see over twenty pins of places I want to go and trips I have considered. And just as important as anything, I have wanted to show my readers that this country has so much more to it than the misrepresentation of a well-known comedian.
Our Itinerary in Kazakhstan
As is often the case, we were visiting for a short trip. Meaning this article is more of a trip recap rather than an extensive list of things to do and see.
However, we did stop at two different destinations, incredibly unique and contrasting destinations. We flew into Turkestan (also spelt Turkistan), spending two days exploring before taking an internal flight to Almaty for the final 3 days.
We would be exploring the culture and things to do in each city. Including the history and places of historical significance. We would try the food, well for me nearly all of the food, there was one local delicacy I didn’t touch. And most importantly we were going to explore the outdoor adventures you can find in Kazakhstan. And it has a lot.
Our first destination is the up-and-coming city of Turkestan. It was exciting to me that this trip would take in two destinations, and two vastly different ones at that. I didn’t know much about Turkestan, all of my ‘things to do’ were centred around Almaty.
Turkestan is one of the most ancient cities in Kazakhstan and therefore known for its history and architecture. However, don’t let that mislead your expectations. It is also a very modern and rapidly growing city. It’s estimated the population will grow to over 1million within 5-10 years (it’s currently estimated at 200,000).
For this reason, most of the residential parts of the city are brand new. New hotels, apartments, and entertainment complexes. It wasn’t what I expected. Bizarrely just a short drive from the city you are out in the flat lands, almost desert like scenery. It’s no secret that Kazakhstan and a lot of Central Asia are almost completely flat. You will notice that most here.
Turkestan also famous in the Islamic world for Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, and the Mausoleum built in his honour. It has several functions, a mosque, meeting hall and place of burial. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and moreover, it’s absolutely stunning.
The Mausoleum was started by Timur in 1389 to pay tribute to Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. His work is incredibly interesting, as Yasawi is known for translating and localising Islamic faith. He built a bridge between Islamic faith and the local beliefs for all the nomadic nations of Central Asia. That is why he’s considered to be a holy man and a saint.
This very brief explanation does not do the story any justice, so you’ll just have to visit for yourself.
There are a number of ancient ruins in the area surrounding Turkestan. It amazes me just how far back they date. And stopping to imagine the traders passing through on the Silk Road.
We visited the Medieval settlement Otrar Hill Fort, which for many years was an Archaeological site but is now open to tourists. Otrar served as a crossroads on the Silk Road, so you can imagine how many travellers passed through, and how important this settlement was.
Next Stop Almaty
There is something mesmerising to me about a city surrounded by snow-capped mountains. As you fly into Almaty and get a first glimpse of that scenery you realise, you’re arriving somewhere special. Make sure you have a window seat.
It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but I rarely get a wrong first impression of a city. I tend to either feel instantly connected, or I don’t. In Almaty I had that connection.
We had a full itinerary here with a couple of very big adventures. However, the first thing we did was take a short tour around the city and head to First President’s Park. It’s a great way to get a feel for the city and see the important monuments. And it’s always nice to find green space in a busy city. And look out for the friendly and cheeky Brown Squirrels!
Our next stop was the Kok-Tobe Cable Car, another brilliant way to get your bearings in a new city. For me this is a must do, and if you can be here for sunset even better. We spent a couple of hours here. Half the group relaxed with some food and the other half grabbed a mulled wine and enjoyed the sunset.
Oh, and for the adrenaline junkies, you must try the toboggan! It is one hell of a thrill ride and absolutely not for the feint hearted.
Today it was time to get out of the city, and the most highly anticipated. Charyn Canyon was one of the places on my Kazakhstan Bucket List. I had heard about Central Asia’s answer to the Grand Canyon for a while. And it should be better known.
It’s approximately 2-hours’ drive from Almaty. But allow longer. That’s because the landscape changes dramatically once you leave Almaty, and if you’re like us you’ll be stopping for photos all the way. We took a group tour in 4x4s, a daytrip with lunch included.
This was one of the best days out I have had in years. It reminded me of the reason we travel. The whole experience blew me away. The first stop was Valley of the Castles viewpoint. This one you could do alone without a tour, it has well marked parking and toilets. It is a real moment when you see the canyon with your own eyes, you’ll need at least an hour for photos. At least!
Our next stop was Lunar Canyon, outside of the Charyn Canyon National Park. Again, I think it’s possible to do this one without a tour. We had an incredible lunch spread put on for us, complete with champagne! It’s just one of those photo spots you’ll come across once in a lifetime. And from the drone you get an idea of just how vast this landscape is. Do not forget there’s snow-capped mountains as the backdrop, it’s nuts.
Our final stops were the other side of the canyon, driving off-road in between. It was a bumpy ride to the other side of the canyon as the sun started to set. If ever there was the perfect spot to be for golden hour. We had a bit of time here; it was a chance to reflect on where we were and what an experience this was. After Covid especially, we all felt so grateful.
You can see some of the viewpoints mentioned above on your own, but to get the most out of the trip and get off the beaten track, you will need a guide.
Shymbulak Ski Resort
Our final day in Kazakhstan. Honestly, I don’t know where the time went. It was another day of contrast, and an example of how diverse Kazakhstan is. Today we were in the mountains.
Our first stop was the Shymbulak Ski Resort, via the Medeo Skating Rink. Let us start with the latter, the highest ice-skating rink in the world. At 1691 metres it’s hosted many events and is often a favourite training spot for elite athletes due to its altitude. Unfortunately for us, it was summer, but I bet it is impressive to ice-skate here in the winter.
We didn’t really get to see Shymbulak Ski Resort in its glory either, however these mountains are stunning summer as well as winter. You can go buggy riding, horse riding, try out the alpine climbing park, and go hiking. I had been highly recommended Shymbulak as a ski resort from a Russian friend who skis here every year. As well as being suggested Chalet, a restaurant with superb views.
Shymbulak Ski Resort goes as high as 3163 metres with 20 slopes and 6 lifts, including a cable-car. It has great snow from November to May, but also boasts a mild climate for skiing. It has night skiing, a ‘big air bag’ and tubing if you’re not comfortable on your skis.
But I have saved the best bit about Shymbulak for last, it’s only 25km away from Almaty City! Meaning you can be skiing by day, and in the city at night. I love cities like that.
Big Almaty Lake
If you come to Almaty, you must see one of the stunning lakes this region is known for. We came to Big Almaty Lake, one of the most picture-perfect lakes I’ve ever seen.
Before the lake, our first stop was at the brand new Ayusai Visitor Centre. Both are in the Ile-Alatau National Park, a nature lovers paradise. It is home to 300 species of animal, including the Snow Leopard, Central Asian Lynx, Brown Bear and Golden Eagle, to name just a few.
The Ayusai Visitor Centre is designed to promote sustainable tourism but has many added functions. Firstly, it’s a coffee shop and visitor centre with tea foraged from the mountains. It is a co-working space, with some of the best views you could ever want from your desk. And finally, they have glamping tents for those wanting to sleep in complete wilderness.
Honestly, I fell in love with this place before we even went to the lake. This is a real gem; I could have stayed here for weeks. The whole area has Yosemite vibes. It has a rustic feel, log fires and everything is designed to be natural and unobtrusive, to really soak up the view. It’s also a fantastic place to educate people about sustainable tourism.
And then we took the short drive through winding mountain roads to Big Almaty Lake. On route you will already get a feel for the magnificent scenery. And then boom! You see the postcard perfect lake.
Big Almaty Lake is 2511m above sea level and it’s used for hydro-electric power as well as a water supply for the city. So, no swimming! The surrounding mountains are as high as 4000m with glacial waters running down into the lake. The stunning blue shades are said to change colour throughout the year. You can see just how stunning it is from the photos. It was a fitting place to spend our last hours in Kazakhstan.
The nightlife in Kazakhstan
I had heard from a few people that the nightlife in Kazakhstan was thriving, and they know how to party. And to a certain extent I need to come back to explore this more, as when you have a packed itinerary and early starts, you cannot stay out until the early hours.
That said, from what I saw the locals certainly know how to party. Certain restaurants are combined as stage, nightclub, and dancefloor. In some places there is a break between courses, and everyone gets up for a boogie! And this is loud club music, alternating between quite background music so you can eat and chat. It was bizarrely brilliant.
In Almaty, we were fortunate enough to be invited to an exclusive influencer party, where everyone was welcoming and open inviting us out later or to party another night. It was a vibe mirrored in the club/restaurant of Nino that we headed to later.
Nino had entertainment in the form or live music and dancers, and a party after dinner which went on past midnight. It was such a fun night I forgot they were also serving food. And the best part is all of this was such excellent value, with a beer costing approximately £1-2.
Of course, there is far more to explore when it comes to the nightlife. And I plan to visit again next year, where I will write one of my City Guides for Almaty.
Kazakhstan has accommodation to suit all budgets. Most hotels are clean and friendly, and English is commonly spoken. On my next visit I would love to explore the possibility of homestays, where you’ll stay with a local family and dinner is usually included. You can even sleep in a traditional Yurt.
We stayed at the Rixos Hotel in both Turkestan and Almaty, and they were two of the best hotels I have stayed in. The rooms had everything you need and there was a lovely pool, spa and gym included with your stay. The Rixos in Turkestan is brand new and spacious, and the one in Almaty has a stunning lobby and foyer.
So, there you have it, my whistle stop tour of Kazakhstan. I’ll be writing more articles with more details about travel to Kazakhstan soon. I would love to know what you think, and if this has inspired you to add Kazakhstan to your travel bucket list?
This article was supported by the Nursultan Foundation but as always, the opinions and photos in the article are all my own, and as you can see I loved every minute of my trip to Kazakhstan!