Kazakhstan – an off the beaten track unexpected holiday destination

When I announced to my friends and family that I was off to visit Kazakhstan, I was greeted with strange looks and questions of “… but why?”. Everyone was immediately concerned for my safety. Some people even asked me if Kazakhstan is a real country, or if it was only somewhere made up for the movie Borat. Well I can tell you that it is a real country; it is actually the world’s largest land locked country. It has territory in both Europe and Asia. And let me address the elephant in the room – Borat was not even actually filmed in Kazakstan. Those scenes were filmed in Romania.

I love travelling to unexpected destinations, and having already travelled to 49 countries, was looking for somewhere different and unique for my 50th country. The name “Kazakhstan” translates to Land of the Wanderers; so what better place for me to visit? I was not expecting when I landed at Almaty airport, was a well developed metropolitan city with an alpine town kind of feel. After a nightmarish journey from Armenia (I’ll save that story for another post), we arrived in Almaty early in the morning. It turns out they have Uber in Almaty – so we ordered an Uber and was off on my way to our hotel, The Ritz Carlton.

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The views at Breakfast at The Ritz Almaty

Uber in Kazakhstan is crazy cheap, although don’t expect the same standard of Uber as you might be used to in other countries (we had cab drivers turning up with different number plates to what it said on the app, and also I think that the ‘new car rule’ doesn’t seem to apply in a lot of these Eastern European countries.

We arrived at our hotel, The Ritz Carlton, and I was immediately taken aback by the incredible views of the mountains that surround the hotel. The Ritz is situated in the Esentai Tower, which is linked to the Esentai Shopping Mall, and must be one of the highest buildings in the area. Our hotel receptionist advised us that Almaty is a great example of Soviet communist architecture in the way the city is designed. Long, straight streets on a grid, orthodox cathedrals and other buildings built by the Russians.

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Sunset at the Monument of Independence

We set out on a mission to go and see Park 28 (named after Panfilov’s 28 guards), The Medeu which is the highest ice skating rink in the world (the 2011 Winter Asian Games were held there), and my absolute favourite, Big Almaty Lake.

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Panfilov’s guardsmen

We decided to Uber to Big Almaty Lake, as tours were relatively expensive, and Uber was crazy cheap! It isn’t far to drive to get to the lake. It is helpful to keep in mind that if it is winter (which it was when we were there), then you may have a problem with ice and snow on the road. Our uber driver was not adequately prepared for this, and as we were driving up we hit a particularly icy corner on one of the road’s many switchbacks. His wheels were spinning and we were unfortunately unable to continue up the mountain. Luckily, a bunch of locals were there waiting (and obviously anticipating) for this to happen. One of them offered to take us up to the lake, wait for us and bring us back to our hotel for 13,000 (roughly £30). At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options seeing as it was that, or turn around and go back.

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Big Almaty Lake – no filter necessary

He was in a much older car than the uber, but he had snow chains, so he plowed through these icy corners. He advised us that this national park is on the border of Kazakhstan and Krysakstan. It wasn’t much further until we reached the lake. I was blown away by the beauty of the Big Almaty Lake. The colours are absolutely incredible, and I would rate it up there with one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

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Sunset at the Monument of Independence

Later in the day, we went up to Kok Tobe, which is a the highest point in Almaty and overlooks the city. You catch the cable car or drive up the top, where there is a mini zoo and mini amusement park which overlook the city with great views.

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At the ski lift for the ski-resort Chimbulak

We then continued onto Medeo, where the highest ice skating rink in the world is, and from there is a cable car which will take you onwards and upwards to Chimbulak (sometimes also known as Shymbulak) which is a popular ski resort that Putin of Russia apparently frequents. When we were trying to leave the mountain, we realised that we had no plan as to how to leave, and there were no users available (as we were in the middle of nowhere). The sun was starting to go down, and lots of people were packing away snowboards into their cars in preparation to leave. We talked about the prospect of hitchhiking down, and if we were going to do it: now was the moment. Pretty soon all these people would leave and we would be stuck on the mountain all alone.

We walked out to the side of the road and before we could even put our thumbs up, a group of young locals pulled over and asked if we would like a ride down the mountain. We said yes that would be amazing!! And jumped in the car. Now although I would never normally hitchhike, this was one of the countries I have felt most comfortable in, so many lovely and helpful people, and we immediately got a great vibe off our new friends. They actually ended up picking me up later and taking me around the city to see some sights and to the airport! Lovely!

 

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Relaxing at the hotel pool after a long day.

When we returned to the hotel, we relaxed in the pool and had a workout in the gym. I just can’t get over how beautiful the views are from The Ritz in Almaty, and the 5 star service was incredible.

I really enjoyed Kazakhstan, although I would love to return in the summer to do some hiking and visit Charyn Canyon (the Grand Canyon’s Little Brother), and do some hiking around the incredible mountains.

– Ash 🙂

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