Though it’s been separated from the Soviet Union for more than 20 years, Kazakhstan still has a rather austere reputation. While the Kazakh tourism industry is still in its early stages, there’s little that compares with horseback riding across the arid plains or walking the wide streets of Almaty, the country’s biggest city and former capital.
Walk around the Old Capital
Astana may the current capital, but Almaty is still the jewel of Kazakhstan. Situated amid the snowy mountaintops in the country’s Southeast, the sprawling city is also the most populous part of the country. Its name derives from “Alma-Ata,” meaning “father of apples,” and the region is indeed famous for its apple production. Ostensibly celebrated on the third Sunday in September, Almaty City Day is in reality a month-long party that also features a prominent Apple Fest. The city itself is also expanding. The skyline may look modern, but there are plenty of remnants left of its Soviet past. One is The Ascension Cathedral, the second-tallest wooden Russian Orthodox cathedral in the world, which houses some dazzling golden ornaments. The cathedral is located in Panfilov Park, a prime spot for meeting locals, too. Right next door is the Green Market, where people from all over the city come to shop for fresh vegetables, fruits and meat such as goat, lamb and horse. Bargaining is a must.
Altyn Emel National Park
For some exercise, and a chance to get closer to nature, visit Altyn Emel National Park. Situated about 260 kilometers from Almaty, you’ll need to take a three-hour 4WD ride to reach Altyn Emel, which means “golden saddle.” Here, you’ll witness both desert and steppe grassland, as well as gazelles, wild donkeys, falcons and eagles. The area is also home to the so-called “singing” sand dunes. Some 120 meters high and three kilometers wide, they get their name from the noise made by the wind as it funnels through the area—a sound not unlike a jet plane taking off.
Often described as a “mini-Grand Canyon,” this 300-meter-deep chasm is home to the “Valley of Castles,” where layers of pink-orange rock have piled up over millions of years. Take the opportunity to stay in the area overnight in a yurt (an ancient shelter used by Central Asian nomads) but be prepared for a cold night under the sea of stars. Watching the sun rise the next morning is one of those special moments that sticks with you forever.
Considered among Kazakhstan’s most beautiful attractions, these three alpine lakes are located a two-hour rough ride from Altyn Emel National Park, and stand 2,000 meters above sea level. The first lake can be easily reached by car, but the other two require trekking or horseback riding, and it takes a full day’s travel from lake one to lake three and back. Even in summer, temperatures hover around 10 degrees Celsius so pack warm. Horse rental can be arranged at the nearby village, Saty.
Kaindy Lake looks like something out of a fairy tale. Surrounded by pine forests, the lake is a beautiful emerald color with submerged trees peeking out from below––really a sight to behold. There are a number of homestays at Saty village which allow you to enjoy the local way of life and make the most of the mystical setting.
Foodies are in for a treat in Almaty. Zheti Kazyna (Abylay Khana Ave., 58A, Almaty, +7 72 7273-2587, bit.ly/1va8C7Y
), meaning “seven treasures,” is a fine place to start. The restaurant features traditional Kazakh and other Central Asian food. Beshbarmak, one of the national dishes, is a must-try, consisting of flat noodles in soup topped with horse or goat meat. The adventurous should also try the strong but fragrant Shubat camel milk and Kumys horse milk.
Alasha Restaurant (Abylay Khana Ave., 58A, Almaty, +7 72 7273-2587, www.alasha.kz/en
) isn’t traditional Kazakh food, but actually serves dishes from neighboring Uzbekistan. The tangy food is spiced up further with live Uzbek music and dance every night. The signature dish is called plov
, or pilaf
, rice cooked with meat and grated carrots and onions.
There are a number of big luxury hotel chains like the Ritz-Carlton Kazakhstan
(Esentai Tower, 77/7 Al-Farabi Avenue, +7 72 7332-8888. bit.ly/1FIPgd8
) next to the Esentai Mall. Prices start at $610 per night. For a more budget option try Iris Hotel
(176 Furmanova St., +7 72 7399-0033. www.irishotel.kz
) which offers rooms at a moderate $122 per night and is right by the metro.
There are no direct flights from Singapore to Almaty but there are plenty of flights departing from Bangkok daily with Air Astana
) offering the lowest fares starting from $1,234 for a round-trip.
Joining a tour is the best option as roads and public transportation are sketchy at best. To get out-of-town, we recommend Almaty City Tour
(eng.city-tour.kz) which offers an English-speaking guide and expert driver. The six-day Golden Ring of Zhetisu
package is US$1,655 (about $2,212) for two people. Air Astana
also does packages. Visit bit.ly/1pFOSbx
It’s pretty tricky if you want to do it all by yourself. Your best bet is a travel agent, who can arrange a Single Entry Tourist Visa for around US$40 (about $53). Visit bit.ly/1tDdXiI.
$1 = 136 Kazakhstani Tenge (KZT)