Real Russia Blog

Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway into Kazakhstan
15
December
2017

Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway into Kazakhstan

Why taking a detour to Kazakhstan can be surprisingly good idea for those who embark on the Trans-Sib

Many travellers enjoy going off the beaten path, searching for unexpected experiences. German travel blogger, Patrick, approached us with just this idea, wanting to take an often-overlooked detour on his Trans-Siberian route.

Patrick’s Journey

Most tourists on the Trans-Siberian Railway travel across Russia before continuing to Mongolia and further into China. However, the possibility to take a detour to Kazakhstan is often overlooked. Let me tell you why it’s worth including Kazakhstan in your Trans-Siberian Railway experience!

I didn’t know anything about Kazakhstan when I started planning my Trans-Siberian Railway experience, but when looking on the map I realized how close I would actually come to the country on my journey. That’s when I contacted the helpful staff of Real Russia, asking if there was an opportunity for a detour into Kazakhstan. Real Russia's staff adapted my schedule to lead me from Yekaterinburg into Kazakhstan, with a stop in the futuristic capital, Astana, and the eastern city Semey, before continuing up north into Russia towards Novosibirsk. I was super excited to discover another new country and learn more about Kazakhstan!

Fast forward a few weeks, I found myself in the middle of my Trans-Siberian Railway experience on the train leaving Yekaterinburg and heading towards Astana. I was a little bit nervous about the border crossing, which happened in the middle of the night. We first had to pass Russian immigration to get an exit stamp and a few kilometers later the Kazakh immigration to receive an entry stamp. Luckily, immigration procedures happen on the train with border police making their way through the compartments, checking and stamping passports. Despite the complete language barrier the process was smooth, Germans luckily don’t need a visa for Kazakhstan.


Futuristic architecture in Astana

I made it to Kazakhstan! The train took me through the Kazakh countryside until I finally reached Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. It was one of the biggest surprises of my journey. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in such a modern and futuristic city! Astana has developed at an incredible speed in the last few years with the most futuristic architecture I’ve ever seen. I spent 3 days in Astana, walking through the city and marveling at the buildings. From the top of Bayterek tower, I could see the whole city, and the no man’s land between Russia and Mongolia. I saw the beautiful presidential palace and visited the National Museum, where I finally learnt more about the countries’ history. Astana is a surreal place and therefore certainly one of my big travel highlights – I recommend anyone to visit!


Astana

From Astana, the train took me further into Kazakhstan’s east and I had another stop planned in Semey. Semey is a big contrast to futuristic Astana. The area around the city was used for nuclear experiments in the Soviet regime, leading to big health issues in the population. The city is a lot poorer, less developed and less modern than Astana. It was interesting to see a different, probably more realistic, part of the country. Although there’s not much to do, I enjoyed my time in Semey. I visited the most shocking and unusual museum I’ve ever been to – the Anatomical Museum in the Medical University. A variety of disfigured fetuses are exhibited, showing the horrible results of nuclear exposure. Visiting this museum is certainly not enjoyable, but it’s part of the history and therefore a very interesting place to explore.

The Stronger Than Death monument in Semey

From Semey, I took another train up north, crossed again into Russia and continued my Trans-Siberian Railway experience to Novosibirsk – the capital of Siberia!

I certainly recommend anyone to include Kazakhstan in their Trans-Siberian railway itinerary. It is still one of those unexplored, non-tourist heavy countries which offers so much to see and do. People were extremely friendly and helpful, and it offered a unique experience. Put Backpacking Kazakhstan on your bucket list, you won't regret it – I will certainly be back!


I’m Patrick, a travel blogger from Germany with the goal to visit every country in the world. Make sure to check out my travel blog to read more about my adventures!
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Read more about Kazakhstan in our blogs and contact our travel specilists for expert travel advice and they will be happy to assist!

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Eight: The End of the Road
14
August
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Eight: The End of the Road

Charyn Canyon, There and Back Again

So this is it. The last day in Kazakhstan. It was such a shame that the tour had to end. Even after everything that we had seen it felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what Kazakhstan had to offer.

Setting Out

For our last day we had another early start. Charyn Canyon is around 175km from Almaty along, mostly, tarmac roads. Unfortunately, though the roads are tarmac, they are not in the best state of repair. More than once we hit a pot hole big enough to launch me from my seatbelt-less seat into the roof of our minibus. Luckily there were not a lot of brain cells to damage. And even less now! Thanks, in part, to the road quality, the drive is around four hours each way.

Oh, and as an aside, if you are looking to Google Charyn Canyon, some websites spell it Sharyn rather than Charyn. Just so you know.

On the plus side, the roads are about to get a whole lot better as alongside the current road to Charyn, they are laying a new highway that will stretch from China through to Europe to help make the transport of goods to, and from, China significantly easier; tourism too, probably. This new stretch is due to open in April 2016.

Anyway, enough about roads, what about the view. The incredible view. For most of the journey you have the northern stretches of the Tian Shan mountain range running parallel to the road, and it makes for a stunning companion. Completing the view are lush green fields, many full of poppies in bloom. If you didn’t know any better you could swear than Julie Andrews was about to bound over the nearest hill. I cannot attest to whether the hills were alive with the sound of music though.

Poppy field outside Almaty, Kazakhstan

Glorious

Like most of the travelling we did, I quickly ditched the idea of reading my Kindle to pass the time. Instead I watched the incredible scenery pass by. No book I had downloaded could compare.

Arrival in Charyn Canyon

From the moment we reached the end of the 12km off-road canyon drive way, it was obvious that this was the most tourist-friendly location we had visited. We even saw other foreign tourists! Nuns! Who expects to find nuns at the bottom of a sun baked canyon just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border?

Anyway, it is much more developed than anywhere else we had been. There was a car park, an entrance gate, and even a toll booth. Not only that, there were sign posts in English. We felt spoilt. The level of development really showed what Kazakhstan could be capable of with a little effort and money. Unfortunately, this would probably remove some of the charm of the country.

Once we had parked up, we had an incredible view. The sky was blue, the canyon was incredible and there, in the distance, were snow-capped mountains. In 25+ degree heat there they were, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Not only that, but they seemed to be working hard to hold back all the cloud that could have ruined our day.

Charyn Canyon with mountains in the distance, Kazakhstan

The canyon with the snow capped mountains off in the distance

The Bottom

From top to bottom the walk took around an hour. It felt like walking into a Road Runner cartoon. There were even precariously sat rocks that looked like they were ready for Wile E. Coyote utilise in his ongoing war with the Road Runner.


A precarious rock in Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan

‘Meep meep’

Under the glorious sun it was a lovely way to finish the week, no one rushing us, just a nice, peaceful stroll through amazing surroundings.

As we closed in on the bottom we could hear a rushing river, and after a minutes more walking, low and behold, there it was. And along the banks was a small ‘outpost’. I can’t think of a better word for it now. It turned out, it is possible to stay here overnight. And to facilitate this were several huts and yurts, as well as a bar and lots of outdoor seating. It is the perfect accommodation for backpackers not wanting to make two four-hour drives in one day. It is a shame we were unable to test out the facilities for ourselves. Particularly as the bar prices were not too bad! There were even signposts advertising horse trekking; though we did not have the opportunity for this either.

Yurts in Charyn Canyon, Kazakhstan

Accomodation for those who wish to spend a night under the stars

As I took in the surroundings at the bottom of the canyon, I think I was more relaxed and content then I had been at any other point in the tour. The canyon was a lush green either side of the river, a little oasis in this sun baked canyon. It was the perfect place to rest and have lunch after the walk down.

Let me use photos to do the job of my inadequate words.

Charyn River, Kazakhstan

The Charyn River flowing through Charyn Canyon

Charyn River, Kazakhstan

The Charyn River coming round the bend

The End

If only we could have stayed longer. But, alas, that was not to be. And so after a brief stop for lunch we turned round, and walked back up the canyon. By this point the temperature really had risen, offering a demonstration of what this visit may be like in the middle of summer when the thermometer can read in excess of 40 degrees. Take it from me, you probably wouldn’t want to be hiking down and back up then. It was rather uncomfortable. So try and time your visits for spring or autumn when the temperatures aren’t quite so high.

Once we had reached the top we had a few minutes in which to rest, before we hopped back in our minibus and started the four hour journey back to Almaty.

We made one, brief, stop on the way back at a fascinating roadside market full of people selling, seemingly, everything you could imagine. From fresh produce to toys to tools. It was all bustle and colour. Given the proximity to the busy road, though, I would not have vouched for the taste of the fresh fruit and veg on offer. I don’t imagine car exhaust fumes add to the flavour particularly well.

'Unofficial' toys in a Kazakh market

The market had a line in 'unofficial' toys – if only Batman really was an Avenger!

And that was that. At 3am the following morning I was up and prepping for my transfer to Almaty Airport for my flight home. A journey that was much easier than my journey to Kazakhstan I am pleased to say.

So there you have it. Kazakhstan. Wrapped up in ten blogs. Of course, as I have mentioned, I barely scratched the surface, so hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to return and see everything that I missed, and maybe even hop on a train or two!

See you then!

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Seven: Aktau, the Sea and Back to the Start
29
July
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Seven: Aktau, the Sea and Back to the Start

A quick jaunt around Aktau, and back to Almaty

This blog will be slightly out of order, as our visit to the Caspian Sea was part of the Aktau city tour but, as it was my favourite bit, it can have its own section!

The Caspian Sea

It was fantastic to finally dip my toes in the sea. And given the amount of walking we had done during the week, the fact the sea was rather cool was the perfect way to make them feel better.

We didn’t spend long here, unfortunately, so I cannot really expand on the experience particularly, but I will say that sitting with my feet dangling in the sea was probably the most relaxing experience of the entire week up to this point. With the blue skies and clear water, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get the deck chairs out, and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.

A view of the Caspian Sea from Aktau, Kazakhstan

The beautiful Caspian Sea

Bird fishing in the Caspian Sea near Aktau, Kazakhstan

A seagull fishing in the Caspian Sea

Aktau

As for the rest of Aktau, it is ok.

The sea front is very nice, and has clearly had recent investment; with the promenade a very pleasant location for a walk, and an ideal spot for al fresco dining.

The town as a whole is quite the mish-mash of conflicting styles, with the old Soviet buildings looking decidedly shabby compared to their modern siblings. Aktau’s age (60 years young) plays a part in this, as there is no ‘historic centre’ as you get with many cities, making their oldest buildings the stereotypical Soviet tower blocks that were designed with practicality in mind, not aesthetics.

There was one particularly interesting feature, though, and that was the lighthouse. Due to its location getting a photo was troublesome, but rather than allowing it its own building, it had been sat atop a block of flats; which seemed a rather unique way of going about it.

Taras Schevchenko statue in Aktau, Kazakhstan

A statue to the exiled poet Taras Schevchenko

Aktau Museum

Our only other major stop, beside the Caspian Sea, on our tour of Aktau was at the Historical Museum. Guiding visitors through the geological, biological, social and cultural history of the area, the museum does a great job of packing a lot of information into a pretty small space.

In particular, the museum has managed to squeeze more dioramas into its limited space than any other museum I can think of. They may not have been of the highest quality, but they certainly brought a smile to my face. This certainly made it stand out among the many museums that I visited over those eight days.

A diorama of dinosaurs in Aktau Historical Museum

One of the many dioramas in Aktau Historical Museum

Alongside the many dioramas were models and recreations of the wildlife that either lives, or has lived, in this area. Some of them were clearly fake, others looked like they may have seen the inside of a taxidermist. With some, it was difficult to tell one way of the other. Particularly when they were as terrifying as this …

Terrifying cat in Aktau Historical Museum, Kazakhstan

Its eyes follow you …

If you are in Aktau, I would certainly suggest visiting the museum. And not just because there are few others places within the city to visit.

Before I move on, I thought I would throw this in there. There was a lot of fuss made about the facilities provided in Sochi at last year’s Winter Olympics. Particularly over the provision of two toilets in one cubicle. Well, Sochi is not alone.

Double toilet in Aktau Historical Museum, Aktau, Kazakhstan

Oh yeah, they share one toilet roll …

Back to the Start

So, that was that for the Aktau and the wider Mangystau region. Next up was a four hour flight back to Almaty, ready for dinner and sleep before our last day in Kazakhstan. My favourite day in Kazakhstan. Our week up to now had just flown by, making it all the more frustrating that I missed the first day!

So come back soon to read about Charyn Canyon, located between Almaty and the Chinese border. It will be worth it just for the photos. The place was incredible.

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakstan Adventure, Day Six: Highs and Lows, Mountains and Depressions
22
July
2015

The Kazakstan Adventure, Day Six: Highs and Lows, Mountains and Depressions

Taking in the vast expanse of Mangystau

Before starting, I would just like to point out that I was very tired on day six, and a little under the weather too. So my note-taking suffered, my memory vanished and, as such, this will probably be the shortest blog yet! Oh, and that sound you can hear, the smallest violin ever.

Aktau

The day started in Aktau, Kazakhstan’s only seaport. It is a city that was formed in order to home those who mined uranium from the surrounding region. Don’t worry, though, you won’t come home radioactive if you visit. The city has grown significantly in the 60 years since its founding, with a population of around 180,000 now. Despite this large population, there appeared to be very little to recommend in Aktau as far as tourism is concerned; though there was a rock and roll/British themed pub, although I think its pool table must have something wrong with it because I cannot be that bad at pool can I? Its main selling point is as a base for exploring the wider Mangystau region.

We did not spend long in Aktau though during day six, and we were soon on our way to our first stop, the Karagiye Depression.

The Karagiye Depression

It is at this point that I will mention that finding out reliable facts about many of the destinations within Kazakhstan can be fiendishly difficult, due in part, I suppose, to the lack of global tourist interest in Kazakhstan over the years. For instance, we were ‘reliably’ informed by our tour guide that the Karagiye Depression was the fifth lowest point in the world. My internet searches have ‘reliably’ informed me that it is, variously, the sixth, seventh, or eighth. It is for this reason that I would forgo fact-finding when thinking about travelling in Kazakhstan in favour of ‘experience-finding’; you will drive yourself crazy searching otherwise. Besides, it is the experience that really matters.

And the experience in the Karagiye Depression … is ok. It didn’t particularly grab me. Others in my group felt different, so what do I know? What made it interesting, for me, were our attempts to drive down into the depression. In the run up to our visit there had apparently been quite a lot of rain, and this rain had washed away the track that we were to take once we had left the main tarmac road. Not only had it washed the topsoil away, though, but it had left large cracks in the ground where the water had obviously created temporary streams. This made the drive into the depression very challenging for the drivers. Before we knew they had only been roped into this job a few days previously we thought their driving skills were impressive. Now, with the knowledge that they were not professional drivers, their ability on the difficult terrain is incredible.

The most impressive part of the depression were a number of white rock formations. If I remember correctly, and I may not, the white of the formations came from salt deposits. As I have little else to say about this area, here are photos instead!

Rock Formations in the Karagiye Depression

A rock formation in the Karagiye Depression

Wave-like formations in the Karagiye Depression

Wave-like rock formations in the Karagiye Depression

Sherkala Mountain

Stop two in the Mangystau region was Sherkala Mountain near a small town called Shetpe. What makes this mountain stand out is that it is entirely alone, rising out of a flat plateau. In this way it bears a similarity to Uluru in Australia. Oh, it also looks remarkably like a traditional Kazakh yurta.

Sherkala Mountain, Mangystau, Kazakhstan

Sherkala Mountain, looks like a yurt no?

It was here we were to have a traditional lunch; but first we had a chance to walk around a little. After a little exploration I found a little stairway that looked as though it could lead upwards to the top of the mountain. At the very least I hoped it would head inwards, to a cave of some sort. Unfortunately there had been a rock-fall and so the stairs had been crushed, and the entrance to the mountain completely blocked. So that was the end of that mini-adventure!

Sherkala Mountain cave blockage

No entry

Once we had finished lunch we were very quickly told about ‘friendship bread’, which is traditionally made on a Friday and shared among friends and family. We were also offered the chance to try some, and it was very nice; but them freshly cooked bread is never anything less than fantastic.

One of the highlights of my day happened while we drove away from Sherkala Mountain, though, when I did my good deed for the day by rescuing a tortoise from certain doom as it very slowly crossed a road, dodging the first traffic we had seen in hours! He didn’t seem too grateful though, as he waved his legs around trying to claw me before I placed him gently to the side of the road.

The Valley of Castles

Our last visit of the day was to what our guide called the ‘Valley of Castles’. So called due to some amazing rock formations in the 215 million year old mountains. As with the majority of our visits over the tour, we were the only people there, so the silence added to the wonder of the formations.

Valley of Castles, Magystau, Kazakhstan

A castle like rock formation in the 'Valley of Castles'

And that was day six. To finish up, I thought I would share with you two facts we were told about the use of camels during the course of the day:

1. Bactrian camels (those with two humps) are used for food.
2. Dromedary camels (those with one hump) are used for milk.

So there you go.

See you back here soon for day seven.

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Five: Oh, I do like to be Beside the Seaside!
7
July
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Five: Oh, I do like to be Beside the Seaside!

Two flights, a Mosque-in-a-cave and a field of balls

Flying to Aktau

Day five found us preparing for two flights, covering around 2,600km; a prospect no one looks forward to. What we were looking forward to was a few days by the sea, the Caspian Sea, in the Mangystau region that makes up the western-most portion of Kazakhstan. With temperatures creeping up, the prospect of a nice breeze off of the sea was certainly enticing, though I was excited enough as it was. Who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of visiting the seaside after all!

I will gloss over the flights. Flights are flights. I will say they were both very good, with nice food as well as clean and modern interiors. We flew first with Scat Airlines, followed by Air Astana. I will also say that with a window seat I was afforded some incredible views of Kazakhstan. The landscape of the country is remarkably varied, we flew over lush green steppe, arid desert and pure white salt flats; to say nothing for the lakes and rivers.

Traditional Kazakh Everything

Upon arriving at Aktau Airport we were greeted by a small fleet of off-road vehicles ready to whisk us away. Unlike the first few days, on which everywhere could be accessed by a standard vehicle, in Magystau it would be nigh-on impossible to get to some of the best sights without an off-road vehicle. It was very nearly impossible to visit one of our day six destinations even with off-road vehicles. We found out later that our drivers were not professional drivers, but in fact had been pulled in off the street in the days leading up to our arrival purely because they happened to own off-road vehicles. One of the drivers was a jeweller who had trained in Italy! They were very, very good though.

Our first stop was at a couple of yurtas that had been set up near to the sea. We were there to eat a traditional Kazakh meal, listen to traditional Kazakh music and watch some traditional Kazakh games.

Yurta in the Manystau, Kazakhstan

A traditional Kazakh yurta. And a horse.

We were led into the first of the two to see how a traditional yurta may have looked, including several pieces of, very colourful, Kazakh handicraft. A favourite among many of those present, including myself, was a collection of what their creator called ‘Kazakh chandelier’s’. They were indeed very chandelier-esque; colourful woollen creations that dangled from the ceiling, lit up peferctly by the little light that entered through the hole in the roof.

'Kazakh Chandelier', Mangystau Region, Kazakhstan

A 'Kazakh Chandelier'


Next was a display of Kazakh horse wrestling. That’s right, horse wrestling. As in wrestling on the back of horses. The horses themselves don’t wrestle; though they looked like they would probably win in a fight with Hulk Hogan if forced. As I understood it, two competitors were meant to attempt to force the other to lift their backside off of the saddle on which they were seated. In actuality it looked like they both had their backsides in the air many times before the referee blew his whistle.

Take a look for yourself below:


If you can pick a victor out of that you understand the game better than I!

The second game we were shown was, for lack of a better name, ‘kiss chase’. But on horseback. The game is played between one boy, and one girl, with the boy aiming to catch the girl to give her a kiss, and the girl trying to catch the boy in order to hit him. The winner is whoever catches the other first. I don’t know about you, but when I was at school both parties normally ‘won’. The boy always kissed the girl, who inevitably hit him afterwards.

This was all followed by a lunch that was accompanied by traditional Kazakh music and singing. Once again we had beshbarmak, though this time we had the addition of shubat. Shubat, for those who don’t know, is fermented camels milk, and it is not nearly as revolting as that probably sounds. It has a sour yoghurt-like taste to it, with a bit of a tang. I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not, though I think I would fall on the side of like, if pushed.

Traditional Kazakh Dress, Mangystau Region, Kazakhstan

Two young ladies in traditional Kazakh dress. And me!

Oh, and did I say this was all by the sea?

The Caspian Sea, Mangystau Region, Kazakhstan

The Caspian Sea

The Shakpak Ata Underground Mosque

Once we had finished lunch we took a quick walk along the coast before hopping into our waiting cars and travelling for a few hours to reach Shakpak Ata. For me, the area around Aktau was a little dry and barren. Quite close to what I had expected Kazakhstan to be like before I arrived. Give me green and full of life over barren any day. As you travel across this section of Mangystau it becomes increasingly apparent that the primary source of income for the area is oil. At times the oil derricks seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. In fact, it looked a little like a huge farm for giant robotic prey-mantises (prey-manti?). This is not to say that it doesn’t have its own, industrial, charm.

The further away from civilisation we drove, though, the more the scenery came into its own. It was still very dry and arid, but this is actually what made it beautiful. By the time we reached Shakpak Ata some of the rock formations were remarkable; particularly those that make up the exterior of the ‘underground’ mosque.

The walls of the outcropping of rock that the mosque is built into is honeycombed in an incredible fashion. I kept expecting giant bee’s to fly out of the holes at any moment.

The Shakpak Ata Mosque, Kazakhstan

The Shakpak Ata 'underground' mosque

Sitting in front of the mosque is an ancient necropolis, a cemetery, in which lie graves and mausoleums dating back hundreds of years. We had to be very careful where we stepped as many of the headstones had crumbled away into nothingness with the passing of time and so were difficult to spot.

The mosque itself is relatively small, a single room with four main areas and many carvings in the walls. In the rear of the mosque are some very large, deep stairs that lead to the top of the rock outcropping. At the top the view is huge. Vast. With the Caspian Sea as the perfect backdrop. Particularly under perfect, cloudless, blue skies. Like many of the best parts of Kazakhstan, due to the lack of infrastructure it is a nuisance to get to, but it is well worth the effort.

The View from Shakpak Ata Mosque, Kazakhstan

The view from the top of the Shakpak Ata mosque

Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire Rock

Our time there had to end, as we had one more stop to make before heading back for dinner and much needed sleep. Next up were the, strangely named, ‘globular concretions’ at Torysh. Try saying that five times quickly.

They may well be one of the most unusual natural sights you are ever likely to see. Practically perfectly spherical ball of rock after practically perfectly spherical ball of rock. Now try saying that quickly five times! It is an incredible phenomenon. Scientists still cannot agree on quite how they formed or where they came from. Some think they may have formed around dead ammonites, others say that they have volcanic origins, while there are those that claim they were formed in glaciers over millions of years; and those are just three of the wildly different theories. The fact that they retain a certain mystery even now, though, only adds to the awe that you feel while standing among them. And besides, some mysteries are better left unsolved. Though one member of our group hit upon a popular theory, maybe they are dragon’s eggs like those in Game of Thrones!

Ammonite in a 'Globular Concretion', Torysh, Kazakhstan

Were the 'globular concretions' built around these ammonites?

Globular Concretions, Torysh, Kazakhstan

The 'globular concretions' under the evening sun

And that was day five. We were lucky to be greeted by another incredible sunset on our way back to Aktau, though. And it is with an image of this sunset I leave you. Quite fitting I think.

Sunset over Torysh, Kazakhstan

Our beautiful sunset

Join me next time for Sherkala Mountain and challenging terrain!

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Four: How to Miss a 15km Long Canyon
25
June
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Four: How to Miss a 15km Long Canyon

Getting lost in southern Kazakhstan

Heading out of Shymkent via Sairam

After a later start than I had become accustomed to, we started our day with a short drive to Sairam, a small town on the outskirts of Shymkent.

While in Sairam we took in the Sairam History Museum, to find out about this small towns influence on the history of the Silk Route, as well as a mausoleum built over the tomb of Ibrahim-Ata, the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, whose place in Kazakh history you can read about in my day three blog.

I am sorry to say, though, that I found the Sairam History Museum a little disappointing. There seemed to be only a few items within the museum, though everything is well kept. As is common, there was no language other than Kazakh on any of the signs, and the museum guide only spoke in Russian, although our tour guide did translate everything for us. I would not necessarily recommend visiting. I will admit, though, that my view may be coloured somewhat because I prefer to explore museums in my own time which, due to the language barrier, was not possible.

Our next stop was the Mausoleum of Ibrahim-Ata. It was the smallest of the mausoleums we had seen at this point, and after the grandeur of day three’s architecture it was a little underwhelming. Though, in reality, it isn’t really the architecture that is important, it is the meaning and significance of the mausoleum to people. If you are interested in the history of Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan then it is an interesting stop as a monument to the father of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, but otherwise it is perhaps not worth venturing to.

Once we had finished in the, underwhelming, Sairam we set off for Aksu Canyon, something I was significantly more interested in, despite my fear of heights.

The Search for Aksu Canyon

Once we left Sairam, the day became much more interesting. First we were to head to an area that our itinerary called ‘Devils Bridge’, though I can find no mention of this name online, before heading to see a section of the 15km long Aksu Canyon.

'Devils Bridge' near Shymkent, Kazakhstan

'Devils Bridge', complete with unfortunately placed gas pipe!

We found ‘Devils Bridge’ without too many problems. It is so called because a 30 metre drop has been carved into the land by the river below, leaving a half metre gap where it is possible to jump across. I didn’t. My fear of heights won the battle with the jumping ability of my legs, and so I took the actual bridge across the gap. The view was very nice, provided you stood with your back to the road bridge across the gap, as it had a bright yellow gas pipe running alongside it. The highlight of ‘Devils Bridge’ was an elderly gentleman riding on the back of a donkey, herding goats. Not something you see every day.

Goat herder near Shymkent, Kazakhstan

A goat herder on donkey-back near 'Devils Bridge'

As we were taking in the scenery it turned out that our driver, who had driven so confidently and at breakneck speeds on day three, did not know the way to Aksu Canyon, and any local he found to ask could not help him. So when we left ‘Devils Bridge’ we started to drive around looking for it. You would think a 15km long canyon carving open the view would be quite noticeable! Over an hour later, upon learning the directions, we were finally able to make our way to the canyon. Where was it you ask? Well, the road that led to where we were planning to view the canyon was about 15 metres away from ‘Devils Bridge’, with around five minutes of driving from that point. So it took us well over an hour to travel five minutes further along the canyon it seems we were already at. Something to remember if ever you visit! Like I have mentioned before, tourism is not big yet in Kazakhstan, so there are not sign posts to every view of note!

Our driver regained his confidence at this point as, with several hundred metres of clear ground to his right, he decided to drive within inches of the edge of the, at this point, 50+ metre drop into the canyon. My stomach turned cartwheels. Thankfully, we parked up a few metres after this and I was able to escape and put a few metres between myself and the edge, enabling me to fully appreciate the view.

And what a marvellous view it was; from the green pastures on either side of the canyon, down through the varied, and colourful, layers of rock making up the canyon walls and to the fast-flowing, and incredibly blue, river at the bottom. While the weather didn’t live up to its end of the bargain, it at least managed to not spoil things by raining.

A view across Aksu Canyon, Kazakhstan

The view across Aksu Canyon

The scale of Aksu Canyon, Kazakhstan

The gentleman in the top left of the photo shows the scale of Aksu Canyon

Like many of the excursions on our tour of Kazakhstan, time was not on our side, and so we only had a short time to explore this small part of the canyon. Eventually we found a well-worn path down to the river at the base of the canyon in the distance, which was quite exciting, but, by the time we had walked to it, we were called back to the minibus to move on.

If I had to point out any negative to the whole trip it was the amount of time that my group and I were given in places such as this. We were given 30 minutes to an hour in areas you could easily spend whole days walking around. Because of this we only scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. A good excuse if ever there was one to go back! Though it was all understandable to an extent, as our hosts where excited to show us as much as their fantastic country as possible.

A Home Cooked Kazakh Meal

Our final stop for the day was to have dinner, with a difference. We had been invited to eat at the home of a local family. If you ever get the chance to try this, in any country, take it. The food tastes immeasurably better, and the experience is head and shoulders above what a restaurant can provide. I would suggest, though, going with a group smaller than the 15/16 people I was with. In such a large group the intimacy of this kind of experience is lost a little.

As we arrived we were all greeted by the patriarch of the family who introduced us to his family, and extended family, including a young girl (perhaps around four or five years of age) who seemed utterly bemused/perplexed by all these foreigners invading her home.

Local Kazakh family outside Shymkent, Kazakhstan

Our gracious hosts

Following these introductions we were led to the dining room where we all sat cross legged, or tried anyway, on the floor with a full spread of food laid out before us; a veritable feast. And that was before the main course of beshbarmak had even been served!

Local family dinner outside Shymkent, Kazakhstan
I promised yesterday to tell you about beshbarmak. Well, it is a relatively simple dish of meat (traditionally horse), potatoes, carrots, onions and pasta-like sheets, that is meant eaten with your hands; hence the name beshbarmak, as this means ‘five fingers’. Traditionally it is served alongside a sheep’s head, which is set before the most honoured guest, from which different parts are served to the other guests, each part with a different symbolic meaning. For instance, if my notes are correct, and if I can decipher them, ears are served to children to help them listen.

Traditional Kazakh Beshbarmak

Traditional Kazakh beshbarmak

As is traditional, most of the meal was prepared fresh by the daughter-in-law, Kellin; this even includes things such as the butter, which was made from the milk of their neighbour’s cow. We were lucky enough to watch her make the pasta for the dish, by rolling out balls of dough until they were incredibly thin.

Once we had finished eating, the father read a section of the Quran to give thanks for the meal, before we all thanked the family for their fantastic hospitality and headed back to our hotel. After a very average morning, Aksu Canyon and the family meal were something special. Two more reasons you should visit Kazakhstan.

And so our time in this area of Kazakhstan was complete. In the morning we were to board a plane in Shymkent heading for Aktau on the Caspian Sea, via Almaty; but that is a story for another day.

Real Russia Blog

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent - Part One
8
June
2015

The Kazakhstan Adventure, Day Three: On the Road to Shymkent – Part One

A fantastic journey across southern Kazakhstan taking in spectacular scenery, ancient towns and lizards!

I found myself writing so much for day three I felt I would split it in two to make it a little easier to read. So, presented here for you, is part one. Come back tomorrow for part two!

A visit to Sauron Sauran

After finally arriving back at our hotel around 1am of day two, we were up again early to have breakfast and be on our way. The early start was certainly necessary, as we had numerous stops to make along our 500km drive to Shymkent. If I remember correctly, our ETA in Shymkent for dinner was around 8pm; I don’t believe we arrived much before 10pm, such was the amount that was squeezed into the day.

Our first stop on this epic cross-country adventure were the ruins of the ancient Silk Route fortress and city of Sauran. That is Sauran, not Sauron; there are no Hobbits here, though the incredibly well preserved fortress walls do look like they could withstand an orc attack!

The ruins of this once great city are only partially excavated, and are a perfect illustration of where the tourist industry in Kazakhstan is at present. In many countries the excavation would be much further along, if not complete, with everything fenced off and a visitor centre built around it charging entry fees and selling tat. In Sauran, as in many of the places we visited, there is none of that. The site is completely open. There are no gates or fences, no refreshment stands or ice cream vans and no people; though there is a car park a five minute or so walk from the entrance, so it is not completely without modern convenience. This means that when you visit, it is just you, the ruins, the wildlife and the view. A wholly refreshing experience when compared to the, often, overcrowded tourist traps of Western Europe.

The fortress walls of Sauran

The fortress walls of the city of Sauran

The ruins themselves are not on the original site of the city, as it often moved to stay close to the changing course of the Syr Darya, a river that originates in the Tian Shan Mountains. The town and fortress itself was thought to cover a total area of around 200 hectares, though very little of this has so far been explored and excavated. Eventually other local towns rose to prominence, and Sauran itself was abandoned, leaving the surrounding steppe to reclaim it as its own. That the fortress walls are still in as good a condition as they are in many places, so long after the city was abandoned, is a testament to how well they were built to begin with.

At busy tourist locations there is often a lack of wildlife, the huge numbers of people having scared it all away. This is where Kazakhstan comes into its own. Its tourist spots are so rarely visited that the wildlife has yet to flee, meaning you can view eagles, horses, lizards, tortoises and (what Google suggests may have been) great gerbils among many other animals, birds and insects in their native habitat.

While in Sauran I took a number of wildlife photos, some good, some terrible, so here are a few of my favourites.

Sunbathing lizard at Sauran

I am not sure if this lizard is sunbathing or snooty …

Crested Lark at Sauran

A crested lark having lunch

Grazing horses at Sauran

Horses grazing among the ruins of Sauran

The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Unfortunately our time at Sauran had to end, so we moved on to Turkestan and the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi. Commissioned in the late 14th century, the mausoleum remains incomplete today, though efforts are ongoing to complete, and renovate, sections of the building. It is one of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kazakhstan and it is easy to see why.

UNESCO Sign at the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The mausoleum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The building itself is both visually impressive and imposing, standing at 42 metres, with some very intricate blue patterning around sections of the building and a huge archway leading into the central chamber.

Quick side note, as part of the continuing renovation/building work they tried to match the blue of the older tiling, but were unable to. So when you walk around the sides of the building you can instantly tell which of the tiling is new, and which has been there for many years.

The main archway has become an unofficial aviary, home to hundreds of birds nesting in every nook and cranny available, turning the archway into a wall of bird song and adding to the arresting nature and feel of the mausoleum.

Side note number two, from the side, the mausoleum was designed to look like ‘Allah’ written in Arabic.

The archway into the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The main entrance, and unofficial aviary, of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

Side view of the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

The side view of the mausoleum, designed to look like 'Allah' in Arabic – الله

Inside the mausoleum there are many small rooms used for a variety of purposes, such as prayer and teaching, and in the middle is an enormous cauldron, made of seven different metals and used to distribute holy water to pilgrims.

While we were not requested to remove our shoes, and we were allowed to take photographs, as this is a holy site it is best to ask permission for this first and to remember that this is not a museum, it is in active use and so respect should be shown.

After a short walk around the grounds, visiting the excavation of several chambers 100 metres or so from the mausoleum, we headed for lunch, and then hit the road again to continue our journey towards Shymkent.

Check back tomorrow to see what other incredible experiences were left for me during the rest of day three.