Real Russia Blog

Eurasian city-breaks: 48 hours in Almaty, Kazakhstan
25
October
2019

Eurasian city-breaks: 48 hours in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Real Russia`s 48-hour guide to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Set in the idyllic foothills of the Ile Alatau mountains, Almaty stands as one of Kazakhstan’s most southernly cities, with the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan located around 235km away. As Kazakhstan’s former capital city, Almaty is the country’s largest city and acts as a central hub for trade and cultural exchange. The city continues to grow in popularity year on year, originally growing from 1.47 million tourists in 2000, 4.81 million in 2012, to 6.5 million reported in 2016.

Part two of our 6-part Eurasian city-break series will take you through a 48-hour journey of Almaty, exploring top tourist attractions and taking in the city’s immersive local history.

Why visit Almaty

Although largely under-rated as a tourist destination, Almaty has plenty to offer tourists from beautiful national parks, museums showing Kazakhstan’s largely untouched local history, as well as world-renowned spas and ski resorts. Visiting Almaty is relatively inexpensive, food and drink is slightly less than you would expect to pay in other major cities in Europe and it is possible to take advantage of free admission to several of the city’s main museums and attractions if you time your trip well.

Best places to stay in Almaty

You will find a good selection of hotels and hostels in Almaty city centre. We recommend booking your hotel or hostel near the Zhibek Zholy or Almaly metro station area, located to the North of Almaty’s cultural quarter with Zenkov Cathedral, Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and the Zelenyy bazaar just a 10-minute walk away.

Street Map of Almaty
Street map of Almaty

48 hours in Almaty

City breaks offer a brief glimpse into a city’s cultural identity and packing everything into 48 hours can be tricky, if not impossible. Not only do you need to think about how long to spend at each attraction you need to allow enough time to travel there, and you will often find that other factors such as budget and hotel location influence the decisions you make. Below, we have created a draft 48-hour itinerary that includes some of the best things to do in Almaty.

Day 1:

Early morning: 7:00 – 9:00am

Orientate yourself

On arriving in Almaty, you will want to get hold of a city map if you don’t already own one, you should be able to pick these up easily from a tourist information desk from either the airport or train station. Almaty city centre is around 30 minutes away from Almaty International Airport by car or taxi and around 20 minutes from Almaty 1 International train station. Almaty’s metro system is one of the newest in the world, completed and opened to the public in December 2011. The system is currently under expansion; however, it is possible to get the Metro just South of Almaty II train station at Rayimbek Batyr and skirt all the way through Almaty city centre to Moskva station to the West of the city.

Almaty has a huge selection of coffee shops to choose from so this may be a good opportunity to grab breakfast on the go. Alternatively, many of the hotels will have breakfast included or as an optional extra.

Morning: 10:00 – 12:00pm

Take a stroll in Panfilov Park

Panfilov Park is particularly beautiful in the morning, and after a long journey, you may want to stretch your legs and decide on what you want to visit. The park is completely free and open 24 hours every day of the week, so can easily fit around your plans morning, noon or night.

Early afternoon: 12:00 – 14:00pm

See Almaty’s spectacular wooden cathedral

Located in Panfilov Park is one of Almaty’s most famous tourist attractions, the Zenkov Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1907 is made from wood, but without nails. It is thought to be the second tallest wooden building in the world standing at 56 meters tall.

Ascension Cathedral, Almaty
Ascension Cathedral, Almaty

To the West of the cathedral, you will find an assortment of places ideal for lunch including a Starbucks and Yeda U Kota which offers a variety of light bites and fast food options.

Afternoon: 14:00 – 17:00pm

Experience the legacy of Kazakh folk music first-hand

To the East of Panfilov Park, you will find one of Almaty’s more unusual museums, the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. The museum exhibits the largest display of Kazakh musical instruments in the country along with a selection of sculptures which show many of these instruments in action. The museum is ideal for those looking to learn more about local Kazakh folk culture and is open 10:00am until 19:00pm Tuesday to Sunday, the museum is closed on Mondays.

Early evening: 17:00 – 19:00pm

Visit Almaty’s principle shopping destination

A trip to Almaty’s Zelyoniy Bazaar is the perfect way to finish off your day. This busy trading point has a huge selection of stalls selling everything from spices and produce to textiles, furniture and antiques. If you are in self-catering accommodation you should be able to pick up fruit and vegetables here at incredibly cheap prices. If you are looking for souvenirs from your trip or are interested in antiques, then a visit to this place is a must before you leave.

Evening: 19:00 – 00:00am

A taste of traditional Kazakh cuisine

There is a huge selection of fantastic places to eat and drink in Almaty, however for those wanting a truly authentic Kazakh experience should go to Kazakh Restaurant Gakku. This restaurant is the go-to place for traditional Kazakh cuisine including Beshbarmak which is a broth-based noodle dish with finely chopped meat and seasoned with an onion sauce. This restaurant is usually busy therefore we recommend booking in advance, however, if you go before 21:00pm it is usually quieter. The restaurant is open until midnight each day for those who like to eat later in the day.

Shivers Bar is regarded as Almaty’s premier cocktail bar and is perfect for an end of evening tipple. The bar has its own take on most classic cocktails, as well as a selection of reasonably-priced home creations. The bar is open from 6:00pm and closes around 11:00pm.

Day 2:

Morning: 7:00 – 12:00pm

Relax in one of Almaty’s world-renowned spas

After a busy day exploring the city, a trip to one of Almaty’s many world-class spas should provide a welcome break. Arasan Wellness Spa is located just West of Panfilov Park and has a complex of saunas, a fitness center and segregated bathing rooms for men and women. Guests can make use of the luxury swimming pool, as well as, take advantage of the spa’s massages and detox treatments. The spa is open early from 7:00am and closes at 23:30pm; the complex also includes a lobby and rest bar with light bites and a breakfast menu.

Afternoon: 12:00pm – 17:00pm

Uncover Kazakhstan’s history on canvas

A short journey away from Panfilov Park, is one of Almaty’s most visited tourist attractions, the Museum of Arts. Although it is possible to walk to the museum, we recommend catching the metro to either Auezov theatre or Baikonur Subway Station; the museum is approximately 5 minutes’ walk away from each.

Kazakhstan Museum of Art, Almaty
Kazakhstan's Museum of Arts, Almaty

Kazakhstan’s Museum of Arts is a spectacular art gallery exhibiting a large collection of Kazakh paintings, sculptures and other Western and Asian art. Perfect for art-lovers and those looking to know more about Kazakh heritage, this museum offers a true insight into what has inspired the country through the ages. The museum is open 10:00am until 18:00pm Tuesday to Sunday, although closed on Mondays. The museum currently offers free entry on Sundays.

Early evening: 17:00pm – 19:00pm

Explore Almaty’s Japanese-inspired botanical gardens

Not far from the Museum of Arts to the South is Almaty’s botanical gardens offering a pleasant contrast from the bustling city centre. The gardens are Japanese-inspired contrasting open plains and gardens with sprawling wooded areas towards the centre. The gardens are open from 10:00am until 19:00pm every day of the week.

Evening: 19:00 – 03:00am

Enjoy Almaty’s Nightlife and party scene

After exploring the botanical gardens, you will find a few restaurants located to the South or you can head back into the centre for a wider selection. If you are looking for something a bit different and don’t mind travelling out a bit, we can recommend Alasha. This up and coming restaurant is located South-East of the city and is around 20 minutes away by taxi from the Botanical Gardens and Panfilov Park. The restaurant is highly decorative and is focused on providing an all-encompassing memorable experience for guests, with evening entertainment and Hookah room. Alasha serves an assortment of Eurasian cuisine including Shashlyk, steak, stuffed pastries and fish dishes. The restaurant is open until Midnight Sunday-Thursday or 01:00am Friday and Saturday.

If you are looking for vegetarian or vegan food, the best place to go would be Govinda’s. Located a 5-minute drive (30-minute walk) North-West of Panfilov Park, this Indian restaurant/ cafe offers a wide selection of deconstructed vegetarian and vegan dishes including aloo gobi daal and paneer baigan n poori. It is worth noting that this restaurant closes at 20:00pm, so make sure you get there early to avoid missing out!

Almaty has a couple of late-night bars for tourists hoping to make the most of their trip. Back Room is a nightclub open from 17:00pm until 01:00am Tuesday-Thursday or until 04:00am Friday-Saturday. Another option is Zhest Rock Club located West of the Botanical Garden. The bar regularly hosts bands from across the world and is the best place to go if you enjoy rock music, metal or anything in between. Zhest is open Thursdays 20:00-03:00am, and 21:00-5:00am Friday-Saturday; free entry is available before 22:00pm.

Day 3:

Morning: 7:00-10:00am

The morning after

After a brief rest, you should have time to catch a spot of breakfast before you leave. If not, never fear! You will always find a welcome selection of coffee shops, convenience stores and cafes at the train station or airport before embarking on your next adventure!

Closing tips and good to knows

  • Many of Kazakhstan’s major tourist attractions and museums are closed on Mondays, therefore, try and arrange visiting attractions around this in advance.
  • Although there are regular bus routes dotted around the city, traffic can be busy in the daytime. The Metro is considered the best way to explore the city.
  • Book your restaurants in advance, while you will always find alternatives you will usually need to book to get into Almaty’s best restaurants.

Skiing in Almaty

Skiing is a major tourist attraction for the city with the well-known Shymbulak ski resort just South of the city in Ile-Alatau National Park. The resort is open from 10:00am until 18:00pm every day and you can easily get to this via taxi in about 30 minutes. You will also find a selection of hotels including the Shymbulak ski resort itself conveniently located in the heart of the mountains.

Shymbulak Ski Resort, Almaty
Shymbulak Ski Resort, Almaty

Book your trip to Almaty with Real Russia!

We hope you have enjoyed the second instalment of our Eurasian city-breaks series. If you have been inspired to book your trip to Almaty, we can help you along the way! We can arrange trains, visas and tours to suit your requirements.

Visit the visa section on our website to apply for your Kazakhstan visa online or consult our train planner to book your trains.

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

Meet the team: Andrew Glenister
29
November
2017

Meet the team: Andrew Glenister

Our Marketing Manager gives his insight into Russia, Kazakstan and Mongolia.

Introducing our team

We continue introducing to you the Real Russia team, enthusiastic people who make our company so special.

Today we spoke to Andrew Glenister, Marketing Manager in the Real Russia team, who is always seeking new ways to help the team to build new bonds with current and future customers and ensure the company continues to grow.

One of the most experienced and helpful members of our staff, Andrew was the one who attended the World Travel Awards ceremony in Sardinia in 2015. He knows all about Real Russia, and knows how to link everything within to make the company succeed. And what’s more, he is incredibly passionate about Russia, its history, culture and people; last year he and some other team members hopped on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing, to experience Russia the way our customers do, and we asked him to share the highlights from that amazing trip with us.

Andrew, Real Russia Marketing Manager

Andrew joined Real Russia in 2014. Before embarking on a career in travel, Andrew received a degree in Law. Though, being a passionate traveller himself, he decided to be involved in the thriving travel business.

In his free time, he likes to travel, play rugby for his local club, read and watch movies.

​ Andrew in Ulan-Ude


What are three the most interesting countries you’ve visited?

1.Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a little off the beaten path, but it is an incredibly diverse place to visit; I visited around April/May, and within the space of a few hours I went from standing atop a snowy mountain in the Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range (part of the Tian Shan mountain system), to standing under a burning sun near Kzylorda – one of the flattest areas I have ever visited!

2.Russia (of course!)

This choice isn’t just bias, or cheeky marketing, it is the genuine truth. I have visited Russia a few times now and it is always different. I think my favourite example of this is visiting the Old Believers in Ulan-Ude last year. As an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, I thought the visit would be quite sombre, but in fact they plied us with local homemade vodka, alongside song and dance in, very colourful, traditional local outfits.

​ Visiting the Old Believers in Ulan-Ude

3. Canada

Somewhere I have not visited for nearly 15 years, but that continues to hold my interest having only scratched the surface.

What is your approach to travelling to foreign countries?

I tend to do a lot of research, and work hard to choose just the right destination. There is so little free time in which to travel, I don’t want to waste it. I will check out blogs and travel articles, as well as ask friends for their recommendations.

Once I have decided where I want to go, I will start to look at things like travel, accommodation, etc. I usually make a spreadsheet for myself, so I can create an itinerary with costs. I am very nerdy about it, but it helps me to plan what I want to see, and make sure I can fit everything in!

Once I arrive I try to stick to the mantra, ‘when in Rome’. I use local transport, eat in local restaurants, and try to wander around the less ‘touristy’ areas of a place – in fact, the less tourists there are where I am the better!

Do you focus on learning the cultural and historical aspects of the country, or understanding the people and their mentality?

I tend towards getting a feel for the ‘feel’ of a place, and its people. Historical context of course plays a part in this, but how people live, and interact, and being a part of that, teaches much more. In my opinion, anyway. In any case, the historical context can be gained before traveling, when researching a destination.​

Boarding the Circum-Baikal train

The Trans-Siberian railway…

Last year you embarked on the Trans-Siberian journey for the first time ever. What advice would you give to customers that are planning on travelling to Russia, China or Mongolia for the first time?

I come back to research again. For instance, travelling by train for days on end is a unique experience, and one that I think is brilliant (I can’t wait to do again!) but without preparation I can see how some people may not enjoy it so much. I won’t go on at length about it, as we have some great guides elsewhere on the website by Matthew Woodward and Jessica from How Dare She that go into preparation in more detail.

Other than this, I would recommend that people go in with an open mind. Russia, Mongolia and China are all massively different from one another, let alone from the countries that most of our customers travel from, so being open to new people, ideas, customs, etc., if the best advice that can be given.

When is the best time to travel on the Trans-Siberian in your opinion?

I travelled towards the end of August, and this seemed to work out pretty much perfectly. The weather was still nice (other than a little rain in Irkutsk) and the bulk of the holiday season has passed (so fewer tourists).

It does depend on what any given person wants to see or do. Lake Baikal is a great example of this; in the summer it is possible to hike and sail, in the winter it is possible to go ice fishing and dog sledding.

Why do you think the Trans-Siberian route is so popular?

It speaks to the imagination. It speaks to the history of Russia. Few, if any, other journeys, anywhere in the world, take in so many different cultures, or such a diverse mix of geography. I remember going to sleep in the Gobi Desert, nothing but sand in all directions, only to wake up in the hills and valleys of northern China to stunning blue rivers, and vibrant green hills; the contrast could not have been more complete.

Sitting proud in a recreation of Genghis Khans ger

What surprised you the most on your Trans-Siberian journey?

How quickly the time passes while on-board the train. I will admit to being a little concerned that a 34 hour train journey might become a little tedious, but I needn’t have worried. In the end the time flew by, and I actually wished I had had more time! And I am not alone, I spoke to numerous Real Russia customers while travelling, and they all said the same thing. I think it comes down to the incredible scenery. Once you start looking out the window you turn off to the passing of time, and before you know it, hours have passed!

What food did you like the most in Russia, Mongolia and China during your Trans-Siberian trip?

I think the best thing I ate along the way was in Novosibirsk. We were served a Siberian stag (maral) steak. It has to count as one of the nicest steaks I have ever had. What wasn’t so nice was what I suppose was meant to be a Russian ‘digestif’ – a liqueur of some sort, made from horseradish, it was revolting.

What city along the Trans-Siberian route you would visit again?

I would like to visit them all again! We were only able to spend a couple of days in each city, so we barely scratched the surface of what there is to see. In Novosibirsk, for instance, we visited the opera hall to watch a rehearsal, and visit the backstage area, but did not have the time to see a full performance, which was a great shame.

What was one of the funniest thing that happened to you during the trip?

While visiting Lake Baikal, we were convinced by our guide to have a quick swim. The weather that day was damp, grey, and miserable, so the water could charitably be called quite cold. The reactions of the group as we entered the water, paddled for a few seconds, then ran back to dry land, were priceless. Luckily this was followed up by a trip to a local banya (Russian sauna), where we quickly warmed back up again!

…and beyond

You went to Kazakhstan in 2015, and were so much impressed with the country that you wrote a series of blogs about the trip. Was your trip to Kazakhstan in some small way life changing?

I probably wouldn’t say life changing, but it certainly changed how I look at travel, for better and perhaps worse! Kazakhstan is rarely visited by tourists, and so almost everywhere we went, we were alone. On one day, we visited the ruins of Sauran, an ancient Silk Road city; there can’t have been another soul for 50 miles in any direction – it was just us, the ruins and a herd of wild horses. The experience would not have been the same had their been even one other person, or group. It really brought home to me how good it is to visit unkown destinations like this, to experience something different without the hubbub of tourists. The ‘worse’ of this is that my patience for tourist packed destinations has decreased, don’t even mention the Coliseum in Rome to me!

Otrar, Kazakhstan

How did you start your career in Real Russia? What drew you to the company?

I started as Rail Product Manager, before slowly spreading myself into other areas. Both helpfully, and probably unhelpfully!

What drew me to the company? The chance to do something a little bit different. Russia is a bit on an unknown quantity to most, and it certainly was to me. So joining Real Russia was an opportunity (from a selfish perspective), to learn about something that I was lacking in knowledge about, and get paid for it!

What keeps me hear is different? What keeps me here, is the chance to share Russia with the world. As I mentioned, Russia is an unknown quantity to many people, so the chance to introduce the country to people, to highlight its best qualities, is something that makes coming to work every day worthwhile.

After recently being crowned Russia’s Leading Travel Agency for the fifth time in a row, what do you think Real Russia owes its success to?

The people. The team. The effort they put in every day, partnering with travellers from around the world, helping them to realise their dream adventure. No request is too big, or too small, and I think that dedication is appreciated.

I like to think that the key is that our team will say, ‘yes’, where others may not. Any request, for any destination, if it is remotely possible, our team will try and make it a reality.

What do you find the most challenging in travel business?

The media and the politics, from any and all sides. Politicians, newspapers and television news programmes always have an agenda, and this agenda is nearly always negative, because that is what makes money. Rarely do they show the best of a place, or people. If we made decisions about where to travel based purely on politicians and the media, we would never travel anywhere!

Let’s end on a good note

Where in Russia would you like to go next?

There are two main destinations on my Russia ‘to-do’ list. In no particular order, Murmansk and Kamchatka. Both places are incredibly remote, and offer a view of the Russian people, and soul, that is unlike what can be found anywhere else. And the scenery, the stunning, untouched, beauty of it. Did you know that Kamchatka has no land connections to the rest of Russia at all? It is only possible to get there by water or by air, and they are very dependent on the weather!

At the end of the day, Russia and the Trans-Siberian are incredible places to visit. I have incredibly fond memories of both, and have made some great friends working at Real Russia, sharing it all with the world.

If you enjoy good food, good people, incredible scenery, and want variety in your travels, then nothing beats the Trans-Siberian.

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Thank you, Andrew, for answering our questions and giving us this amazing and thought-provoking insight.

We look forward to introducing you to another member of our amazing team next month!

If you feel inspired and would like a helping hand in designing your perfect travel itinerary, or anything from train booking to applying for a visa, please contact our travel specialists.

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 Two
9
June
2015

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

The second part of the longest day on tour, featuring staggering scenery and a unique cave

Day three proved tricky to sum up with only one blog post, so here is part two of my third day in Kazakhstan. If you missed part one on Monday, a) you are forgiven, and b) click on the link below to catch up.

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

The Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Following the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, our exploration of southern Kazakhstan continued with a visit to the Arystan Bab Mausoleum. It is a much smaller, and newer, building than the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, having been rebuilt numerous times, due to flooding and earthquakes, since its original construction in the 14th century. Most of the current building is only around 100 years old, although there are elements inside that are significantly older, including a pair of wooden pillars dating back several hundred years.

It is said that Arystan Bab was in fact the teacher of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, and legend suggests that this mausoleum was built in order for Emir Timur to find success in his efforts to create a mausoleum for Khoja Ahmed Yassawi.

Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Arystan Bab Mausoleum

Having spent 30 minutes at the site, including viewing the tomb of Arystan Bab and his students itself, we moved on, heading for Otrar.

The Silk Route fortress of Otrar

Otrar was an ancient Silk Route fortress and city, much like part ones Sauran, which was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s troops in 1219. Eventually it regained its status as a key stop on the Silk Route, but unfortunately, as with Sauran, it was slowly abandoned for other settlements before being reclaimed by the surrounding countryside and wildlife.

Otrar is very similar to Sauran, and of the two, my preference is definitely Sauran. I cannot explain to you why, sometimes you just like the ‘feel’ of a place, and I liked the ‘feel’ of Sauran. Otrar is certainly the more active though, archeologically speaking; with numerous excavations ongoing, including of what are believed to be bath houses. Even if my preference lies elsewhere, this does not diminish the view and the incredible history that lies there.

Walls of Otrar

The walls of Otrar, still standing after hundred of years

The Surprise Stop, Ak-Mechet Cave

Our last stop for the day was a surprise trip to Ak-Mechet Cave, quite some way off what seemed to be the beaten path, at the suggestion of our driver. In fact, it is so far off of the beaten path that if you Google Ak-Mechet Cave, you will find practically nothing. Currently, two of the three top results are a blog and photos by a member of my tour party.

On the winding drive to the cave I think I feared for my life like I never have before in a vehicle. I think the whole group felt the same! Our driver was, admirably, doing his best to get us to the cave before sunset, and so was channelling the spirit of any number of Formula 1 drivers; the last thing that you would want in a minibus that was almost certainly not designed to go around corners at more than 10 miles per hour, let alone 25!

The hair-raising drive was worth it though. The views from our parking place on a hill overlooking the steppe were stunning, and the cave itself was something else.

The view from above Ak-Mechet cave

The view from our parking space above Ak-Mechet Cave

For someone with a fear of heights, descending the stairway into the cave was horrible. I am sure the stairway is perfectly safe, but I felt like it could come away from its moorings at any time. It even had a slight inward tilt. If you ever go, do not make the mistake I did and hold onto the handrail. The cave is home to many bats and birds, something that adds enormously to its atmosphere, but also adds plenty to the grime covering the stairway.

Once inside, Ak-Mechet Cave is incredible. It is considered to be a spiritual place, and so you will find stones piled up by Shamans for the spirits that reside within, and it is said that if you walk around the small mound inside and find a place to sit in silence that you can ‘feel’, and ‘connect’ with, the spirits and energy of the cave.

Now, I am not someone who generally believes in spirituality and mysticism, outside of fiction anyway, but I will admit, the cave did have a certain undefinable something. Between the cawing, tweeting and chittering of the bats and birds, the drip-drip of water from the caves ceiling, the setting sun pouring through the cave entrance and the stillness inside, it was a unique experience. I have added a photo here (my digital camera did not deal with the dark very well) but it does not begin to capture the experience. If you are ever nearby I would highly recommend taking the road less travelled to visit the cave.

Ak-Mechet Cave

The view looking out of Ak-Mechet Cave

We had little time to see Shymkent on our arrival, as we went straight for a late supper of bishbarmak (a Kazakh dish I will tell you more about another time), before a short drive to our hotel ready for bed. From what I did see, it seemed like a city that was flourishing, with many new developments and an active nightlife.

I will add a little about our hotel before I finish, though, as a ‘heads up’ for anyone planning to visit Kazakhstan in the future. The hotels in Kazakhstan do have star ratings, but do not expect them to match up to what you may have experienced elsewhere. We stayed at what was, optimistically, called a ‘four star’ hotel. I may be no hotel expert, but it wasn’t what I would ordinarily expect a four star hotel to be. I think two stars may have been more accurate. I had to smile, though, when I went to plug in the bedside lamp in my room, only to find that there was not actually a plug socket in which to plug it in. The nearest one was across the room, in use by the air conditioning. I can only surmise it was there as decoration, though a vase of flowers would have been just as functional given the circumstances, and much more pleasant to look at.

Check back soon for day four, in which we failed to find a 15km long, 500 metre deep canyon that was sat right under our noses.

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.