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Published: April 21st 2015
I flew with Air Astana to Kazakhstan. The local carrier has most of its fleet registered on our neighbouring island of Aruba, with the code “P4”. Almaty
is the largest city in Kazakhstan and the former capital with about 1.5 million people. Astana is the capital since 1997 but I did not go there because it’s the second coldest capital in the world and I’m not really friends with the cold. Even though it was early spring, the weather in Almaty wasn’t too cold! I think curiosity (as a Geography teacher) was the main reason for me to visit this country. The five “Stans” (part of the former Soviet Union) are very unknown and mysterious for most people because not so many people visit the region: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. You hardly hear anything from these countries in the news for example, many don't even know they exist! I found it quite exciting to travel to this “unknown” part of the world and I didn't know what to expect, but the experience was better than I expected. Kazakhstan is the 9th
largest country in the world but has just over 18 million people. Most of the country is a
I had a list with some basic Russian words and sentences but I admit that I was too lazy to start “studying” early enough. But it still helped a lot when buying train tickets or taking a taxi for example. The main language is Kazakh but many people speak Russian too. The currency is the Tenge (1 US$ = 185 Tenge) and it’s very stable, since Kazakhstan is economically the most advanced of all the Stans.
You barely see black people in Kazakhstan so almost everybody was looking at me and many were greeting or waving, everywhere! I walked into a supermarket, all the employees were looking and also the clients. A LOT of people took pictures with me, I felt like a celebrity in Kazakhstan. It didn’t matter where I was: at the market, in the train, on the street. Young and old, boys and girls, men and women. I think I should have charged a small amount per picture hahaha (at my next destination it happened much more often by the way). I enjoyed the food in Kazakhstan, mostly the “Plov” which consists of seasoned rice mixed with pieces of vegetables (mostly carrots and onions)
and diced meat on top.
I requested to stay with a couchsurfer called Ulug-Bek in Almaty (they call him just Bek), who runs his own English courses in the city. Bek was an EXCELLENT host, there is nothing else I can say, just excellent! A very well-mannered, energetic and positive guy who is working hard to achieve his goals. He was extremely helpful when it came to my travel plans in Kazakhstan. We also hung out one evening together with some of his friends. Usually Bek is busy with work, therefore he sent one of his students to pick me up at the airport: Nauryzbek. His English is not very good but he’s learning and doing pretty well. We walked towards the main road near the airport, where we boarded a bus. We got off the bus and walked to the place where Bek teaches, which is very close to his apartment. I met Sofia, a Portuguese girl who was also staying with Bek. A very brave girl, travelling by herself through Azerbaijan, crossed the Caspian Sea with the ferry to Kazakhstan, visited Kyrgyzstan and was on her way to Urumqi in China. She’s the one who told
me that you don’t need a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan. If I knew it, I would have planned at least a few days in the capital city of Bishkek. I didn’t need a visa or Letter of Invitation to visit Kazakhstan, which is great. They got rid of those requirements for 10 nationalities for one year, including Dutch nationals. After that one year, they might continue with the policy and even add more nationalities to the list (hopefully, it's good for themselves!). I spent 11 days in Kazakhstan and throughout the first week of my stay, my belly was still annoying me and I had to go quite often to the toilet. But it became less and less and it was all good again by the time I left the country.
To me, Almaty seemed like a mix of a European and a Soviet city. The first day I went to the city together with Sofia, even though it was cloudy. First we visited the 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park, with a monument and eternal flame dedicated to the fallen soldiers during the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. Not far we saw the colourful, wooden
Ascension Cathedral, built in 1907. We walked a bit further, had some coffee and then continued towards the Independence Square, where all the official ceremonies and celebrations are held. When we were there, it started raining so we decided to enter a mall just across the square. We had lunch here and just chilled a little bit here while the rain only got worse. We couldn’t do anything else this day. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to see a lot more of Almaty. I wanted to go to Kok Tobe, a hill from where you have excellent views over the city but the weather disappointed and it wasn’t clear, so I didn’t bother to go.
The next day, after much asking around, we went with Bek’s friend to Charyn Canyon. If you don’t have someone who you can pay to drive you there and back, it’s really difficult to visit. Tour agencies charge ridiculous prices so that wasn’t an option. The drive takes about 3 to 3.5 hours each way and the Canyon lies towards the east of Almaty. As we drove, the landscape slowly changed and became a desert with mountains covered with snow in the
background. We also passed several towns and small villages, and at some village I was wondering WHAT is going on there because they are so far away and isolated. What do people do there? The roads in Almaty are good but outside the city they're not that good and left to be desired. Considering that Kazakhstan has a relatively high GDP per capita and it's rich in oil, which is needed to make asphalt roads, it was disappointing. At the same time I understand that the distances are huge and it would still costs a lot of money to do big infrastructural projects.
Once we arrived at Charyn Canyon, located in Charyn National Park, I was stunned by the beauty mother-nature created there. Simply stunning! It’s like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, formed due to constant erosion of the Charyn River. First we stayed on the upper part of the canyon and later we descended into the canyon itself and we walked all the way towards the Charyn River, which flows through the national park. Here we sat down for a bit and just relaxed, before we walked back and leave the park. What a beautiful experience,
highly recommended if you ever come to Kazakhstan. On our way back to Almaty we were very hungry and we stopped in Shelek, a small town along the main road, where we had some delicious “utka” shaslik (duck skewer).
I had contact via couchsurfing with Inara, a Kazakh girl who we met the next day. Bek’s student, Nauryzbek, also came along with us. Inara picked us up and we went to Kok Zhaylau, which is an area just outside the city with forest and hills. There was a lot of snow here but it was melting pretty fast and it was very muddy. On our way down I slipped and fell twice, but nothing serious. We walked up the forest a little bit, but we couldn’t go too far because the track was blocked and the other tracks were way too muddy to go through. It was a beautiful area though. After this we met with a few friends of Nauryzbek and we drove to Turgen Gorge in their car. Very nice scenery but we couldn’t get to the waterfall because of the amount of snow, a pity! After this we drove to Issy Lake, which was partially
frozen. Another beautiful area and every more beautiful in the summer, according to the locals.
The next day I had to go to an embassy to get my visa for my next destination. The process went much smoother than I thought and I was ready after two hours of being attended. I went to Bek’s classes several times and the students were very curious about who I am, where I come from etc. It was always nice to be there and to interact with the students so they can practice their English. In Almaty I was supposed to meet up with Maria, a Russian girl who lived for some time in Curaçao and speaks fluent Papiamentu. But unfortunately she was admitted to the hospital on the second day I was in Almaty.
Almaty treated me very well with its friendly, helpful, warm....and curious people I met. And then, I boarded a 36-hour train in Almaty and travelled towards the west.....more in the next blog!
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