Ancient and modern, Kazakhstan will shatter your preconceptions in spectacular style – Scotland on Sunday Travel
The wind blew across the desert landscape, creating dust devils full of swirling ancient particles that were lifted directly from the nearby archaeological site of Otrar Hill Fort. Turkestan, known as the “Jewel of Kazakhstan”, is the ancient and historical center and where we had come to see the largest archaeological site in the country.
Kazakhstan had literally blown us away with its powerful and spectacular landscapes and culture. The country sits in the middle of what is historically known as the Silk Road, a network of ancient trade routes once established during the Han dynasty of China.
People have preconceived ideas… maybe weather-beaten men on horseback holding a golden eagle, people in traditional clothes, the desert of the Asian steppe and world famous mosques and mausoleums. It has it all, but this young, sophisticated and modern country has nothing to envy to all the West, with its trendy bars, chic nightclubs, international-style restaurants and high-end boutiques. It seems that Kazakhstan’s transformation has taken giant steps over the past few years and it is a country that wants to be taken seriously.
Kazakhstan has three cultural World Heritage sites; the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, the petroglyphs in the Tamgaly Archaeological Landscape and, perhaps most notably, the Silk Roads: Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor Road Network.
The mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi, a 12th-century Sufi teacher and mystical poet, dominates the heart of the city of Turkistan, where the vast and detailed tiling is breathtaking. Within the compound is the semi-buried Hilvet Mosque where Khoja Ahmed Yasawi is said to have retired towards the end of his life.
An hour away, through a desert landscape where wild camels roam, I visited the Mausoleum of Arystan Bab, an ancient spiritual burial site, followed by a short drive to Otrar Fort Hill, where the archaeological remains of this great medieval hill fort feature a citadel, shahristan (a city itself), rabat (suburb) and fields, surrounded by tall, sand-colored, semi-desert walls.
We ended our day watching the famous Kyz Zhibek and Tolege nautical show and dining at the bustling Eposia restaurant in the Karavansaray resort on traditional dishes including khachapuri (flatbread with cheese), baursak (small pieces of dough fried in oil), shalapor mare’s milk (a sour or fermented mare’s milk drink) and Georgian wine.
Kazakhstan is more developed than expected and feels safe and welcoming. A population of just 18 million people concentrated in cities creates vast areas of remote and uninhabited wilderness visited by the few. On December 16, 2021, Kazakhstan celebrated 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union, during which the ninth country in the world established itself as an economic powerhouse, aiming to join the ranks of the countries the most developed in the world by 2050. Its capital is Nur-Sultan, the official languages are Kazakh and Russian, the main religion is Islam, and you can do a lot with the local currency, the Kazakh tenge (KZT). Russia lies to the north, China to the east, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south.
One hour flight from Turkestan is the city of Almaty. It was October and too early for skiing (November to May), but the backdrop of the Tian Shan mountains was already covered in snow. Perhaps not the first thought for a winter vacation, but the Tian Shan (aka Heavenly Mountain) mountain ranges that stretch across Central Asia and reach to the southeast corner of Kazakhstan offer spectacular opportunities .
From the luxury of the Rixos Hotel in the bustling city of Almaty, the wilderness of the Maloalmatinsky Gorge and Kazakhstan’s largest ski destination, the mountain resort of Shymbulak, at 3,200 meters above sea level and with breathtaking scenery, is 15 minutes away by car, bus or taxi.
In Shymbulak, I ran into Mark Ouellette, a tourist from Pennsylvania (USA) on his first visit to Kazakhstan, who told me:
“I love discovering hidden gems and Kazakhstan has been exactly that. There is so much to see and do here, especially in the cities. The natural environment is breathtaking and the
the food too. I would recommend this place to everyone, especially for the variety of landscapes. The locals are friendly and hospitable, and I had no trouble getting around as lots of people speak English and it’s easy to get around by taxi.”
There are many advantages to skiing here: a long season, great slopes, backcountry and heli-skiing, reasonably priced international flights, proximity to a major city, fabulous restaurants and a different culture to explore. In addition, you can visit the beautiful steppes, the Charyn Canyon and the Big Almaty Lake in the IIe-Alatau National Park. The mountains are also home to the elusive snow leopard which is rarely seen, but during the lockdown a family was seen on a popular hiking trail near Almaty.
The next day we left the hustle and bustle of Almaty to visit rural communities, following the routes taken by ancient silk traders, through the desert of the Asian steppe and the snow-capped mountains of the Celestial Mountain Range. Driving here is simple as gas is cheap, there is little traffic and the only obstacles are herds of camels, herds of sheep or wild horses crossing the roads. Outside Almaty a good quality highway soon gives way to mountain roads and dirt roads and four hours from the city I was driving through an isolated landscape with very few dwellings and many puzzling tracks through the wilderness.
Kazakhstan’s multicolored dunes create a stunning landscape thousands of years old. Kazakhstan’s Great Dune, 500 feet above the desert, makes a deep, booming sound when you walk on it, an eerie experience if you’re alone in a landscape where there’s no evidence of human occupation in the 1,000 square miles you can see from the top.
The next day, we went to Charyn Canyon, the Grand Canyon’s little brother, 50 km from the Chinese border. Every now and then we slam on the brakes to see huge birds of prey waiting on the side of the road to clean up road casualties. Charyn Canyon was carved into the Asian steppe over thousands of years by the Sharyn River, a sudden sinkhole in the otherwise flat plains of Kazakhstan where wild horses and cattle roam, supported by water and vegetation provided by the river.
A three-hour drive from the canyon and we were back in Almaty, having dinner at a restaurant above the city at Kok-Tobe-Hill via a cable car with a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding Heavenly Mountain range. The food is very good in Kazakhstan and the dishes include hearty mountain dishes and lots of salads, meat dishes… and sometimes horse meat, a local specialty, in various forms.
Come with an open mind and ready to be amazed by this hidden gem of a country. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a snow leopard!
Turkestan: Edam (local restaurant); Zoloto (national cuisine).
Almaty: Qaimaq (national cuisine); Navat (oriental cuisine); Nino (restaurant and nightclub); Chalet (Shimbulak ski resort); Alasha (Central Asian cuisine).
Getting to Kazakhstan and Almaty:
Direct flights on Air Astana (a Kazakh airline) from London Heathrow to the capital Nur Sultan operate on Saturdays and Wednesdays, with connecting flights to Almaty and other airports. Flight time six hours 49 minutes (3,479 miles). Air Astana is a modern airline with excellent connections around Kazakhstan: airastana.com/global/en-us
Rixos Hotel Almaty: rixos.com/en/hotel-resort/rixos-almaty
Shymbulak Hill Station: shymbulak.com