Kazakhstan: Almaty, City of Gardens

Writer Mikel Ibarrola spends a weekend exploring what he considers Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city: Almaty. In between exploring the growing foodie and nightlife scenes of the city, Mikel experiences Almaty’s multicultural backdrop and the forested mountainsides that form the natural background to the thriving metropolis.

Juxtaposing Central Asia’s ancient history with hip modern culture, Almaty is a hub of arts and creativity that blends local trends and foreign influence into a unique and thriving scene. Underground indie beats, hipster barista cafes, and a wide-ranging culinary culture that draws not only from Kazakhstan’s many ethnic backgrounds but also wider post-Soviet and world cuisines to offer an exquisite smorgasbord of styles. As Mikel explores the city with a series of local friends, he gets a taste of so much of what makes the city great – and there’s so much more than can be fit into such a short trip.

Just a twenty minute drive from the center of this booming cultural scene are the fresh air and quiet forests of the Zailysky Alatau mountains. Locals and tourists alike head into these hills for daytrips to Big Almaty Lake or Medeu skating rink, climbs to Peak Furmanov, and wanderings further afield into the quiet green slopes for a disconnect from the urban bustle. Well connected to the city by public transportation, it’s not uncommon to plan a gentle hike in the morning and be back to the city by nightfall in time for a dance party.

Like Mikel, many first-time visitors to Kazakhstan plan only a nominal visit to the major cities and miss out on the thriving arts scenes that reward those who seek them out. Like Mikel, most visitors leave Almaty with a sense that they’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s to be found there, and with plans to linger longer on their next visit.

As representatives of the local tourism sector themselves testify, travel in Kazakhstan has many options to offer to visitors. Kazakhstan’s hidden treasures, those that appeal both to adventurous souls and explorers of underground cultural venues, invite visitors to explore the country deeply and uncover all it has to offer. Video testimonials with two local tour operators conclude the article by inviting visitors to join them, and USAID, to Discover Kazakhstan. 

Things to see & do in Kazakhstan

The largest country and economy in Central Asia, Kazakhstan’s global reputation revolves around oil and commerce far more than tourism and adventure. Visitors to the country, then, are often surprised by the many possibilities to get way off tourism’s beaten track for world class hiking and skiing in the Tien Shan and Altai mountains, otherworldly landscapes in the deserts bordering the Caspian Sea, and even timeless drowned forests in the mountain lakes of Kaindy. No matter the season and regardless the type of adventure you’re looking for, Kazakhstan has it and it’s better than you expect.

Offbeat Adventures

If your only image of Kazakhstan is horses running on the wide-open steppes, think again. The Tien Shan and Altay are a playground of mountains, lakes, and canyons for nature lovers while the early 19th-century buildings of Almaty and modern starchitect constructions of capital city Nur-Sultan are a joy for architecture enthusiasts. Dreaming of the cosmos and space exploration? Head to the space town of Baikonur to see a manned rocket launch in person.

While Charyn Canyon near Almaty is a popular tourist destination (and rightfully so – it is often described as the ‘Grand Canyon of Central Asia’), the cerulean lakes of Kolsai and drowned forest of Kaindy are natural wonders with very few crowds. Afterwards, head back to Almaty via the Tamgaly Canyon’s Tamgaly-Tash Buddhist petroglyphs and abandoned ‘Nomad’s Land’ film set or continue east to the Singing Sand Dunes of Altyn-Emel National Park.

Near the southern city of Shymkent, popular as a jumping-off point for the ancient fortress at Sauran and Yasaui Mausoleum in Turkestan, the UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve at Aksu-Zhabagly is an easily-accessible natural escape to Kazakhstan’s first national park. Popular with birders, hikers, and rock climbers alike, it’s an excellent addition to any Southern Kazakhstan itinerary.

In the far east, stretching along the border with Russia and China, travellers can get all the way off the beaten track in the Altay mountains. This remote region is a paradise of glaciers and peaks, quaint village and ancient petroglyphs, and tons of self-organized skiing and trekking.

Birch trees stand tall above the frozen underwater forest of Kaindy Lake. © taniche/iStock
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World-Class Winter Sports

Scenic views from the Shymbulak cable car above Medeo near Almaty.

Exploring the mountains of Kazakhstan isn’t limited to the summer season – ski bases across the country keep the adventure going year-round with Central Asia’s best ski resort at Shymbulak and an incredible array of freeride opportunities across the country.

Shymbulak Mountain Resort’s 8 pistes are the most popular in Kazakhstan by far. Not only are they served by international-quality services and infrastructure, but at less than 20km outside the city it’s easy to spend a half-day or weekend evening on the slopes and still be back to the city in time for an après-ski.

Below the Shymbulak resort (and connected by a scenic cable car ride) is the Medeu ice skating rink – claimed to be the highest in the world. During the Soviet period many world records were set by skaters here, and it attracted top athletes from across the USSR. Though still home to high-level events (including the 2011 Winter Asian Games and 2012 Bandy World Championships), the rink now sees far more visits from the families of Almaty looking for a day out in the mountains.

For resort-based skiers looking to explore beyond Almaty, a number of other options exist in Kazakhstan for getting out into the powder. Near the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the ski bases of Nurtau and Altay Alps both offer good value and excellent conditions but see far fewer international visitors. For cross-country skiers, the gentle slopes and wintry forest lakes of Borovoe in the north of Kazakhstan make an attractive holiday destination.

Beyond Kazakhstan’s ski bases, the Tien Shan and Altay mountains are also wide-open for freeride and heliski opportunities for experienced skiiers and snowboarders. This terrain is only for the experienced, but for those with the skills it’s untouched powder with endless potential.

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Wild Western Deserts

Even more unexpected are Kazakstan’s vast deserts, and the many scenic natural and religious sites scattered throughout. East of the Caspian and west of the Aral Sea, the Ryn desert is home to very few people in sparsely-populated and widely-scattered villages, but numerous pilgrimage sites that attract the faithful and historical sites that bring the curious from far away.

The Mangistau region’s renown is strongest among religious pilgrims, who visit the underground mosques and necropoles of Beket-Ata, Sultan Epe, and Shapak-Ata in search of the blessings of the long-deceased holy men that founded these places of worship. En route they pass a succession of out of this world landforms that have, no doubt, contributed to Mangistau’s reputation as a mystical land popular with Sufic sects.

Sherkala, the Lion’s Castle, is said to still hold at its summit a fortress in which Genghis Khan’s eldest son Zhoshy of the Golden Horde once made his base. Difficult to climb, the 332m-high mountain is said to be even harder to descend, but locals describe a tunnel that ascends directly to the peak – perhaps the same secret access that Zhoshy’s warriors once used to return to their eyrie. Nearby, a few walls of the 13th-century settlement at Kyzylkala still stand as poignant ruins in the empty desert, and the small waterfall-fed stream of the Samal Canyon is popular as a picnic stop or daytrip for domestic tourists.

The Torysh Valley (usually referred to in English as the ‘Valley of the Balls’) is the site of the unusual geological process of concretion, in which ground minerals are triggered into forming a dense mass of rock around a central core. This wide open plain of spherical rocks – some several meters high – feels more like a scene from science fiction than real life.

Guarded by towering rock plinths, the Karagiye Depression is the lowest place in the former USSR at 132m below sea level. Thought to be the site of an ancient salt lake, visitors come now for the fantastical rocky outcrops and to visit small Karakol lake.

Rugged desert landscapes of the Mangistau region of western Kazakhstan. © Hannes Tauber/iStock
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About the Author: Stephen Lioy is a Tourism Development Consultant for USAID’s Competitiveness, Trade and Jobs activity.

To find more information and inspiration for traveling in Kazakhstan, visit Kazakhstan.Travel or follow Kazakhstan Travel on Facebook and Instagram.
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