Review - Discover the home of garlic and apples, nestled between Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan
PUBLISHED: 10:30 08 January 2017
Mike Pickup and his wife weren’t entirely sure where they were even going when they signed up to a trip to Kazakhstan - and even had to open the Atlas to check, as he reveals.
The atlas tells me this central Asian country shares its borders with Russia to the north, China to the west, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the south. I later discover it’s the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth largest overall, yet it’s home to just 17 million people, about the same as London and the Home Counties.
Kazakhstan is where apples and garlic originated and it’s home to some of the world’s rarest tulips; wildlife includes red bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of bird life including golden eagles, flamingos and falcons. It’s a twitcher’s paradise.
My visit covers the two major cities, traditional Almaty, the old capital and modern Astana, the new capital. In order to encourage tourism, Visa requirements for British visitors have been waived until the end of 2017 for stays of less than 15 days.
The valet parking service at Heathrow is waiting for me and I’m soon checking in with Air Astana, the national carrier. It’s the only airline offering direct flights. The airline has won “Best Airline in Central Asia and India” for five consecutive years and “The Best Airline Staff Service in Central Asia/India” for the last four years. Not surprisingly the onboard service is excellent.
Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR in 1991 and Almaty was the capital until 1997. It’s the most established city in the country and has numerous restaurants and hotels. I’m surprised to learn that the population is over 70% Muslim as there is no sign of religious clothing. Modern Western and Russian garb is the norm.
I stay at the Holiday Inn and take lunches and dinners at a variety of restaurants along with other visitors. The food is good but the service a little haphazard. Customers are served when their food is ready, regardless of others at the table. Menus in English are not that plentiful but they have pictures of the dishes so you can see what you are ordering. Thanks to devaluation of the local currency, the Tenge, prices are inexpensive by UK standards. Many places also accept US dollars and, of course, plastic.
Next day I join a guided tour and visit Panfilov Park, home to the magnificent Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral, probably the only wooden cathedral in the world. It was traditionally built using just a few nails. The interior is just as impressive as the exterior; it’s an oasis of calm with the gentle chanting of a priest and magnificent painted screens. The park itself is a memorial to soldiers lost in the two world wars.
Almaty narrowly lost out to Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The nearby Medeo skating rink, at over 5,500ft above sea level is the world’s highest. The conditions are so good that around 200 world records have been broken here. The surrounding hills make it a winter sun trap and the temperature can reach fifteen degrees. Our guide tells us that girls skate in bikinis and it’s where many boys meet their future wives; speed skating meets speed dating!
The main ski centre, Shymbulak, whose visitors have included Prince Harry, is reached from here by cable car, and another two take skiers to the top of the runs at 10,500ft. It’s a great place for winter sports holidays.
Next day I’m back at the airport for a flight from the old capital to the new. Astana is, like Brasilia and Canberra, a purpose-built capital city. Architect Norman Foster is responsible for some of its amazing structures. Across from my Marriott hotel is the Khan Shatyr shopping mall whose design can only be described as a wonky cone. There are three levels of shops, mostly familiar brands, but on the fourth floor is the indoor Sky Beach Club, complete with sandy beach and sun beds.
Norman Foster also designed the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Because the temperature in Astana ranges from 30 degrees in summer to minus 40 degrees in winter, two sides of the pyramid are on roller bearings to allow for contraction and expansion.
I visit other amazing buildings such as the presidential palace, a cross between the White House and a mosque, a nearby concert hall, Baiterek - which looks like a 300ft high football trophy, an art gallery resembling a huge doggy bowl, and an opera house styled like a Roman temple. The country is rich in mineral deposits and the ultra-modern museum has a Gold Room which includes the Golden Man find dating back to 4th and 5th centuries BC with more than four thousand gold artefacts.
There is so much more to see in Kazakhstan but time runs out. There are so many places to visit and two widely contrasting main cities to explore; I’ll just have to go back.