As my plane landed over Almaty, I started to have some serious second thoughts about my two weeks in Kazakhstan. For one, I knew absolutely nothing about the country (I still haven’t seen “Borat”), and I found barely any information online about traveling there. Second, as was evident from the snowy peaks as we descended into the country’s largest city, it was still the midst of winter. And third, I would be doing this trip solo! I have traveled solo before, but never somewhere so off the beaten track as Kazakhstan. When I travel somewhere new I usually do a ton of research, read every blog, and look through a million itineraries. However, when I tried to do that for my trip to Kazakhstan, I found very little, and so had no idea what to expect. From the moment we soared over those beautiful glistening white peaks, seeing the colorful city and towns nestled in between, I knew I had made the right decision.
Since I knew so little of what to expect, I booked a transfer from the airport through my hostel, Almaty Backpackers. I was greeted at the airport by a sweet girl holding a sign with my name (wow, traveling in luxury!). Nuria worked at the hostel, and told me all about the country. She hails from the city of Shymkent, known as the city’s “Texas” (but why? If anyone knows please leave me a comment, everyone I met referred to it as such and I am so stuck as to why!). She was a student at the university in Almaty, and I was surprised by how good her English was.
I felt immediately at home when I arrived at my hostel. I had emailed them before my arrival to make sure the place was heated (apparently they thought I was crazy), and as I stepped inside the cozy living room I could see I had little to worry about. Luckily for me I was one of the hostel’s only guests, and I had an entire dorm to myself (what a treat!). Almaty Backpackers was one of my favorite hostels I stayed in during the entirety of my 9 months traveling (and no, they’re not paying me for saying this. But if anyone wants to pay me that’s cool). Everyone who worked at the hostel was incredibly friendly, and especially as a solo traveler in a city where there weren’t really many other travelers, this was wonderful. In the evenings I would sit in the kitchen with the women who worked there sipping tea, and trying local delicious snacks. Some of my favorites were homemade jam with thin pancakes, and walnuts in honey. For breakfast each day I was cooked a lovely little homemade meal, with porridge, fresh cakes, something that resembled a blintze, and sweet cheesy pancakes. The woman who cooked each day spoke only Russian, and while i did try and learn a bit, my language skills are definitely not good enough to understand exactly what I was eating! The best I could muster was a “Charasho” (good) and a thumbs up to which she would flash me a huge smile. This was my first real taste of Kazakh hospitality, which in my opinion is one of the world’s most hospitable country.
That first night I braved the winter evening to walk to the nearby supermarket, and was astounded by how cheap everything was. I was able to buy a selection of vegetables, cheese, bread, lots of chocolate and cookies, eggs, and bottled water for less than $6! And you know, the winter actually wasn’t so bad once I dressed in every single layer I had. That night I met a fellow traveler in my hostel (actually the only time I met another traveler for the duration of my stay!) and we ventured out to Kok Tobe Hill. We walked to the bus stop, and then took a little minibus to the top of the mountain. Once there we were supposed to be able to see a view of the city, but it was too foggy that night to see much of anything. What we did see seemed to be an theme park closed for the winter, and a petting zoo of a variety of strange deer. We did find an open gift shop though!
I planned to stay in Almaty only for a few days, and the sights of the city can easily be seen in two or three days, but I enjoyed the city so much I stayed for 6. The city is very walkable, and buses are also very easy to figure out (get the app 2GIS, it helped me navigate my whole trip in the country). Additionally, though people don’t speak much English, everyone I met was eager to help me find my way. On numerous occasions people took me with them and dropped me off (at one point a little middle aged lady had me sit on her lap on the crowded minibus, and then took me by the hand all the way to my next location!). People also insisted many times on paying for my bus rides (which was ridiculous to me, seeing as the rides were the equivalent of about $0.15, which I knew had much more value to them than to me).
Here are my favorite experiences while visiting Almaty:
Charryn Canyon- an absolute can’t miss while visiting Almaty. I was able to hop on a tour to the canyon with Nomad Outfitters, and I could not recommend them more. Azamat was so friendly and informative, and we drove there in a comfortable SUV (which is a lot to say in a country where most trips are made in shaky, overcrowded minibuses!). Azamat took us to the main part of the canyon, where we were able to hike down the path in the center. We were also able to visit multiple other viewpoints over the course of the day, and each time I was shocked that such different landscapes could be in driving distance of one another. We drove past remote villages, horse-herders, and jeeped through what seemed to be endless steppe. It was a long day, but absolutely worth it.
Green Market- this indoor market sells all the staples of the area, from dried fruits to horse meat! No, I didn’t try any weird meats, but I did sample many other fun specialties. Everyone was very eager to give me samples from their stalls, some of my favorites being cheese curds and bread (the bread is beautiful! It has designs pressed into it which make it almost too pretty to eat). The bread seller introduced himself to me, and I swear i heard “Nurick” (my last name). “I’m sorry? What?” I was so confused, how did this guy know my name? Eventually, after going over his name multiple times, it was apparent that his name was also Nurick! I later learned that Nurick is a common first name in Kazakhstan!
Medeu/Shymbulak- It was a weird season to visit the area, since during the winter it is an alpine skating rink and ski resort, and during the summer I hear it’s a lovely place to hike. Being the beginning of March it was a bit late for ice skating, and the rink was closed. However, the ski lifts were still open, and I met a girl visiting from another part of the country (pretty nearby- only a 38 hour drive away!) and we decided to go up the mountain together. We took a little cable car up, seeing the views of the snowy mountains below. As we prepared to get off and look around, we saw that the ride continued on another much smaller cable car! We went even further up the mountain, and to my surprise arrived at a little ski village. However, that wasn’t the end of the ride! We got onto a ski lift, and took a ride up to the summitt of the mountain. As we ascended the mountain it became colder and colder, to the point where if I hadn’t seen my feet dangling in front of me I would have doubted I still had feet. At the top we celebrated our journey and took in the amazing views of the mountains and Almaty far in the distance, and then quickly got back onto the ski lift before we froze to death.
The First President’s Park- Surprisingly it was sunny and warm (well, above 50 F) on this particular day, so I took the bus to this famous, sprawling park. I strolled the park and enjoyed the many monuments dedicated to the president, the views of the surrounding mountains, and the wildlife! I still could not tell you what it is, but I followed a reddish squirrel with white ears as it scampered through the woods, and got my boots caked with mud trying to get a picture of the cute little guy.
The Almaty Museum and Central Museum of Kazakhstan- Most of the Central Museum is in Russian, so I didn’t understand too much of what I was seeing. However, the only exhibit in English was about the new president of the post-Soviet republic, and was basically a propaganda museum. It was fascinating! So much has changed in the country in the past twenty or so years; the country’s capital has moved, they’ve found a huge amount of oil, and it has technically become a democracy. The exhibit discusses these changes (but take everything you see with a grain of salt- the exhibit is created for the purpose of showcasing the president’s accomplishments, and really is entirely propaganda). When I visited, on a Saturday, there was a great little craft fair spread throughout the museum! The Almaty Museum is a great alternative, as the museum is interactive, and has English displays. When I was there I was the only visitor in the entire place, and it took ages to locate it (the place itself is pretty new, and it seems that it’s not too well-visited yet).
“Teaching English”- One day, while aimlessly riding the bus to the center of town (I did this quite a lot) and figuring out my day, I happened to met a very nice woman named Lana. As it turned out Lana runs a small English school, and was very excited to meet me and practice her English. She inissted on taking me out to lunch, and we sat in a local canteen and ate potato dumplings with sour cream poured on top, and discussed life in Almaty. Her grandparents had come to Almaty from Russia, as with much of the population. Lana was ethnically Russian, and spoke very little Kazakh. This was very interesting to me, as most of the people I had met through my hostel were ethnically Kazakh, and spoke Russian as a second language. After our lunch, Lana wanted me to meet a girl in her class. I met Anna, who was around my age, and together we walked around the flower markets set up for Women’s day (which is a huge deal in Almaty- everyone bought flowers for seemingly every woman they knew). I spent the whole day with Lana and Anna, and really enjoyed getting to know the local side of Almaty!
Almaty is one of my favorite places I visited on this trip- everyone I met was so welcoming, and it was such an easy city to find my way around. I’m sure it’s a very different experience in the height of summer though!