Kazakhstan round up ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ฟ

We arrived in western Kazakhstan by plane from Yerevan, and continued overland by train into Uzbekistan. Our original plan had been to cross the Caspian Sea by ship, but since Azerbaijan’s land borders were still closed, flying from Armenia was our best option.

Emerging from the eastern end of Uzbekistan, we travelled from Shymkent to Almaty via Astana. While it would have been shorter to travel via Almaty and end this leg in Astana (rather than vice versa), this would have drastically reduced our onward flight options, and crucially ruled out direct flights to South Korea.

Throughout Kazakhstan we were amazed at how modern everything was. I’m not sure whether our shock was just due to naivety or the stark contrast with Uzbekistan, but it certainly made getting around relatively stress-free.

Carbon

Our 1 hour flight across the Caspian Sea emitted nearly as much carbon as our train travel throughout Kazakhstan, despite us travelling nearly 5 times further by train than we did by air. We also enjoyed travelling by train a lot more, given that a night spent on a sleeper train was a whole lot more comfortable than a night spent on a flight.

We travelled 4,400 km across the Caspian Sea and through Kazakhstan – our longest distance travelled in any single country so far. This goes some way to explaining why Kazakhstan also tops the carbon leaderboard by a significant margin.

Cost

Kazakhstan was pretty affordable, with us spending almost as little per day as in Georgia. It’s also unsurprising that a large proportion of our expenditure was on transport given that we took our first flight of the trip to get there, as well as travelling the longest distance overall.

In general, we found Kazakhstan to be a very tourist-friendly country. However, our one annoyance was Kaspi – the Kazakh electronic payment system which was pervasive throughout the country, yet completely inaccessible to foreigners. This was brought most painfully to light on a bus journey back from visiting the ALZhIR museum just outside of Astana. Despite paying by cash to the driver on the way, a conductor boarded the bus on our way back who wouldn’t accept our cash, and instead pointed us towards the Kaspi QR code on the wall that everyone else had used to pay. In the end, a couple of kind fellow passengers paid our fares by Kaspi, but then wouldn’t accept our cash in return, and instead wished us all the best and to “stay safe and enjoy Kazakhstan”. This moment was both excruciatingly embarrassing and totally heartwarming in equal parts.

Cats

Sadly, Kazakhstan has taken Italy’s spot with the lowest cat density of any country we’ve visited since leaving London, with only 1.6 cats per day. To be fair, it was incredibly cold when we visited some Kazakh cities, so who can blame the cats for sheltering inside?

Still, we did see some exemplary cats (and an honourable mention) during our two-stage visit to Kazakhstan.

๐Ÿ… Floofiest floofer award

At least this chap knew how to dress for the Kazakh winter!

๐Ÿ… Best aerial display

While the cat on the left was a little unexpected, we almost missed the owl chilling in a tree outside one of the crypts near Aktau – he was so well camouflaged! Although he didn’t make a sound, his one open eye did watch us everywhere we went.

๐Ÿ… best behaved kittens

These cuties were told to “stay put” in the dry while their Mum went off to hunter-gather some dinner outside a restaurant in Aktau. At first we thought they were alone, until we heard their mother padding about on the roof above our heads!

Food

We ate really well in Kazakhstan, although admittedly this was mostly international food. We’ve already talked about our experience with Kurut (Kazakhstan’s national snack), but our train friends also recommended that we try Beshbarmak (the national dish). This comprised of horse meat and sausage in broth, on a bed of wide, flat noodles with a lone boiled potato as the centrepiece. I thoroughly enjoyed it!


Beyond Kazakhstan, our first choice would have been to continue overland through China, but it’s still not possible to get a tourist visa at the moment. Our backup plan was to fly to Southern Asia, but India’s e-visa system was still suspended for British citizens and we weren’t keen to surrender our passports for a full visa. Instead, we settled for a slightly longer flight to South Korea, the home of K-pop and kimchi ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Almaty, our final stop in Central Asia

Our route to Almaty took us back south towards the Kyrgyzstan border, retracing much of our route from Shymkent to Astana.

For the first time on our trip, we treated ourselves to a first class (2-berth) compartment on the overnight train. This was super-cosy, and allowed us to accompany our instant noodles with a few beers while we debated our favourite cities of our trip so far via a “world cup” style knock-out tournament.

Once again, the overnight journey ate up the vast distance and we were back in southern Kazakhstan in no time, where Astana’s pervasive snow drifts and sub-zero temperatures were replaced with slushy pavements and the re-appearance of autumn.

View over Almaty from our apartment

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan by some margin, and was the nation’s capital for 55 years before it moved to Astana. Almaty’s milder temperatures put outside activities back on the agenda, and we headed straight to Medeu – the highest ice rink in the world, at 1,691 metres above sea level. We’d seen the rink described as a host of “mass skating” which didn’t sound too appealing until we witnessed its size – it’s essentially a speed-skating stadium with space in the middle for a cafe and ad-hoc skating.

While the setting was stunning, as always it was the general carnage on the ice that provided the most entertainment.

The following day, we spent some time acquainting ourselves with Almaty via a walking tour. Our route started in Panfilov Park, which contained a typical memorial statue, along with a brightly coloured cathedral built entirely from wood – even down to every nail! We were also taken by some of the park’s resident red squirrels, who had ridiculously long fur on their ears. The route continued through the city past the Opera and Ballet Theatre, backed by the beautiful Trans-Ili Alatau mountain range. We also paused to admire the mosaics representing traditional Kazakh life and myths on the walls of the Hotel Almaty.

Our walking tour ended with a cable car ride up to Kรณk Tรณbe Park – a small amusement park perched on the side of a mountain above Almaty.

While the amusements themselves looked passable, the views over the city were the real reason for visiting. Although there wasn’t much of a sunset to speak of, we did enjoy watching the lights of Almaty come on as dusk fell.

As the evening arrived, we rushed back down the mountain to catch England’s first World Cup game against Iran. Rather than watch the game from our apartment, we found an English pub called The Shakespeare, and happily watched England trounce Iran over a British-Indian curry, surrounded by a fairly well-behaved crowd of England fans.

It was pouring with rain on our last day in Kazakhstan, but this didn’t matter too much as we had grand indoor plans to visit the Green Market and the Arasan baths.

The market was a collection of huge halls of fresh produce connected by a labyrinth of tunnels, some of which went underground through what felt like a military bunker! Despite a snack of deep-friend dough strings, our stomachs were still rumbling as we toured the stalls. We settled on a tiny restaurant overlooking the dairy and meat stalls, at which we devoured two huge bowls of Laghman (meat, vegetables and noodle soup).

Our next stop was the Soviet-era Arasan baths. These were built in the 1980s, taking inspiration from bathhouses as far away as Baku, Yerevan, Leningrad, Moscow and Budapest. The result is a vast complex of domed plunge pools, scorching saunas and communal treatment rooms. We’d read that a popular treatment included being whipped by a professional with birch branches, which we saw for sale outside. To be honest, this felt like something I’d need to be paid for rather than the other way around.

One Google review had rather concerningly summarised the bathhouse as “very authentic, very clean and very naked”, though Sara assured me that everyone would be naked and I’d get used to it in no time, so we parted ways in the bathhouse’s grand atrium into the separate male and female areas. However, after removing my clothes and storing them in a locker, I realised that everyone else around me had changed into swimming shorts, and was not naked at all. I started to panic and concluded Sara had (unintentionally?) set me up. It was only as a very naked old dude walked past that I realised that there seemed to be an idealogical divide – the men older than me were naked while the men younger than me were in swimming shorts. I relaxed a little and proceeded into the baths.

Sara and I met up again two hours later to exchange experiences. It turned out that the nudity was absolute in the women’s area, so she hadn’t thought anything of sending me in au-naturel. I told her about the friend I’d made in the bathhouse who actually complimented the bath sheet I’d rented to cover my modesty. Apparently, covering yourself to below the knee (when not swimming) was the proper way of dressing in a Kazakh bathhouse, as opposed to modern swimming shorts. This seemed a surprising detail given the general nudity, but I was relieved to have got something right.


With the Central Asian section of our trip coming to an end, the far-eastern leg was about to begin. We were sad not to be able to continue overland, but with China still largely closed to foreign tourists since the pandemic, we opted to fly from Almaty to Seoul. The abundance of Korean food throughout Astana and Almaty had already whet our appetite, and little makes Sara as excited as endless rice and noodle options. South Korea here we come! ๐Ÿ‡ฐ๐Ÿ‡ท

Astana: So good they named it six times

Astana is the capital city of Kazakhstan and at 51 degrees north, is a long, long way up from where we’d been travelling east (at around 37-45 degrees) since we left London.

This probably should have served as a bit of a clue that the November weather might be rather chilly, but somehow this didn’t factor into our conversation at all when I was trying to persuade Oli that it was a great idea to go!

Actually, it turned out that the snowy weather really made our visit, and our careful packing for four seasons just about kept us warm enough. It did make walking everywhere a bit of a challenge – we still tried but the buses were pretty enticing at times!

It turns out that Astana holds the Guinness World Record for the capital city with the most name changes, having first been called Akmolinsk, then Tselinograd, then Akmola, then Astana and finally Nur-Sultan. In fact, the city has had another name change even since we left home in August – we’d been there a few days before we realised that it had in fact reverted to being called Astana from Nur-Sultan (we just assumed everyone referred to it by its old name still). It’s hard to keep up!

A model of Astana – the most symmetrical city I’ve ever seen!

Our first activity when we stepped off our overnight train was to visit the iconic Khan Shatyr shopping centre. This might sound like an odd place to start, but it was warm inside and apparently of architectural merit (having been designed by the British architect Norman Foster).

The Khan Shatyr shopping centre, which looks like a huge, wonky big top

Of more interest to us was that it had a monorail running around the interior, which we just had to ride.

One of Astana’s most iconic buildings (and the one I’d seen in photos that really made me want to visit) is the Bayterek Monument, which sits right in the centre of the city. We took a lift to the top, which had great views of the snowy surrounds and gridlocked traffic, and saw former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s golden handprint. The idea is that you place your hand in the print while looking towards the palace (if this seems a little egotistical, that probably does a good job of summing up how presidents are treated here – after all, the whole city of Astana was named after him for three years).

We saw more cool architecture surrounding Independence Square – the city really has gone big on futuristic buildings.

Although we’d normally love to take our time walking around an area like this, it was bloody cold! Oli resorted to Labrador techniques to keep warm (and my fingers nearly fell off taking this video).

Instead, we spent a few hours exploring the National Museum, and I promise that this wasn’t just because it was lovely and warm. It was one of the most wide-ranging museums I’ve ever visited and I think we only scratched the surface before closing time, but we still saw exhibits on archeology, nomadic life, the Second World War, space travel, fine art, 21st century Kazakhstan, and more.

We even found some information about the three people pictured in the huge murals we’d seen in Aktau in the museum. The portrait on the building closest to the eternal flame in Aktau was Khiuaz Dospanova, the first female officer in the Soviet Air Force, who was named a People’s Hero of Kazakhstan in 2004 for her heroic missions and perseverance after terrible injury.

We’d read that a short distance outside of the city was the site of a Gulag (labour camp) for wives of political prisoners during the Stalin years, who were sentenced to 5-8 years for being the “enemy of the people” without any evidence of guilt. We decided to visit the ALZhIR museum and memorial to learn more and pay our respects.

I think it was even more chilling to see the site in the snow, since the conditions at these camps were poor and we read that the women collected reeds from the nearby lake to attempt to insulate their huts. It must have been so cold. Unfortunately, the museum itself was a bit of a disappointment, but it did give us some context about what happened during this period in Kazakhstan, and we read some interesting material about collectivisation on the return bus journey. It was also good to get out of the city and see some everyday life in the town in which the camp had been located.

Our final stop before catching our overnight train was the NUR ALEM Future Energy museum. In 2017, the World Expo came to Astana and its theme was Future Energy (somewhat ironically, in a country where renewables comprised only 3% of its electricity generation mix in 2020), and this museum was its legacy. It was housed in one of the buildings from the Expo, an enormous glass sphere that was genuinely impressive and worth a visit for the building alone.

The eight floors, covering future plans for Astana as well as solar, wind, biomass, space, water and kinetic energy, were just the cherry on top. Oli was like a kid in a sweetshop, and described it as “cooler than he could ever have imagined”. Bless him! To be fair, it was a really good museum. I think my favourite thing (which didn’t really relate to energy, but did relate to coffee, one of my great loves) was the exhibit showing the coffee machine that Lavazza have made for astronauts called the ISSpresso – great name! However, the exhibits did leave us wondering why some of the ideas for energy generation weren’t being more widely adopted, if they really were such silver bullets. Oli found a disclaimer on one of the wind power exhibits that answered some of our questions (last slide)…

We loved Astana and were really glad we visited. But from everything we’d read, Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan in name only and Almaty is the real cultural and historical centre. It was there that we were headed next.