After the fall of USSR in 1991, one of the countries that became an independent nation state is Kazakhstan. In ancient times, Kazakhstan was located off the northern part of the silk route. Kazakhstan is landlocked, mostly flat steppes and a mountainous oil rich country.
Its attractions are mostly its natural environment and its mountains, rather than its historical sites, as compared to its poorer neighbor Uzbekistan.
Almaty the former capital of Kazakhstan, is now replaced by Astana, the administrative capital of this oil rich landlocked nation. The international air gateway to Kazakhstan is via Almaty International Airport, where most international airlines serving this region fly into.
Immigration processing and facilities in the airport is still very much in the Soviet era; long lines with patient passengers and tourist awaiting their turn at the immigration counters and the unsystematic ways passengers are being “handled” adds to the confusion for foreign travelers. As Russian is widely and commonly used and spoken, one has to be very alert to announcements and information required. One missing official stamp from the passport or an unfilled form will set you back hours. Getting through bureaucratic red tape is a nightmare. To add to the confusion, very few people speak and read English.
The slow bureaucratic way of doing things is replicated at almost all official service counters, at airports, banks, the post office, embassies, etc. There is no proper ques; much pushing, jostling, inquiries and waiting in the long lines if one wants some service is the norm.
When converting foreign currency to the local currency, the Tenge, keep the certificate of the issuing bank. If one wants to change back extra Tenge upon leaving the country, the original certificate is required, and the change could only materialized at the place where the Tenge was firstly converted.
As the former ex-Soviet countries are newly opened to tourism, the services offered are comparatively poor. One feels that foreigners are not welcome and locals in general are not helpful and are still suspicious of foreigners needing assistance.
As Almaty was formerly the capital, most of the economic activity is still concentrated in Almaty. Almaty resembles any modern European city, with very high standard of infrastructure and a very high cost of living as expected from a rich oil producing country that it is. Accusation of corruption by the higher ups has denied most of the middle class and the poor from enjoying the spoils of the nation. However, its citizens could be seen to be enjoying the high economic activity evident in the multitude of construction of multi-story buildings, shopping complexes and the high number of luxury cars on its multi-lanes highways. Slumps are non evident or were not visible.
Shopping at downtown Almaty, is around Arbat Street, the Green Bazaar, and Zhybok-Zholy (the Silk Road). Art-line streets are common sights; shopping malls selling the latest European fashion are evident at the city center and at malls in the suburbs. Souvenirs shops, markets selling meat, vegetables, spices, nuts and the famous Rabat chocolate are commonly available.
In autumn, besides shopping one could take a chilly leisure stroll around the city center of Almaty and relax at Panfilov Park, a small beautiful park in the city center. The Ascension Orthodox Russian Church a small version of a Russian Orthodox Church is located here and on Sundays the church is open for services. As for food and drinks, Shaslik, a kebab looking, meat on skewers is popular. Barbecue grill food is available at most restaurants and many restaurants from Western, Chinese to Middle Eastern are available in the city center. Alcohol is widely available and comparatively, food items are expensive as most are imported and cost of living is high.
The population in Almaty is made up of mostly Kazakhs, whilst Russians makes up the minority. Kazakhs are predominantly Muslims; however, their lifestyles do not reflect it as during the Soviet era religion is forbidden. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, Kazakhs of Russian origins claimed they are discriminated against the majority Kazakhs, and many are migrating to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
Genetically, most Kazakhs with the exception of Russians have a mixture of Mongol, Iranian and European ancestry; many have slit eyes, high cheek bones, aquiline noses and black colored hair, whilst Kazakhs of Russian origins are mostly blond and are Caucasian looking.
There a number of attractions around the city of Almaty. Most of these sites are easily assessable within driving distance with good condition roads. Using a 4WD is recommended for sites in the mountains.
Located 200km east of Almaty, the red sand stone Canyon is carved through the centuries by the Charyn River into a deep valley that resembles a smaller version of the Grand Canyon of the USA.
Charyn Canyon is about 154km long, its width of 20 to 80 meters, and 100 to 300 meters high of red sand stone layers. Wind and water erosion through the centuries created deep fissures, grottoes, and wind caves along the canyon. Erosion also created many small layered clay structures of about 3 to 6 feet tall dotting the landscape all along the Canyon, which resembles miniature castles. Charyn Canyon is thus also called the Dolina Zamkov, Valley of Castles, at 2 km long. At parts of the Canyon, howling sounds from the wind through the caves, valleys and grottoes could be heard and at times sounds eerie, especially when one is alone here. As such some locals call this part of the canyon, Devil’s Gorge or Ghost Gorge.
During autumn, chilly cold winds from the north blows into the Canyon. The place was deserted accept for our group, which made it a perfect quiet atmosphere to absorb the exceptional dry sandy landscape of miniature castles in the Canyon valley – with the exception for the sounds of the wind blowing through the Canyon and the ripples from Charyn River flowing through it. During summer, white water rafting activities are available at certain parts of the Charyn River.
Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake is located 30km south of Almaty, high up at 2,155 meters altitude in the mountainous region in Kazakhstan. Big Almaty Lake is a man made dam to generate hydroelectric power to Almaty and its surrounding areas. The Lake fed by glacial water is 1.6 meters long, 1km wide and about 40 meters deep. During the low tourist season of autumn the surrounding area of the Lake is already covered by snow and ice, the Lake was deserted and the surrounding area was quiet and tranquil. The Lake is turquoise blue in color in the autumn and it perfectly reflects the three snow capped mountains surrounding the Lake; Sovetor, 4,317 meters, in the South-East, Ozyorny, 4,110 meters, further up the valley, and forestry Turist, 3,954 meters, in the South-West from the dam. In the summer, the Lake is brownish in color as the sediments from the glacier which is melting brings mud into the Lake.
In the surrounding area of the Lake, there is an abandoned observatory which was used to conduct scientific research. During the Soviet era, the Tien Shan Astronomical Observatory is used for Russian research and is now in the process of being converted into facilities and amenities for tourist. The area is perfect for astronomical research as the air is cool and crisps; void of any pollution. However, after the fall of USSR, Kazakhstan does not have the funds and the expertise to carry out anymore research projects and thus is now abandoned.
Off the main road, an abandoned and partly destroyed, crumbling WWII prison camp is also located here, where small prison cells overgrown with weeds and scrubs could still be seen.
Further down the road, is the Sunkar Falcon Farm, a so called conservatory for the wild birds’ native to the region. The farm breeds the Golden Eagle, and is sold to enthusiast around the world. Other birds in the farm are huge owls, vultures, white bald headed eagle and the Afghan Dog. The eagles are also trained to hunt at the farm.
Further down the road, one cold see yurts; nomadic portable circular huts made from felted wool that could be set up within 2 hours. In the interior, the huts are floor and wall covered with colorful carpets, to keep the interior warm. Low tables and stools are the normal furniture used. These circular huts are now tourist cafes, serving local food and camel’s milk. Dumplings, tea and liquor are also available to keep one warm and the cold away.
Medeo at Chimbulak
The Medeo is an Olympic size ice skating ring and during the Soviet era saw many records broken at this venue. The last major championship was held way back in 1988. The next major sport event planned is the Asia Winter Sports 2011. Medeo is located high up 1,700meters above sea level the mountainous region 14 km of Almaty. Entrance fee for the public in 2007 is 500 Tenge per person. This sports complex is also a famous spot for wedding photo shoots.
Chimbulak is the ski resort 2,230 meters above sea level. One could ski through the Talgar Pass, at 3,163 meters above sea level and a 3,000 downhill piste via the cable car.
Further up from the location of the Medeo, up in the mountains is a memorial site for all the famous international mountain climbers, whom have perished, including Anatoli Broukreev, made famous by Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air. The memorial plaques were reminders of how dangerous mountain climbing could be and how these brave men and women defy all odds to conquer the great heights. Mountain climbing and trekking is one of the most popular activities for Kazakhs.
Petroglyphs at Tamgaly-Tas
About 170km North-West from Almaty, driving through the flat vast steppes is the Petroglyphs, meaning rock carvings. This rock carving site existed since the second half of the second millennium BC to the beginning of the 20th century. It is claimed that the nomadic tribes roaming the vast steppes were the “artist” responsible for carving, hunting scenes, animals, and humans in ceremonial celebrations and ancient rituals on flat slate rocks, which on the exterior were dark brown or black in color caused by oxidation.
There were generally two types of carving on the flat surfaced slate rocks; one is where the picture is carve on the rocks, whilst the other is a reversed embossed relief of activities generally practiced by these ancient tribes. Some of the carvings resembles human in head dresses, depicting the Sun God, and the pictorial recording of the ceremonies held and the daily activities of these nomadic tribes.
It is claimed that the area of Tamgaly-Tas Gorge in the Anrakhai Mountains with an outcrop of slate rocks, suitable for rock carving, is also a popular site for ceremonial rituals over the centuries. Located in the vicinity is the existence of ancient burial ground, where ancient graves of 3 by 5 feet were dug into the ground. The dug out graves were lined with slate rocks; were it is assumed that the body is placed in these graves, and the body finally covered by rocks. Most of these graves have already been vandalized and are now empty.
Other than a sign board indicating the location of the Petroglyphs, no conservation activity was visible.
Strip of cloth tied to bushes or wishing huts are very common sights in the outskirt villages and tourist sites. The locals tie bright strips of cloth on these wishing trees or huts to indicate a desire for wish to come true.