“What? You are going to Kazakhstan?”
“For new years eve?”
Most conversations leading up to, and those conversations on my return from Kazakhstan were much the same – those who would inquire about my holiday plans would be in disbelief, sometimes there was general confusion – why would I spend 1 week of my very limited holiday time visiting the unconventional, yet culturally diverse, Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan – a place famed for the satirical documentary, Borat, rich in natural resources, in the heart of central Asia. Kazakhstan – the destination of my first ‘stan’ trip. Kazakhstan – my new highly recommended destination for all adventurers.
And, so I set off, direct flight with Air Astana from Hong Kong to Almaty, where I would meet my dear, Kazakh friend and hostess with the mostess, Aliya. Aliya, like many young Kazakh people, is well travelled and educated abroad; we met several years ago whilst studying our masters in my hometown of Melbourne.
Wrapped up tightly in thermals and a feather down jacket, we ventured out of the airport, a nice – 17 degrees, to her four-wheel drive. Her friend was also with us, having just flown in from another city of Kazakhstan.
The “Borat” conversation was over within the first 5 minutes of our drive… What do I mean by the Borat conversation… well… Some Kazakh people find it rather entertaining that most (not all) Westerners associate the country with the movie… And to be honest, that movie, as ridiculous as it is, captured the cultural ignorance of some, whilst giving me my first, albeit false, impression of the country.
Almaty is the “old” capital of the country, whereas, Astana, the “new” capital, is a growing city that received its title upon the break up of the Soviet Union. Like the good ol’ rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, or Beijing and Shanghai, there is much political tension between the cities, possibly because Astana is the President’s preferred city. Most people speak Kazakh (which was suppressed during Soviet times but is becoming increasingly popular these days) and Russian.
I had arrived just in time for all the New Year celebrations. As a Muslim country, Christmas is rarely, if not at all, celebrated. It is New Years Eve that attracts several days of public holidays. Families get together, people feast and give gifts and after a couple of days of partying in the city, people hit the slopes. I am told this is the typical turn of events.
On New Years Eve, we feasted with Aliya’s family on local cuisine such as a horse stew (it was surprisingly succulent), bread type dumplings, and several salads with a Russian twist (with eggs, beets, pickles, potatoes etc). We drank vodka, as well as lots of tea (another popular choice), and for digestion, we had camel and horse milk. The kids let off fireworks in the backyard and then scoffed sweet cakes and local desserts like a millet based slice and a milk curd slice. At 12am, the family, kids and all, watched the President’s speech. And then… it was time to hit the upscale, VIP/invitation only club, Don’t Worry Papa…Papa should’ve been worried! There were hot Ukrainian go-go dancers on the bar, and French dj’s – it was the ‘it’ party in Almaty.
I quickly learned that Kazahk girls are seldom bothered by the cold weather outside (-10 and below). In short skirts, and super high heels, immaculate hair and make-up, the girls make their way around the icy city. Day and night – these girls look stunning. No track-pants or ugly beanies in sight.
As well as partying, I was fortunate to hit the slopes, namely Shymbulak (home of the Asian Winter Games 2011 and bid destination for the Winter Olympics 2018) and Akbulak. As one who prefers après skiing, having had the luxury of ‘playing’ in New Zealand, Japan and Canada, these slopes were most definitely comparable. And, so we ventured out, me, the beginner, and my friend, the snowboarding queen – we spent several days on the mountains.
If skiing and general snow-bunny-fun is not your thing, Almaty has a number of other tourist sights – all accessible in Winter (something tells me though, that they are even more beautiful in the Summer).
For a great view of the city, take the funicular to Kok Tube Hill. Wander through the great patriotic war memorial in Panfilov Park, and visit the Zenkov Cathedral for some interesting pics.
In terms of food, Almaty has some very trendy and delicious multi-cultural offerings. Try Navat for something close to the local cuisine. And, whilst in the area, why not try some Georgian or Russian offerings – plenty of restaurants to choose from. If you want to be seen, El Mirador is the place to dine and drink– the food is good quality (not necessarily the best meal of your life but very tasty!) and the shisha (another popular past time) is light and flavoursome.
I could go on and on about my time in Almaty and my adopted Kazakh family! It was one of the best trips of my life. I hope that I get the opportunity to return to Almaty and also visit Astana and surrounding cities over the summer – hiking the mountainous terrain and learning more about the diverse cultural influences of the Mongols and Russians would be an absolute privilege.
Love from your Kazakh convert,