You went where? To Kazakhstan? For what?
We all know how painful it can be to go home for the holidays sometimes. Being newly divorced, I knew going home for the holidays would bring a barrage of questions I just simply wasn’t ready to face. The last thing I wanted to talk about at the holidays was my divorce and how I was feeling, and, oh, had I seen that my ex had recently started seeing someone else. I was heartbroken enough without needing to be reminded of it.
So I came up with a way to avoid it all. I decided to go as far away as I could while still being on my documentary mission. The lucky destination I chose? Almaty, Kazakhstan. Random I know! As soon as I geotagged my location on Facebook, I got the most ridiculous replies. I must admit some were pretty funny.
I enjoyed being somewhere so far from anywhere I had ever been. It was truly a brand new experience and almost another world for me. It was so different than I ever expected and spending the holiday single turned into quite a beautiful experience.
Kazakhstan is in Euroasia. It’s the largest landlocked country and shares borders with Russia to the north , Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China to the south. It also almost touches Mongolia to the east. The people speak Kazakh and look of Asian descent. They look more Chinese or Mongolian in facial features.
You’ll never believe the amount of “Borat” references I heard when I said I was in Kazakhstan. That movie is not an accurate representation of the country or people at all. The movie was actually shot in Romania with mostly Romanian people. The only thing Borat did of a positive influence from the movie was make more people aware the country and perhaps driving tourism up.
Again, it is nothing like the movie “Borat”. I read that the people responsible for producing the movie claimed it took place in Kazakhstan because the country is very unfamiliar and very random. Since there aren’t a lot of people familiar with what Kazakhstan looks like, they were able to get away with people believing it was shot there.
Kazakhstan is full of beautiful lakes and mountains. The most visited city is Almaty – which also happened to be the city I chose – followed by Astana. The cities have a very soviet style to them. Kazakhstan was once ruled in part by the Soviet Union.
Although Almaty has some modern buildings and skyscrapers, the true beauty lies outside of the cities in the mountains. The mountains are vast in the country and offer so many hiking trails, skiing, and outdoor exploration. Neighboring country Tajikistan is also full of beautiful hiking trails and great skiing.
There were a lot of German and Swedes here when I came skiing. Apparently, it is a favorite skiing destination for Vladimir Putin, as well. It is very cold in the winter so make sure to really bring layers.
We also went hitchhiking! I know what you’re thinking. Hitchhiking is actually a very normal and safe thing here. Ash and I met some awesome locals who took us safely down the mountain and back to The Ritz.
Carry some local currency with you just to be safe. Most places take cards, but it’s good to have a little cash just to be on the safe side.
Another thing to remember, not everyone speaks English, so be patient with the locals and translate what you need or show photos. Don’t let this intimidate you from visiting, though! All of the people here are very nice and will do their best to attempt to understand you if they are struggling.
Here are 10 things you must do when visiting Almaty!
1. The number one thing – and my absolute favorite thing – Ashli and I did was visit Big Almaty Lake. It is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen. Since I went in the winter, I was able to witness the entire landscape with the most beautiful blanket of snow covering it all. The water in the lake was the color of true turquoise. It was so stunning!
You can take an Uber here, just make sure it has chains on the wheels, or you won’t make it up.
Also, bring your passport just in case. You’re very near to the border, and sometimes you will be stopped and asked for it. It’s just good to have.
We took an Uber halfway and got stuck. Luckily, there were some trucks with chains on the tires that were able to take us the rest of the way up. It honestly is something you must see. It’s stunning. It’s only about 30 mins outside of town.
2. Splurge. Stay at The Ritz Carlton Almaty here. It’s on the top of The Esentai Tower. You will be amazed at the panoramic views of Almaty and the Kazakh mountain range. The location is excellent and right next door to the mall filled with great shops and amazing restaurants.
The service at The Ritz is impeccable, as it is at all Ritz Carlton properties. You are welcomed with a lovely Kazakh welcome tea and fresh hot towel and taken to your beautiful luxurious room with complimentary Kazakh desserts to try. The rooms were huge with amazing views of the mountains. The bathroom was also huge with a separate shower and gorgeous huge bathtub.
There’s that bathtub obsession I told you about. If you have read my blogs in the past, you’ll know I have a thing with bathtubs.
The robes and slippers are the softest ever and the bedding is pure silk and lux. I didn’t want to leave the hotel.
It also has a beautiful restaurant, an amazing selection with its breakfast, and some of the best food I’ve ever had. I had a feast on Thanksgiving morning and loved having lo mien noodles as part of my breakfast, which is common in this area of the world.
The spa and fitness center are also amazing and huge. I seriously loved this hotel. It was so beautiful. The Ritz is exactly where you want to be if you visit Almaty. It’s also reasonably priced, as well. Kazakhstan is a very, very inexpensive country and they really want tourism to increase, so they try and accommodate visitors as much as possible.
3. Go and visit Medeu. Medeu is an outdoor speed skating rink. It’s within the mountains and is a really cool sight to see. It is considered the world’s largest high mountain skating rink, and, yes, you can even skate here. It is open year-round for skaters and is really quite the adventure. It’s huge! You can take the bus here, an Uber, or taxi. From here you can take the cable car to Shymbulak Ski Resort. It’s a 15-20 min scenic ride and also breathtaking. Just make sure you get here before the ski mountain closes. We arrived just when it closed and missed the last cable car up. There is also a lot of hiking trails accessible from Medau, so if you love hiking, this is your spot.
4. Check out Central Park. It is a lovely park with lush trees, flowers, and lots of activities for children. It is also called Gorky Park. There is an amusement park for kids and is great for walking, being in nature, and people-watching. Kazakh people really enjoy their evening walks. Tradition is to take a girl on a walk for the first date. If a man says he wants to “walk with you,” it means he wants to take you out. After so many polite gentlemen offering to take me on a walk, I had to look this up to see what they were all talking about.
5. Visit Kok Tobe. You can Uber to the cable car where you will go up with expansive views of the city and mountains. It’s great for photos and relaxing above the city and seeing all the vast part of Almaty. At the top, you will find a Ferris wheel and a few other rides. You will find a petting zoo, which was cool. The animals even seemed well looked after. You can also pay for some food to feed them, which was cute. There are goats, llamas, peacocks, etc. Don’t plan on any real exotic animals like tigers, though. It’s just not the place.
Beatle Mania spread as far as Kazakhstan. Random, I know! The Beatles actually have their very own statue! Be sure to take a photo with them, as I did. There is a nice restaurant up there as well to have a coffee and just enjoy the stunning views over Almaty. Also, make sure you ride the Ferris wheel. It’s super cheap and hosts great views of the mountains and The Almaty Tower.
6. Check out the Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. I’ve always been obsessed with all things Russian and just love their churches. They are so colorful and beautiful and well done. Go inside and have a peak as well. It’s stunning and so intricate. It was sadly under renovation when I was there but the inside is worth a peak and very beautiful and historic.
7. Visit more of Ile-Alatau National Park. This is where Big Almaty Lake is. A must-see if you want true natural Kazakh beauty! Visit the lake as mentioned above and then explore the mountainside and views.
8. Check out Republic Square, Almaty’s main square, and get a few snaps of Independence Monument, which is a monument dedicated to the Republic of Kazakhstan’s rich history.
9. Walk around The Park of 28. It’s full of lush trees, really cool sculptures, and The Kazakh Museum of Folk Instruments. It is a large park dedicated to the 28 soldiers who died defending Almaty when the Germans invaded in World War II. There is a fire that continuously burns in honor of those lost. The Ascension Cathedral also sits inside this park, so you can kill 2-3 birds with 1 stone here.
10. Go and visit one of Almaty’s great cafes. There is a great café culture here. Go enjoy some coffee and get some good people-watching in. There is some amazing food here full of true diversity. I recommend just walking around the city and choosing a random authentic spot. Just make sure there is someone that can speak a little English or has an English menu available.
Almaty was truly the unexpected in the best of ways! It’s a place that is so off the grid but also really cool to say you have been! Check it out. It’s a place that is super inexpensive and won’t break the bank. If you love nature, then this is a great country for you. It’s full of beauty and some of the sweetest people ever.
Feel free to write about any tips or questions you may have. And enjoy Kazakhstan!