Around Almaty – the excursions

In the morning we drove in Zhanar’s 4×4 up to Big Almaty Lake. I’m not sure there’s anything scarier than a nervous driver so the ride over the pass was quite nerve-wracking but we made it! We arrived at the lake in a light snow shower and everything was pure white, even the lake which is normally a very bright silty blue colour. We had a coffee from a van at the lake and I saw the cutest husky ever bounding about in the snow. It was so nice to go for a little stroll.

We had an interesting conversation with Zhanar in the car about Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union and it really seems that Kazakhstan lost so much and the people suffered so badly after the collapse that many people think they were better off in the Union.

Back in Almaty, we had a tour for the afternoon. We visited the Park of the 28 Guardsmen which is a memorial to the Kazakh soldiers who defended Moscow from Nazi tanks.

We saw the Green Bazaar, the biggest fresh market in Almaty. Inside there are stalls selling all kinds of fresh produce including lots of different varieties of apple – from the apple city. I bought six different apples for us to try. There are also lots of nuts and dried fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products. The cheeses were fascinating; none of them were like western cheeses at all, they were either salty or sweet. We were given lots of pieces to try and we bought two different types of sweet cheese for snacking.

We had a late lunch at Turkish restaurant where I ordered a kebab with rice and a salad. It was delicious!!

For our last stop in the city centre we visited the Kazakh Traditional Musical Instrument museum. It’s a small museum but it’s packed with interesting instruments. The Dombra is one of the national instruments and it’s incredible; far more versatile than I would have guessed from its two strings. Master Dombra musicians crafted their own and some of them are beautiful!

The Orteke is a wonderfully crafted showpiece designed to accompany the Dombra. Three goat puppets dance along to the music as the Dombra-ist moves his hand. I saw something like this in Mongolia but sadly Zhanar told us that this is a lost art in Kazakhstan.

Zhanar told us about two Kazakh stories. The first was Aksak Kulan, the lame wild horse, she was hunted by the son of Genghis Khan for three days but she kept escaping and eventually he had an accident and fell to his death. Here is a Kazakh Film Studio version of the story.

Кара пима (black shoes) is another famous story/poem about a poor boy whose dad becomes an alcoholic and starts to sell everything in the house, even this young boys shoes. The boy succumbs to the harsh cold and eventually the father returns, a changed man. Here is the song on YouTube.

Our final excursion for the day was to visit Kok Tobe hill, taking a cable car up to what is normally a great viewpoint for the city but today in the fog is just a place with a nice atmosphere. There is an amusement park up there which operates during the day and probably quite late during the summer. Also there’s a Beatles statue which is apparently remarkable because all four Beatles are pictured together.

Monument to the Great Hunger
We started the day by visiting the little-known monument for the Holodomor victims. It is the only such monument in Kazakhstan and it is only two years old. It’s a powerful statue of a mother holding her starving boy with an overturned pot at her feet. The father of the boy had told the mother that they should eat the son so they could survive to have more children but the mother took the boy and ran away. She died on the steppes and soldiers took the boy. Miraculously he lived and he pays tribute to his mother for saving his life.

I can’t quite believe that there isn’t even a signboard or a name for the monument. This terrible atrocity hasn’t been discussed in Kazakhstan, it has been swept under the carpet despite a significant proportion of the population knowingly being starved to death in 1931-1933 by Moscow policies. The Kazakhs were animal farmers and they had meat so a man proposed that Moscow should take the cattle and horses so that they would not be hungry. But the Soviet government forced the nomads to settled into collective farms in order to collect the animals. This was around the same time as they took the grain from Ukraine. Around two million people perished in Kazakhstan during Holodomor.

Even the Wikipedia entry is unusually light on details. But it does show that the population of ethnic Kazakh people was so badly affected that they became a minority in their own country at only 38% of the population. This famine was caused and sanctioned by the First Secretary of the Kazakh Regional Committee of the Communist Party, Filipp Goloshchyokin, and this evil creature even gained a promotion to the Sovnarkom, the highest executive authority in the USSR.

After this we drove for almost an hour (with the terrible traffic) south east from Almaty to visit Shimbulak, the closest ski resort to the city. The day pass to use the cable cars and ski lifts cost 4,000 Tenge (£8.50) and there is the main cable car which takes you from Medeu, the enormous ice skating rink, to the bottom of the ski resort of Shimbulak. Then you can get onto the first ski lift, either with a four person chairlift or in an enclosed cable car! It was snowing heavily and it became thicker the higher we went so I was extra glad for the shelter. Then there is a second lift which takes you right up to the top. From my map recce I had hoped to be able to hike while we were up there but the snow is really deep so anywhere that isn’t compacted would just be too difficult. Plus the snow storm. The weather cleared bit by bit so we could see different peaks around us and it was just magical. Everywhere was sparkling in the sunlight. I had such a good time there. I bought us a round of the Czech spirit Becherovka to warm us up and then I went back out to see which mountains had now been uncovered.

Shimbulak was definitely worth a visit, even though we didn’t ski this today. It would be great to visit during the summer too, when you can hike to various peaks as well as a glacier and lake up the valley.

When we returned to the city we stopped off at a restaurant which Zhanar chose because of their excellent Kazakh specialities. We were there to try Beshbarmak, the most Kazakh of Kazakh dishes. It’s pasta sheets with horsemeat. This one was served with a combination of sausages (filled with rib meat and fat) and slices of meat and it was delicious; wholesome and filling, I think it would really help to battle the cold. We didn’t just have that though, we had a feast fit for a king! I had some perfectly cooked vegetables and we also enjoyed some plov with a mixture of mutton and horse meat. I tried a traditional dessert which was thinking biscuit sticks and raisins held together with honey. We also had loads of Tashkent tea, a drink only found in Almaty, with a mix of green and black tea with lemon and some form of sweetener.

An early night was in order as tomorrow we are going on an overnight trip.

The journey to Charyn Canyon was frosty and beautiful. We took the former China highway for a couple of hours and the countryside was indescribably beautiful completely blanketed in snow. The road has also got mesmerising wisps of snow dancing across it and there are magpies playing around in the snow!

Even though the air in the car is very hot, my window in the back is iced up on the inside and it’s also interesting how cold my feet are from being in contact with the freezing cold floor of the car.

It took us about four hours to reach the edge of the canyon, where there’s a small ticket booth and a barrier. Then Zhanar showed us her off-roading skills as we had to climb a steep incline and then down a very steep and bumpy hill into the canyon. Kat and I walked down the amazing canyon marvelling at the views, made even more beautiful by the dusting of snow.

There were all sorts of animal tracks in the snow too.

When we reached the end of the canyon, we found Zhanar and also the cutest cat ever!!!

I really wanted to hike to one of the canyons viewpoints and as we left the canyon we drove back along the top and walked to a great viewpoint over the canyon and we could see the snowcapped mountains across the plain.

From here we drove for another couple of hours towards the Chinese border to a bizarre remote spa town called Chundzha. There are geothermal hot springs here and now a whole town has sprung up along the road, each compound is almost identical with a square of buildings surrounding a swimming pool. The pools are either covered or open air, that’s pretty much the only difference. We pass these resorts for about 15 minutes before we reach our resort. Ours is actually different though. Our resort has a HUGE covered pool AND an outdoor one.

Zhanar says that the place is full to capacity, but there is absolutely nobody around as we look around and then go for a late late lunch.

We are served Borscht (Kat is aghast) but then we are also given some delicious goulash and salad.

We spent almost 24 hours here, sometimes in the pool, sometimes reading, sometimes eating. Nice.

Dubious about taking our towels off when it’s -10°C

My towel actually froze to the decking beside the pool and when I peeled it off, it came off as one lump of towel, covered in ice, and entirely useless except as a doorstop perhaps.

Our journey back went smoothly and we arrived in Almaty in time for dinner. Back to another one of the canteens for a FEAST.

We had a free day in Almaty and after breakfast we went to buy tickets for the circus. It was very successful and the price was only 2000 Tenge (£4) per ticket. We’ve got to come back for the show at 4pm.

We hopped on the metro outside the circus (Auezov Theatre) for 80 Tenge each and went to Moscow Station so we could walk to a Russian banya (traditional sauna). We really wanted to go to a local one in one of the microdistricts rather than going to the far more expensive fancy one which everyone usually goes to.

We walked past the Moscow Mall with an ice rink outside and saw these genius devices to help non-skaters have fun.

We found the banya easily and paid 2,000 each for entry and a bathing sheet and went upstairs to the first floor for the ladies area. We changed and entered the banya where there is a Turkish bath (steam with marble benches), a Russian sauna (hot with wooded benches) and a solarium (nicely warm with lots of light and salt brick walls). We tried them all out and had some really nice stilted conversations with locals. I jumped into the freezing cold plunge pool, not something I would normally want to do, but it was the perfect temperature. A Romanian lady started talking to me about how cold the water was and then a member of staff came over to tell me I needed to wear a hat in that pool. She was the bikini police as well so she came in to tell some women they needed to go and take off their swimming suits. I had pilling and a massage as well as having my hair washed!! I have never felt cleaner and it only cost £10.

We cooled down in the tea room and enjoyed a pot of rosehip tea, then it was off to the circus for us!! I think we were as excited as the children. The performance was really good! There was an incredibly strong man doing some impressive pole dance on a moving pole.

There was a show with trained cats, but that was never going to work, was it? The cat just sat there not doing anything until the woman scooped it up and handed it to someone to swap it for a better cat (which then didn’t climb the pole anyway…). The best part of that act was when the cat rode the poodle around the ring. But the bit when the cat clawed the woman’s costume to pieces was almost as good!

There were some horse stunts which were fairly good and then a woman juggling on a free-standing ladder, she was an excellent performer. There was also some mind-blowing acrobatics. It went on much longer than we expected too – we only stayed until the intermission.

Then we shot back to the hostel for a feast of apples, Kazakhstan chocolate and nuts before Zhanar collected us for the airport.

We had a fantastic time! Ten days was enough to explore only a small fraction of what Kazakhstan has to offer, but it was a perfect winter trip and Zhanar is an excellent guide; we were in excellent hands and I didn’t freeze to death either…

Onwards to Hong Kong and the New Year festivities!

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