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Kazakhstan | Astana | Almaty
Kazakhwhere?... Although relatively unknown to general westerners Kazakhstan is one of the biggest of the ‘stans in central Asia. Bigger than Western Europe, bigger than the rest of Central Asia put together, the ninth biggest country in the world... the largest landlocked country on Earth. However you want to put it, basically it’s bloody massive! Yet despite its size Kazakhstan remains a relative travel unknown.
That is of course apart from a brief moment of fame when Kazakhstan was thrust into the limelight as the ‘home of Borat’. With the release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s film (Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) a flurry of travel journalists felt the need to go and discover the ‘real’ Kazakhstan, but since the Kazakhstan hasn’t really made it to the travel pages.
So, what do we know about Kazakhstan?
Previously part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Republic to declare independence, on December 16th 1991. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has ruled Kazakhstan for the 20 years since independence.
Astana in the North is the ‘new capital’, and has emerged as a modern and futuristic city, with iconic buildings jutting into the skyline designed by the President himself, as well as a few Lord Foster creations (of ‘the Gherkin’ fame).
The topography of the country is diverse comprising of flatlands, steppes, taigas, rock-canyons, hills, deltas, mountains, snow-capped mountains, through to deserts. Kazakhstan’s varied landscape can partly be attributed to its vast coverage of five climatic zones, from sub-Siberian to desert.
The country’s southern fringe lies on old silk routes bordering the Tian Shan mountain range. Almaty, the former capital and most populous city, nestles at the foot of the Tian Shan range in the South East.
Other interesting things about Kazakhstan:
- Astana means capital (very original!). The origins of the name Almaty are a little more interesting. It’s derived from the Kazakh word for apples, and can be translated as ‘full of apples’ or ‘Apple-Father’. The region is thought to be the ancestral home of the apple, and one of the wild apple types found in the area is considered a likely candidate for the ancestor of the modern domestic apple.
- Astana cycling team is a professional road racing team. Sponsored by a group of state-owned companies in Kazakhstan the team takes its name from the Kazakh capital. The cycling team is probably more famous than the capital itself.
- Kazakhstan is also famous for space travel. Kazakhstan is home to the world’s first spaceport for orbital and human launches, the Baikonur Cosmodrome. This is where Sputmik 1 was launched from in 1957 (the first orbital flight) and also achieved the first launch of a human into space (Yuri Gargarin) in 1961. It is still widely used by Russia.
- Three members of the international space station crew landed safely in Arkalyk in Northern Kazakhstan recently (see some pics here on the guardians website)
- The highest altitude skating rink in the world is in Kazakhstan in Medeo, just outside Almaty. It sits 1,691 meters above sea level and has 10.5 thousand square meters of ice!! Once a year the Medeo stadium is de-iced and transformed into a huge concert stage. It becomes the venue of the popular song festival "The Voice of Asia" (Azia Dauysy)
A word of warning on visas
Our original plan was to head from Moscow straight to Almaty on train 007/008 (and therefore skipping Astana in the North). This journey actually takes you across the border into Kazakhstan, and back out into Russia before crossing back into Kazakhstan. With a lot of internet trawling we couldn’t find a definitive answer on whether this required a double entry visa, however seat61.com and various other reports suggested a single visa should be sufficient (but advised checking).
We went ahead and secured our single entry visas for Russia, and subsequently received the following response from the Russian Embassy (via Real Russia):
“They will need to apply for a double entry visa as they will enter the Russian territory twice. Theoretically speaking, their second entry could qualify for a transit visa if the trip would happen in 10 days, however they can’t have two valid visas at the same time, so the only option is to apply for a double entry tourist visa if the validity of 30 days maximum is enough for them.’
It was obviously too late at this stage to do this as we already had Russian single entry visas... so we changed our route to accommodate for the visa requirements. However this is not so bad, as Astana looks to be an interesting addition to our trip.
The people at Real Russia were very helpful in working out the logistics on this, and we updated the guy at seat61 who's site has been extremely helpful throughout all of our planning.
Kazakhstan | Our VerdictHaving got the train from Moscow to Astana, we jumped straight on another down to Almaty, our base for the three weeks we had in Kazakhstan at the end of January/ beginning of February 2012. Kazakhstan is cold at this time of year. Very cold. This made it great for a bit of skiing, although it was expensive. We'll be honest. There's not at lot to do in Kazkahstan. Particularly at this time of year as a lot of the roads are blocked. However, the people we met in Kazakhstan were some of the most friendly and welcoming people we met on our trip and certainly left a lasting impression on us.
Kazkahstan Blog PostTo read more about our adventures in chilly Kazkahstan (-29, brrrrr) see our blog post.
Kazkakhstan AccommodationHostels don't exist in Kazakhstan (or not that we found anyway). We stayed in the Turkestan Hotel in Almaty, the cheapest we could find. The hotel was OK, the reception staff were lovely, but the boss was terrifying and rude, rooms weren't really cleaned that well, and the heating broke for 2 days. Oh and we got charged for breaking a glass, but didn't get any compensation for no heating. Hmmm.
Written by Hattie ParkeCurrent Conditions