Kazakhstan is located in Central Asia, a landlocked country and the ninth largest country in the world. I took a four-hour flight from Moscow to Almaty for a little over $100 (cheaper tickets are definitely available). The gargantuan mountains that tower Almaty to the south of the city dominated my first impressions of the city, even for a girl raised in Montana the mountains were impressive. The Tian Shan mountain range creates the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and reach impressive heights up to 16,000 feet.
Almaty is a super budget friendly city, making it an ideal place to explore. Transportation in Almaty is relatively easy. There are many taxis, buses, and an easy three-line metro system. I downloaded an app called 2GIS, which allows access to city maps without WIFI or cell service. 2GIS allowed me to look up bus routes in Almaty by entering the current location and the desired location. During my stay in the city I rented an apartment for $15 a day a little outside the city center from a rental app called OLX.
Although urban travel is exciting, traveling outside the city is equally recommended. One place I highly recommend is the Medeu Sports Complex and Recreation Area tucked in the mountains right outside of Almaty, easily accessible by a short bus ride on bus #12. The Medeu serves as a local ice rink during the winter and hosts different events in the summer, there was a car exhibition while I was there. From the Medeu you can take a gondola deeper into the mountains or hike up many flights of stairs for more picture-ready-photos of the Tian Shan mountains.
I had come to Kazakhstan to visit a friend. My friend and I chose to hike further into a nearby ravine and camp for the night, which offered fantastic views and of course was free! There are also hotels further up the mountain for those looking for more comfortable lodging, there is also the ski resort Chimbulak for those visiting in the winter months.
Another place I highly recommend is the Charyn Canyon roughly 120 miles outside of Almaty and situated in the very southeastern pocket of Kazakhstan just outside of China. The Charyn Canyon is roughly 50 miles in length running along the banks of the Charyn River. My friend and I booked through a tour group called Eco Tours to transport us via bus to the canyon. I do not recommend this tour group from my personal experience, but I do recommend finding transportation of some sort to the canyon, the road conditions are rough and road signs are sparse. Once at the canyon, paths along the bottom of canyon are available to hike, along with paths on the outer edges of the canyon providing great views. Near the center of the canyon along the river there were cabins available to lodge for the night and a café and restaurant were also available there to grab a bite to eat. The area also provided a nice place to sit along the river and rest. I highly recommend visiting the Charyn Canyon but would highly recommend extended research into better transportation services to the canyon other than the tour group we chose.
The next leg of my trip included a trip to the industrial city of Karaganda where my friend is from. From Almaty I took a cheap yet excruciatingly long train ride (16 hours total) to Karaganda. The train ride included card games and chatting with fellow passengers, of which included “Uncle” Gena and his unsolicited (yet humorous) comments on religion, yoga, women, becoming a pensioner, and warnings against eating too much sausage (thank you Uncle Gena).
Karaganda is not an especially touristy destination. It is an industrial coal mining center that hasn’t changed much in appearance since Soviet times; most tourists stick to Almaty and Astana. However, if you do find yourself in Karaganda, the City Park is worth a stop. There are many cafes, games, playgrounds, paths, trails, and other activities. For $2.50 my friend and I rented bikes for an hour and cruised around the many forested paths. The park is rather large and is located in the city center near the famous Monument of Mining Glory.
I also highly recommend a stop at Karaganda’s American Corner. The American Corner is located at their local library near the city center. It is a place for anyone eager to learn and practice English with access to computers and books. The staff is incredibly friendly and native English speakers are always welcome. Most of the year there are English teachers from the US via EFL and Fulbright programs who teach on a weekly basis. I was fortunate enough to give a presentation on my home state Montana and engage with students and teachers.
I unfortunately did not spend much time in Astana, I only stopped to see the Baiterek Tower on my way to the airport. In the future I hope to visit Nazarbayev’s (the 27-year-president of Kazakhstan) young capital city. My impressions of the new capital reminded me of a Kazakh version of Vegas or Dubai; everything was very clean and orderly, built to make a lasting impression of Kazakhstan’s wealth and growing economy.
Overall, I really enjoyed my ten-day stay in Kazakhstan. From the steppe of Astana and Karaganda to the heights of the Tian Shen mountains in Almaty, Kazakhstan lies along the path of the old Silk Road and, shedding its former Soviet shell, is emerging as a modern, global contender. For those who enjoy traveling to more unique and adventurous destinations, Kazakhstan should be at the top of your list. For students in Moscow, it’s also surprisingly affordable.