Just imagine: you are in a car traveling through a countryside. You look out of the window and you see green fields streaching endlessly. Among the long grasses are flowers growing, all possible colours and shapes. Every so often you can see groups of cows enjoying the lush grass. Occasionally a pack of horses crosses the road. Grey silhouettes of mountains are darkening the horizon and you are traveling towards them. A hot summer day in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is one of the countries many people need a map to locate. For years, a part of the Soviet Union, well hidden from the outside world. A place many were sent, never to come back, during years of Stalin’s terror. A place with severe freezing temperatures in winters. A place with deserts and empty hostile space. A place for holiday?
Few years ago I was looking for a mountain range in Central Asia to acclimatize before our second attempt to climb Mt Damavand. Plenty of choices in this part of the world, but all the places required long travel and our time was sparse. I spent weeks searching guidebooks and the internet. I looked up many places in Central Asia, but to no avail. And suddenly I saw article on the internet about Kazakhstan’s government ceasing visas for tourist….. Hold on, Kazakhstan? Surely there are mountains there? Yes, there are plenty of high peaks just over an hours drive from Almaty….. Bingo!!!.
On the plane we were surrounded by Kazakhs. Everyone was nice, asking us questions, teaching John basic Russian words. Outside the airport we were met by our host and driven to our accommodation. After refreshing we were whisked to town for much needed dinner. The food was local, fresh and delicious. The chat was lovely. We decided then, we liked Kazakhstan. The following day our big adventure started. We were going to Tian Shan Mountains with a local tour operator. This range was not the closest to Almaty, but the tour included camping on a glacier and helicopter flight to and from the place. The first part of the trip was in the lower part of the range on the Kazakh side of the border. Second part was the ‘real’ mountains adventure, on the Kyrgyzstani side. But first things first.
After leaving Almaty the road went through an unpopulated landscape. All we could see were lush meadows, adorned with bright coloured flowers. Occasional a group of livestock was the only reminder, that we were still in an inhabited place. After a long day of traveling we reached our camp. The last two hours we spent in some strange off the road vehicle, which carried us through paths along mountain slopes. Our camp was comfortable, with some facilities and wild surroundings. The scenery was stunning! Green meadows and groups of trees covering the mountains. There were hardly any settlements there, only a cluster of yurts on the other side of the river, in Kyrgyzstan. A true immersion into wilderness.
The next few days were spent hiking, exploring the area and acclimatizing before the next leg of the trip. Late in the evenings we made use of a bania, traditional form of sauna. Sitting next to pile of hot stones, slowly ‘cooking’ ourselves was a true joy. Knowing we were hundreds kilometers from nearest town made this experience even more special.
After few days of relatively easy activities it was time to go to Kyrgyzstan to start the more ‘serious’ mountain adventure. We took into the roads again. After few hours driving ,we crossed the border and drove through Kyrgyzstan to our next base where the helicopter was kept. Our next site was exactly opposite the first one, just on the other side of the river…. We were told the governments of the two countries did not get on well, so we could not cross the border by simply walking across the bridge.
Nearly a week later we were back to Kazakhstan. Again, hours of driving was ahead of us. Empty landscape, beautiful vistas, enjoyable chat, happy times. There was none except us on the border crossing, still the formalities took a while. Not too worried about it we spent time taking pictures and admiring views. Later we learned that next time we could simply walk across the bridge as the governments decided to simplify border crossings….
On our way back we stopped in a vibrant village to have lunch and rest a bit before driving back to Almaty. After the meal we left for the final leg of our trip, back to the big city lights. The road was empty, the views stunning and the sun strong. Another beautiful day in vast Kazakhstan. A day of holiday in a country so worth discovering.
1. Flights with Air Astana.
2. Accommodation in Almaty: Valentina Guesthouse, exceptionally friendly hosts, bit far from the center.
3. Guide book: Lonely Planet ”Central Asia”
4. Trip to Tian Shan Mountains organized by Kan Tengri http://www.kantengri.kz
5. Transport around Almaty by ‘private’ taxis, great fun, but agree on price before hand.