Return to Kazakhstan

What a surprisingly country Kyrgyzstan was.  I am not really sure what I expected but I guess it was the barren mountains and camels etc but not the other wonderful landscapes that would not have looked out of place in Switzerland or even New Zealand. The people were warm and welcoming – many cultures and nationalities all living harmoniously together (well at least from my perspective).  The food – well all I can say is boorsuk 😂😂😂 and of course I must give credit to all the other wonderful soups and stews we had and the incredible hospitality.  I am sure I left the country at least a couple of kg heavier than when I entered 🤦🏻‍♀️ .

We started the drive to the Kazakh border on a sealed road and then the final 20km on unsealed road as we got closer to the border, passing (and in some cases driving through) herds of sheep, cattle, horses and passed lush green grassy land as we drove in to the mountains.  Then more sheep, cows, horses, sheep, cows 😂 – there were very few cars on the road, but soooo many animals as it was the start of the autumn migration.

As we climbed into the mist, the temperature dropped and the roads got worse and it was clear we were heading to a border crossing that is not used often – I was so glad I did not pack my big coat in my bag like some others did!

The border crossing in the mountains was bitterly cold and apparently it closes in October as it is then too cold and I was not surprised! We crossed out of Kyrgyzstan and walked 100m or so in what felt like arctic conditions at around 2000 m above sea level to reach the Kazakh side – such a contrast to yesterday’s beautiful weather.

I was the first in the group to go through and the border soldiers took ages over my passport before finally stamping me in and the only customs question was ‘do I have any guns or ammunition’! A quick no and I was back in Kazakhstan. 

Our Kazakh guide Gau was there to meet us and we headed off in on the terrible road in to Kazakhstan (apparently it was under construction and definitely not a road that is used often.) 

Our first stop was in the small town of Kegen for a toilet stop and tea served with fresh pastries with cheese (which were amazing).  The café did not have a toilet so we had to walk through a small local market for a toilet which turned out to be hole in the concrete with rebar across … and better yet, two holes in the same little nook (I do wish I had a photo but sadly I did not have my phone with me)! Not the nicest but toilets have been hit and miss the last few days – with a few road side nature stops thrown in which to be honest are often nicer than the inside stinky options!

We are now in the northern part of the Tian Shan mountains (the same range as we were in in Kyrgyzstan).  These mountains are considered one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, even the name means Celestial or Heavenly Mountains in Chinese. 

It is here that we find the Charyn River, that over time has carved out the colourful and impressive Charyn Canyon – some say the Grand Canyon of Central Asia.  Unfortunately, the weather was against us and we could not take a walk to the bottom of the canyon, but the rain eased up enough for us to walk around the top for a shortly while.  Turns out it had lulled us in to a false sense of security and we got caught out when the heavens opened again so had to set a quick pace back to the van for our ‘picnic’ lunch.

The canyon was incredible and took me completely by surprise (again – I clearly had not done enough research in to where I was going on this trip as so many places took me by surprise lol).   The area was full of rocks with colourful striations, lots of different rock formations (some looking like castles – some of the canyon is known as the Valley of Castles) and we could just spot through the rain a river oasis at the bottom.

From the canyon, we drove through vast plains, where big battles took place during the Kazak – Dzungar (from Mongolia) wars in the 1600-1700s.  A more recent reference is that, along with the canyon, it was also the location for part of the music video for the singer ‘Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s’ song Skin.

By late afternoon we finally arrived in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of just over 2 million.  It was the capital of the country until 1997 (when it was moved to Astana/Nur-Sultan) but it is often still considered the main city and is the education centre of the country.

The next morning we finally got a sleep in, a little time to recharge before our walking tour around Almaty.  Unfortunately, our guide Gau was sick, so today we had Dimi, a Kazakh of Russian origin.  Despite missing Gau, it was really interesting to get different insights that he had in to the country and its culture.

The city itself was founded in 1850s when a Russian fort was built and nomads were displaced from their territory moved in to the area, but there are remnants of other settlements in the area dating back to 1000-900 BC – in fact one of the Saka Golden Warriors we saw in the museum in Nur-Sultan was found in this area.   Sadly,  most of that early town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1887.

Alma-ata literally translates to ‘Father of Apples’ and it is said that Kazakhstan is the birth place of the apple.  Vast numbers of wild apple trees use to grow around the foothills of the mountains and apples were transported from here along the silk road trading routes and beyond.  (As well as apples, apparently Dutch tulips can trace their origins back to Central Asia and a number of varieties still grow wild today – another reason to return in the spring!)

The greenery of Almaty was in stark contrast to Nur- Sultan and in the centre of the city was the beautiful Panfilov Park.  It was designed by a French architect and has wide walk ways which were originally designed for carriages.

The park has a number of worthwhile sites, starting with the candy coloured Zenkov Cathedral – apparently the tallest wooden Orthodox cathedrals and in fact one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.  Built in 1907, it is considered one of the earliest earthquake proof buildings as it was designed (by the architect Zenkov) with a sand pillow foundation.  That along with the flexibility of the wood and the use of metal staples rather than nails, saw it safely through the 1911 earthquake, though the priests would prefer people to believe it was divine intervention!

Apparently, many religious icons were destroyed during the Soviet period, so false walls had been created inside the church to keep these precious items safe from harm.  We were fortunate that internal restorations had just been completed 2 weeks prior to our visit and got to enjoy the interior in its true gold leafed glory. 

The park gets it name from the Panfilov Hero’s.  28 soliders from Almaty who died (or did they??) fighting the Nazis tanks in the small village near Moscow in 1941.  Their efforts delayed the Nazis march on Moscow sufficiently to allow the soldiers there to prepare for the invasion attempt.  Subsequently the park is also home to a massive and somewhat confronting Soviet war memorial to the Panfilov heros and all the others who fought in the Great Patriotic War (known to most as WWII).

The momument shows 15 soliders, one for each of the member states of the Soviet Union and if you look closely you can see the different ethnicities and nationalities in their faces and clothes.  They also make up the shape of the USSR (which takes a little imagination to see). 

In total, over 1.2m Kazakh soldiers fought in war and at least half did not return home.

Next up was a visit to the Green Market filled with stalls piled high with fruit (dried and fresh) and nuts, milk and meat products, honey and pollen (which you stuck a honey covered stick in to and that ate it) and much much more. 

I was the only one who wanted to try anything so Dimi, and I headed in to the stalls to try camel milk (a little fermented and like natural drinking yogurt but much better than horse milk), really tasty dried milk product with or without honey, then on to meat – horse, caribou (imported from Russia) and camel (not common) – mostly cured so like salami and pretty tasty.

Following on with the Russian theme of the day, we had a Russian lunch in a restaurant decorated like a house from Tsarist Russia – salads, Shchi Soup (basically a Russian style cabbage soup), peppers stuffed with meat, little dumplings and ‘famous’ Almaty apple for dessert.  All in all pretty tasty. 

Finally, after lunch we had some free time – the only downside of trips like this is that there is so much to see and do in such a short space of time each day is packed full!  Because of that, I probably did not make the most of the free time but I enjoyed an iced coffee and a nanna nap 😂!

That said, I did brave the short walk to the big modern mall and despite all the traffic lights and clearly marked crossing, crossing the busy roads still seems to be somewhat risky!  This probably goes back to something our guide told us in the market where there was a sign saying no photos – he said, in this country signs don’t really mean anything 🤔🤔🤔😂 good to know!

After a refreshing break we took the gondola/cable car to Kok tobe (blue or green mountains) for a beautiful view over city as the sun started to set.  It seemed a popular location for locals with its small stalls and fun fair atmosphere.  The weirdest thing was a life size statue of the Beatles!!  Apparently they were/are very popular in Kazakhstan – who knew???

We finished off our last day in Kazakhstan by visiting the Palace of the Republic  (once the Lenin Palace of Culture), built in 1992 as a large meeting and concert venue. It looked particularly pretty with the setting sun reflecting in its glass façade and having yet another lovely dinner listening to a band playing modern music on traditional instruments (Sean Mendez seemed to be a big favourite 😂😂)

An interesting point worth noting is that Kazakhstan is currently in the process of changing its alphabet from the Russia-like Cyrillic to the English-like Latin alphabet.  The change was announced in 2017 with a 7-year plan introduced to have the transfer complete by 2025.  Some say this change was to help people drop any remnants of their Russian culture and reaffirms that Russia is no longer a partner.

This is not the first time a language change has been forced upon the Kazakhs (and others in the area) as most of the Central Asian Turkic states used Arab script for over 1000 years before being invaded by the Russians.  In fact, communist Russian introduced a Latin alphabet for the Turkic language initially, before switching to Cyrillic in the 1940s!  The language changes helped disassociated people with their cultural roots as they could no longer read the literature from that time.  Of course, another alphabet change means history is going to repeat itself as now all the literature is in Cyrillic!

As of this year, this new written language is to be taught in kindergartens and primary schools and only time will tell how successful it is.  Interesting, Uzbekistan started to implemented the same change in 1993 but even today, although young Uzbek’s grew up reading books in Latin script, most publications are still in Cyrillic.  The attempt to switch in Turkmenistan has also stalled!