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Unknown Kazakhstan: modern country with a rich history, this unique, colorful and welcoming...
Every single time when I travel and people ask me where am I from, I always get the very same reaction (well, ok, not every single time but): “Kaza… Tajikistan? What is that? Where is that?” and once I say that it’s in fact a big country next to Russia people seem to have figured it all out for themselves. “Ah, Russia… Okay”. But actually it is not okay since it is an independent country with its own history, legends, people, language, cuisine and everything else.
It’s a beautiful country of nomads. A single fact that we look very much like Asians, speak Russian and Kazakh, and are Muslims says a lot about our history. Somewhere there it is a little bit of everything. A collaboration if you want. Kazakh men has always been about conquering, showing off the very best they have, pride and intelligence. And women has always been pretty much like warriors. They are strong, beautiful, powerful and never the ones to remain silent. It is not a country where everyone is the same, in terms of men and women, but where men actually respect women and listen to them. Their opinion matter.
Although Kazakhstan is ninth largest country in the world, we are still lacking people. It is only 17 949 761 for the whole country. But the diversity is something to be proud of - apart from Kazakhs, the majority of population are Russians (due to WWII) and then there are smaller communities of almost all nations: Indians, Germans, Chinese, Uzbeks, Americans, British, Ukrainians, Tatars and many others arriving every single day. Mixed marriages are all over the place and that is another notable thing about Kazakhstan - people here a very acceptable of others roots and heritage. In fact, we really do love “foreigners”. They fascinate us. We want to know as much about them as we want them to know about us. And that’s a lot. We show the best that we have and that is actually what I’m going to tell you about later on: the beautiful landscapes of the country, the cuisine, the places to visit and many more.
Kazakhstan, the dominant nation in Central Asia, has historically been a key trading point between Europe and Asia along the famous Silk Road. The name ‘Kazakh’ actually comes from the ancient Turkish word ‘qaz’ meaning ‘to wander’, reflecting its nomadic culture, which now provides a multi-cultural nation. A total land area of over 2.7 million square kilometers is equivalent to the whole of Western Europe.
It generates over 60% of Central Asia’s GDP, primarily through its oil and gas industry, which helped to establish itself on the global stage after it became the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country’s increasing wealth is driven largely by its vast mineral resources, which include the world’s largest chromium, vanadium, bismuth and fluorine reserves.
Kazakhstan remains the leader among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in terms of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) attracted per capita with more than $190 billion in gross foreign investments since its independence in 1991.
The main points of arrival for visitors into the country are the former capital, Almaty, located in the south of the country in the shadow of the Trans-Ili Alatau, part of the Northern Tian Shan mountain system that separates Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan, and its newly developed capital, Astana, located more centrally in the country. Increasing direct international links are now also being offered from smaller cities in Kazakhstan.
Almaty remains the major commercial and cultural center of Kazakhstan, as well as it is a biggest population center. A gateway to the popular Medeu Skating Rink and Ski resort, the city has many attractions, most of which can be seen from a cable car ride up to Kok-Tobe Hill. It is served by Almaty International Airport (ALA), which is linked to 15 domestic points and 31 international destinations by 25 carriers.
Another notable thing about Almaty is that it is a “city of apples”. Why? Because Almaty’s name means “The grandfather of apples”. It’s believed this is where apples originated on earth, with some 27 species in Almaty alone. That’s pretty serious genetic diversity. At 3,500 feet, Almaty’s elevation offers excellent conditions for growing. Favorite apple in Almaty? That would be “Aport,” a gigantic apple that often weighs more than 2 pounds.
While Almaty highlights old Kazakhstan, the planned city of Astana illustrates the new.
It is home to many futuristic buildings, hotels and skyscrapers and as the seat of the Government of Kazakhstan, is the site of the Parliament House, the Supreme Court, the Ak Orda Presidential Palace and numerous government departments and agencies. Located alongside the former 1830s settlement of Akmoly, latterly known as Tselinograd and Akmola, it became the capital of Kazakhstan in December 1997 and was renamed as Astana, which means ‘the capital’ in Kazakh in May 1998.
With an extreme continental climate it is the second coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The city is served by Astana International Airport (TSE), which is linked to 15 domestic points and 26 international destinations by 25 carriers.
Astana will be the host city for the Expo 2017 international exhibition between June 10, 2017 and September 10, 2017, with a legacy that will see the site become a financial center for the country. The event is expected to attract exhibitors from more than 100 countries, with participation by 15 international organizations and 10 leading innovation and technology companies. The symbol of Expo 2017 will be the pavilion of Kazakhstan, which will be housed in one of the biggest complete sphere structures in the world. In addition to the Museum of the Future, the Sphere will accommodate a museum telling the history of the country.
Now that you know two major and the most important cities of Kazakhstan, let’s move on to the picturesque sightseeing.
Medeo and Shymbulak
It will take you only 15km and around 30 minutes away from Almaty to encounter a charming valley known as Medea. The 10,500 sq.m. Medeu ice rink, built in 1972, is made for speed skating and many champion skaters have trained here, though you certainly don't need to be an expert to skate here. For a less crowded experience come on a Thursday or Friday. Outside the ice-skating season plenty of people still come to Medeu for a stroll, hike, picnic or mountain-biking in the surrounding valleys and hills.
Here you will find the unique and largest speed skating rink in the whole world that is located at 1,700 meters above sea level. Medeo big ice stadium can comfortably accommodate more than 30,000 spectators. Some of the top skaters from across the world usually come to test themselves at this location and for the locals it is a usual getaway from the city to just enjoy the nature, fresh air and be with family and friends.
Shymbulak is further up the valley at 2200m and is Central Asia’s top skiing centre.
The two are connected by road and a cable car installed in 2011. Medeu is always several degrees cooler than Almaty, and Shymbulak is cooler still.
Except in summer, rain in Almaty means snow and zero visibility at the higher elevations. Shymbulak has a total drop of 900m. The ski season lasts from approximately November to mid-April. Non-skiers can take a return trip on the Kombi 1 and Kombi 2 ski lifts (a mixture of open chairlifts and small cabins) from Shymbulak up to the Talgar Pass.
The lifts also operate some days outside the ski season – normally 10am to 5pm, Friday to Sunday, from June to sometime in September (weather permitting). Shymbulak is becoming more and more popular among tourists and even Prince Harry came there to spend a weekend with his girlfriend skiing and enjoying the weather.
To get a detailed view of the largest megalopolis in the country from above, you have neither to order a helicopter nor to search for the entrance to the roofs of the highest skyscrapers at all. To take a cable car at Abay Square will be enough. Within ten minutes of ride you’ll see former capital of Almaty right under your feet and spread right before your eyes.
Kok Tobe is 1070 m high above sea level. But because Almaty at the foot of Zailiyskiy Alatau is located 700-800 m above sea level, the sightseeing platform happens to sit just at the point from where you will be able to see not only the whole city, but spot all the smallest details of it. In the main streets one can observe not only cars, but pedestrians, too.
The best time for viewing the city from above is the early Sunday morning in summer. After the night rain. But surely the most vivid impression is that you get from the view of the evening city, when sun is setting in distant steppes, shadows outline more and more details of the urban landscape, light is going off and the shining night illumination is on below.
However, you may look other directions from Kok Tobe. The Mountain View from here is not less breathtaking than view of the city.
The Charyn Canyon is located in the Charyn National Park, about 215 km east of Almaty and approximately a 3-hour drive. The Canyon has been described as the Grand Canyon’s little brother. This is not to detract from the sheer splendor of the canyon itself.
The vista of dramatic erosion made by the river Charyn below and the elements has created a dramatic and impressive landscape. The Canyon itself is approximately 150 km long, and, in places up to 300 meters deep. One area of particular interest, is an area of 2km called the Valley of Castles, due to the pillars and rock formations forming imposing, almost man-made structures.
The story of the Canyon is that it was formed about 3 million years ago as the land around the canyon started to rise. A very large lake existed in the area around the top of the canyon and it started to empty. Over the next million years the canyon was formed by the Charyn River.
Approximately 2 million years ago a large earthquake disturbed the flow of the river by blocking it with a land-slip. The visitor part of the canyon then has suffered from the elements forming the rock sculptures. The Charyn River still flows at the bottom of the canyon forming the next great canyon. Because the area used to be a large inland sea, the deposits revealed on the sides of the canyon are relatively soft and are a geologists dream, revealing hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s history at this location.
Singing Sand Dunes
Rising incongruously above the steppes of southeastern Kazakhstan is a structure as famed for the myths that surround as for the sound it produces - a single singing dune.
Located between the folds of the Tian Shan Mountains near the Chinese border, the 150-metre-high by three-kilometer-long dune generates a low-pitched, organ-like rumble in dry weather.
Before physicists established that the sound came from sand grains rubbing against each other, legends about its origins abounded, some claiming the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan was buried beneath it. The sand hill is one of the main attractions of the Altyn Emel National Park some 180 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of Kazakhstan's commercial hub Almaty.
The park also features volcanic mountains, millennia-old burial sites of the rulers of the Saka, an ancient nomadic tribe, and numerous wild animals including goitered gazelles known for their lightning-fast, bounding gait. Altynemel is adjacent to another national park, Charyn, set up around a 154-kilometer-long canyon that travelers do not notice until they are nearly on top of it.
Big Almaty Lake (BAO)
Big Almaty Lake is located 2,510 m above sea level. It was formed by the moraine (glacial drift) of the large glacier that blocked the gorge in course of the Great Glacial Period.
The length, width, and depth of the lake depend very much on its level, and its level is dependent on the water-power engineering status and on urban residents’ thirst. Because BAO is almost a water storage basin already, the natural dyke of the lake is supplemented with the artificial one and packed into concrete. The result is something like a huge bathtub with a plug; if you pull this plug, all the water could be drained. Thus, the lake spills out through the hole and travels down its famous pipe to swing something, and to water someone (and to feed someone, too).
That is why it is rather hard to define dimensional characters of BAO. However, its surface area is 0,42 sq. km, and the body of water equals to 8,3 mln. Cubic meters, and it is around 40 meters deep. The water temperature is never more than 13ºC. The water is usually opaque, with the very changeable color dependent on weather. When high-altitude snow stops melting, the lake becomes as crystal clear as a virgin’s teardrop. If in this period frost comes, and the skies are clear, then you may watchfully step on the pure ice and as if hang above the abyss (this is an unspeakable feeling).
In the south, behind the lake, the gorge is locked with a snow-white Peak Ozernyi, which means ‘laky’ (4,110 m), and a bit eastward, behind the destroyed ridge, there is Peak of Soviets (4,100 m). At least it seems to be this way. Actually, they do not lock anything: higher along the gorge there is the whole world of alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, and four-thousand meters high tops.
Yet, behind the lake, there are plenty of pretty simple but beautiful alpine peaks there, located in the upper reaches of rivers Ozernaya and Kyzyl-sai. And among them there are such as Molodaya Gvardia (4,394 m high), of Sverdlovsk University or SGU (4,522 m), Sovetskih alpinistov, or of Soviet climbers (4,379 m), and Leninskaya smena (4,210 m).
Astronomical Observatory and Cosmo station
Not far from Big Almaty Lake there are a few more objects of the scientific purpose. You can reach them by the road that turns to the right before the lake. There is an astronomical observatory that has still operating captured Carl Zeiss telescopes. Astronomers explore not only stars in this place, but the Sun, too. And still higher, at the mountain pass Zhossalykezen (3,336 m) there is a high-mountain laboratory of physics called Cosmo station, where during a few decades physicists have been trying to catch mysterious cosmic rays.
Another one remarkable place is Kaindy Lake - a 400 meter long lake in Kazakhstan’s portion of the Tian Shan Mountains located 129 km from the city of Almaty.
The lake was created after an earthquake in 1911 that triggered a large landslide blocking the gorge and forming a natural dam. Subsequently, rainwater filled the valley and created the lake. The lake is famous for its scenic beauty particularly the submerged forest and the imposing trunks of spruce trees that rises out of the lake water. Above water, the sunken trees appear as large masts from lost ghost ships, or perhaps the spears of a mysterious army hiding and waiting for the right time to emerge. The water is so cold (even in summer the temperature does not exceed 6 degrees) that the great pines still remain on the trees, even 100 years later. Because of the clear mountain water, you can see deep into the depths of the lake. In winter, the surface of the lake freezes over and during this time, Lake Kaindy becomes a great spot for trout fishing and ice diving.
This location holds the record as the largest and oldest functioning space launch center. It is located in the vast Kazakhstan desert steppes. In fact, Russia’s space exploration is usually launched from this center. To visit this location, you need to give 45 days’ notice in advance.
The town of Taraz has been in existence for over two centuries. The town celebrated reaching 2,000 years in 2001 and was recognized by the UNESCO. The Aisha Bibi and Babaji mausoleums, located outside the city are great masterpieces of antique architecture. UNESCO also listed those two venues as world architectural scarcities.
This particular province is an eminent location as the best area of Kazakhstan that is rich in gas, construction materials, and oil. The locals call this location as the place of tourism as it has a rich cultural tradition along with a number of recreation resources. Some of the best hotels in Kazakhstan are found here.
So, summing up everything that is said above, visiting Kazakhstan would be an unforgettable experience. People are hospitable and open, the prices are not ridiculously high, the weather is charming (especially in mid-spring and mid-autumn), the hotels vary from 5* Ritz-Carlton to local boutique hotels, numerous fascinating sightseeing’s, parties that are not over until said so and most importantly - here you will make friends for life.
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