Discover more about Kazakhstan and take a look at holidays visiting the Silk Route - find out more here.
Of all the countries on the Silk Road, Kazakhstan is perhaps the least familiar. Tourism is in its infancy and you’ll certainly feel like an explorer. You’ll encounter few other Westerners – if any – and English is spoken only in big international hotels. Everywhere else it’s Kazakh and Russian, a legacy of the country’s former role in the Soviet Union.
So how do you get a sense of a country that covers a million square miles – the size of western Europe – in a week?
If you’re visiting as part of a Silk Road tour, perhaps inspired by ITV’s Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure, it’s likely you’ll start in the south, staying in the old capital Almaty, where the vast flat steppes meet the Tian Shen mountains that mark the border with China. Almaty is surprisingly European. In the soft evening light on a Sunday in September, you’ll see families out for a stroll, just like the el paseo in Barcelona. It’s an ideal time to visit as temperatures can reach 30C earlier in the season and -10C in winter (good for skiing - see below).
In the tree-lined pedestrianised roads around Panfilov Street there are pavement cafes, trendy food trucks selling burgers and – enterprisingly – parked cars with the boot open to reveal espresso machines running off the car battery. Kazakhs are largely a tea-drinking nation, so here tourists needing a barista-style coffee fix can order an espresso or Americano. Groups of young people stop to listen to buskers - guitar, classical quartets and a lone rapper improvising to Eminem, drowning out the original lyrics with his own Kazakh version.
Almaty is laid out on a grid so it’s easy to explore without getting lost. It’s a mix of brutalist Soviet architecture, elegant modern blocks and late 19th-century wooden buildings, with nothing pre-dating the earthquake of 1887 that flattened the area.
You can’t miss the gigantic black marble monument to ‘The 28’ in Panfilov Park. Built to honour the 28 Kazhak soldiers from the Panfilov battalion who are said to have died defending Moscow against the approaching Nazis in the Second World War, it dwarfs passers-by.
On the opposite side of the park and shaded by great chestnut and walnut trees is the yellow and turqoise Cathedral of the Ascension, glimmering like jewels in the sunlight. One of the tallest wooden buildings in the world, it dates to 1907 (timber has a degree of flexibility that’s more resilient to quakes and tremors). The same architect who designed the cathedral also designed the nearby Museum of Musical Instruments, which doubles as a small concert venue – catch great folk music here, such as an amazing collaboration between Bulgarian, Hungarian, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Khazakh musicians.
To hunt for souvenirs head for the Green Bazaar. From the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a run-down concrete block, but inside you’ll find stalls selling fabulous embroidered felt slippers, felt hats, camel wool socks and intricate earrings – have fun foraging for them in the throng of vendors selling more everyday stuff.
Arts and crafts in Kazakhstan
Felt is everywhere. Kazakh legend has it that its creation dates back to the time of Noah. The sheep aboard the Ark had shed some wool and it got trampled underfoot into a mat – the very first felted rug.
To see modern-day felters at work making carpets, head for the Qazag Oner where artisan felters and leather workers have studios.
The Guild of Painters also exhibits here, though painting is a new art form for Kazakhs – barely 80 years old. The Abylkhan Kasteev State Museum of the Arts is the place to go to find out why and to trace the development of painting in Kazakhstan, but in a nutshell, painting is in its early stages because the traditional Kazakh lifestyle of nomadic herders put a constraint on what could be carried around. After all, putting a foot through Great Uncle Talgat’s canvas as you pack up for the umpteenth time would be a disaster.
Instead, creative talent in Kazakhstan was put to use decorating everyday objects.
The Kasteev museum has galleries of colourful carpets, saddle bags, bed covers and jewellery, wooden bowls and chests – all practical items that could be packed and unpacked without worry. You start to notice recurring motifs: the horns of the mountain goat, revered because its habitat is closest to the sky and so to god; embroidered flowers on rugs and cushions to represent children and babies in the family.
Kazakh jewellery is fabulous. The museum has cases of coral and glass headdresses and silver earrings traditionally worn by the bride instead of a wedding ring. It’s the groom’s mother who gives her future daughter-in-law a bejewelled silver ring, so big it stretches across two fingers - you can see examples on display.
Under Soviet influence the nomadic lifestyle died out; as people began to settle in one place, fine art schools started to make an appearance. The early paintings in social realism style are optimistic, bright depictions of industry and mechanised farming – produced in effect as propaganda. Later paintings subtly question rather than glorify, with greyer tones, haggard faces. If understanding a nation by its art appeals to you, this is one of the most important museums in the country to visit.
Silk Road crafts
For a panoramic view of the city get the cable car to Kok-Tobe. There’s a funfair on top of the mountain and - very oddly - a bronze statue of The Beatles, commissioned by a grateful businessman in tribute to how much the Fab Four’s music meant to him in his younger, darker days.
For days out from Almaty there’s the year-round skating rink a 20-minute bus ride away at Medeu. And at the nearby Sunkar falconry centre there are daily displays of raptor acrobatics: a Kazakh eagle hunter on horseback with a golden eagle, petite rare Saker falcons (highly prized in the Middle East) and a gorgeous, fluffy-necked vulture who must surely have been washed and blow dried before his performance.
From Medeu a cable car takes you to the winter ski resort of Shymbaluk – cheaply and easily accessible from the city so if you fancy a day’s skiing you can just hop on the bus.
Kazakhstan's new capital
Modern-day travellers can fly from Almaty to Astana, Kazakhstan’s brand-new capital city, in less than two hours - speedy compared to an arduous 800 mile (1,300km) trek across the interior desert.
Rising from the steppes like a set from Star Wars, it’s a futuristic cityscape of extraordinary buildings barely 20 years old – the glass sphere built for the 2017 World Exposition that is now the Museum for Future Energy, and the shining white Bayterek tower that stretches up to the sky like the branches of a tree embracing a golden egg.
It’s been a boomtime for British architects. Norman Foster has had a hand in much of the design, from the Bayterek – reputedly conjured up on the back of a napkin by the president himself, Nursultan Nazarbayev – to the silver pyramid that is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Foster also designed the Khan Shatyr shopping centre – the world’s largest permanent tent. Inside you’ll find familiar designer brands, a dinosaur-themed play area for kids, a monorail ride that whizzes brave souls across the vortex of the interior and, most ambitious of all, an indoor ‘sea’ complete with a sandy beach imported from the Maldives, on the top floor.
Culturally, the opera house is more impressive – as much for its inclusive ticket pricing, starting at just $1.50 – as its splendid ruby red and cream interior, inspired by the colours of an open pomegranate.
Discover more about our holidays to Central Asia, a region once very much at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
All about food
Don’t be surprised to find horsemeat on the menu. Horses are viewed more pragmatically than Westerners may like, so despite being all-important for transport, the national dish beshbarmak consists of slices of horse meat, lamb and thick ribbons of pasta. It’s served everywhere, which is unsurprising, because it’s delicious.
The traditional drink of the steppes, fermented mare’s milk, or kumiss, is harder to track down. Apparently dairies only sell it on certain days and with queues round the block you don’t always get to the front before it runs out.
Far nicer is camel’s milk – if you like kefir you’ll be hooked and Googling importers when you get home.
Traditional food focused on preservation: dried apple slices, curious dark brown slices of dried camel-milk cheese – worth trying as an experience, not at all cheese-like and pleasantly savoury and leathery. Then there are kurt, small round balls of cheese the size of a Maltezer and rock solid. Andrey Kurkov’s novel The Good Angel of Death, set in Kazakhstan, describes the best way to eat them:
“Gulya brought me a bowl of green tea and offered me several small balls of cheese on her palm…. We sat beside each other on the striped bed mat… and drank tea, and rolled little balls of cheese around in our mouths.”
The history of the Silk Road
The elusive tulip
As Kazakhstan is the home of wild tulips, what would be a more appropriate souvenir than tulips from Kazakhstan - not Amsterdam? Tulips made their way to Holland via the Ottoman Empire and eventually sparked the great tulip craze of the 17th century. But don't try buying bulbs in the flower market in Almaty - they all seem to be imported from Holland.
All about yurts
You will earn brownie points by referring to the circular tents we tend to call yurts as kiyiz; ‘yurt’ is the widely used Russian word, but kiyiz is the Kazakh term and it translates literally as ‘wool house’. A typical kiyiz is plain on the outside, but the inside is hung with tassels and woven bands and heaped with cushions and rugs. There are plenty to be seen in museums, historic village open-air recreations, as dining rooms within restaurants - you can even stay in one at the eco-campsite at Charyn Canyon about three hours drive from Almaty.
A kiyiz can be taken down or assembled in about an hour. The walls are like garden trellis and the roof has ribs like a giant umbrella; the whole structure is covered in felt.
Kazakhstan's history, culture and things to do
Did you know?
Kazakh actress Samal Yeslyamova won best actress at Cannes in 2018 for her role in the film Ayka, directed by Kazakh Sergey Dvortsevoy, a no-detail-spared tale of the desperate life of a Central Asian immigrant in modern-day Moscow.
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