Kazakhstan is a whirlpool of flavours, with high cultural values and people taking you back to the Silk Road to impart a wholesome experience.
Somewhere over the border of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan looking out the window of the flight Flyarystan, I realised that this trip is going to be one to be cherished in postcard memories. The anticipation grew stronger as I landed in Shymkent, a city in south Kazakhstan that is the third largest city in the country. Often called Texas of Kazakhstan, the city is bustling with people and historic relics. The city is filled with parks and is called the ‘green city’ as you see kids running up and down through the parks hopping on rides and swings. The Shymkent airport is like a little portal to visit different parts of Kazakhstan while creating a perfect transit hub for travellers.
Walking on the Silk Road route
While touching the grounds of the city, we fell back to the nomadic times and traced back time to the II World War. The nomadic Kazakh people were compelled to settle down in large numbers. In addition, Shymkent was one of Kazakhstan’s most significant cities during World War II. A sobering reminder of the difficulties of the Silk Road may be found by touring the Citadel, a fortification perched atop a hill in the middle of Old Town that has been gradually excavated since 2007 and reveals continuous habitation for more than 2,200 years. Bronze Age items have also been discovered there, while 2021 saw the public opening of the rebuilt fortification with its citadel walls, it is like a trip to the yesteryears surrounded by artefacts and relics.
The old Silk Road city needed to be protected from adversaries from the steppe, according to our local guide, it turned into a crucial garrison. As soon as the new city heart of Shymkent was constructed a few kilometres away, the fortress’ significance declined during the Russian Empire. Time travel is now possible at this archaeological open-air museum, which features mounds that have been excavated beneath tents, display dwelling units, artificial irrigation, and an on-site museum featuring pottery, ceramics, elaborate saddles, candlestick holders, and water jugs. I adore the yurt, a nomadic person’s home, which displays traditional Kazakh nomadic clothing, carpets, and traditions. The camels depicting the trails of the Silk Route were the highlight of the citadel tour. Post our Citadel tour and a wholesome Kazakh meal, we made our way to the Shymkent airport to our main destination Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.
The biggest city in Kazakhstan
The most populated city in the nation and frequently referred to as the capital of the south is Almaty. The largest and most ethnically and culturally diverse city in Kazakhstan, it is situated in the hilly southeast of the country, among the foothills of the Trans-ili-Alatau mountains. It is surrounded by spectacular and picturesque scenery. With warm summers and chilly winters, it has a humid continental climate. The city in all its glitz and glamour looked sparkly at night as we landed at the Almaty International Airport.
The morning in Almaty was bright and early, with a view of the Tian Shan mountain range from my Hotel balcony. Our city tour began with a visit to the Zenkov Cathedral at Panfilov Park, where every corner had a different species of trees, squirrels running circles throughout the green grass and kids hopping on toy train rides. Zenkov Cathedral was a vision in itself with the entire structure made out of wood it was a colourful splash that could inspire anyone to bow their head and wish for good. The cathedral is composed of wood but has no nails because it was finished in 1907. It is reputed to be the second-tallest wooden church in the world, standing at a height of 56 metres. The interiors of the church were all the more mesmerising with golden carvings and intricate detailing on the walls. It is believed that while you enter the church you are supposed to cover your head in respect.
Burst of flavours
Our next trip was to Green Bazaar, the major market in the city and a relic of the Soviet era, where we sampled local cuisine and bought trinkets. Fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats and cheeses can be found in the several aisles and divisions that line the high-ceilinged room. We were invited by welcoming shopkeepers to sample Tajik dried fruits and nuts, Georgian sweets, tea brews, and hard balls of the regional kurt cheese.
The Kazakhs were once nomadic people because they had no choice, according to my tour guide Victoria, they created meals that could be stored and transported easily. To keep it fresh, they spoiled pork and milk. Due to their nomadic existence, they were unable to plant crops; hence they were dependent on meat. Today’s Kazakh cuisine is a kaleidoscope of tastes and cultural influences from nearby nations including Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran. Due to its location along the renowned Silk Route, it also received spices from other countries. Our city tour went on to a whole new level when we visited the world’s best chocolate, according to our guide and the people of Kazakhstan. The pockets were left empty as once we tasted the chocolates there was no looking back. We went back to our hotel with bags full of goodies on the very first day in Almaty.
Mountain tops and stories behind it
The next day was an early wake-up call as it was the mountain day. Visit the Shymbulak ski resort, one of Almaty’s many fantastic attractions; it is at the top of the list of things to do in Almaty. One of the top Almaty tourist destinations all year round, Shymbulak is the biggest ski resort in Central Asia with groomed slopes. Our ride to the point where we started with the cable car was filled with twisty ways reaching the starting point to Shymbulak.
As the hopping on and off through cable cars began, we were all excited to capture as much of the mountains as we could, but the view left me appreciating the natural beauty crafted by the almighty. The way to the top of the ski area was out of this world. It felt like a journey to heaven and back but with tummies filled with exotic Kazakh lunch and musical tones from the winds blowing in the mountains. The day was a fulfilling and hectic one that ended with an amazing Italian meal at a cute little restaurant in the city.
The nomadic culture brought back to life
Our next day was a series of experiences in a nomadic village created by the people to own and foster their culture and traditions. A genuine nomad experience is waiting for visitors to Kazakhstan’s old capital, which is only a 30-minute drive from Almaty. The Huns’ Ethno Village gives visitors a close-up look at nomadic tribes’ way of life and how Kazakh tribes’ customs are upheld. This incentive will undoubtedly leave a lasting effect on you, whether it’s through partaking in local cuisine or witnessing their relationships with horses.
A unique method to learn about their culture is to listen to a musical group consisting of two grandparents and a grandson playing the dombra, a traditional string instrument. A yurt, the nomadic residence of the tribes, is part of the ethno village and proudly welcomes visitors, introducing them to the vibrant selection of native carpets and patterns. The best way to comprehend Kazakhstani culture and its reverence for horses is to mount one, which I tried.
The country of Kazakhstan is regarded as the birthplace of horseback riding. In Kazakhstan’s highlands, wild horses were domesticated millennia ago. Even now, horseback riding is inextricably linked to regional history and culture. The Huns’ Ethno Village sported skilled riders doing daring exploits on their horses that send shivers down the spectators’ spines, to learn what the noble creatures signify to Kazakhs. Visitors can also experience first-hand what it was like for the nomadic tribes that once wandered the huge country’s limitless steppes.
Lakes, Plateaus and rivers!
While cruising through the region area of Kazakhstan, the best days were the ones nearing the end of the trip. Issyk Lake, often referred to as Esik Lake, is a vividly coloured alpine lake located immediately south of the settlement of Esik in Southeast Kazakhstan. It is surrounded by gorgeous mountain scenery, thick woods, and enormous flower fields. The lake is only approximately 70 km to the east of Almaty and is situated at an altitude of 1760 metres above sea level in the Issyk Canyon of Trans-Ili Alatau. The gorgeous turquoise water surrounded by lush green hills felt like a paradise. It was a picture-perfect moment for the ones looking for peace and tranquillity.
Now coming to the most special part of my journey to Kazakhstan, the Asy Plateau! Words fall short when I tend to describe what I experienced. It was like a whirlwind of emotions all at once. I have never in my life seen something so healing and gorgeous. Along the Kishi-Turgen River, the Asy Plateau reaches for 60 kilometres (37 mi). The plateau is located between 2800 and 3200 metres (9000 to 10500 feet) above sea level. Early Iron Age burial mounds have been preserved in this area. The Asy Plateau has a long history of serving as a summer pasture for Kazakh farmers to graze their livestock. The plateau was also traversed by caravans travelling from Europe and Central Asia to China and India. Sitting at one of the mounds of the plateau and looking at the clouds inching closer one could only feel peace and gratitude to witness something wondrous.
This was followed by a little trek to the Turgen waterfall, where splashes of water and a mighty rainbow peeping from one end were the highlights. Local people were swarming up to the waterfall and enjoying the cold water cleansing the sweat of the climb up the hill.
This trip was a mixed bag of experiences that have left a mark on my life. Kazakhstan has a piece of my heart which will be safely hidden between the topsy-turvy ways to the plateau and the lanes of the green bazaar.