Don’t come to Kazakhstan in the winter if you don’t like the cold!
We got there late October and it was already snowing 😖. Still, visiting Kazakhstan during freezing weather gave us an excuse to relax in the famous Arasan Russian bath – which is an experience I really reccomend to do (unless you have something against bathing naked with sweating seniors!).
Indeed, I really enjoyed the Arasan spa in Almaty (highlights include an old man doing a somersault over the handrail into the swimming pool). I attempted the Turkish, Finnish and Russian saunas, the latter being the hottest. I would suggest going to the Turkish if you like sunbathing (if you also don’t mind the smell of burnt fish, that’s what I smelled). It is difficult to stay in the Russian sauna for more than a couple minutes, but it’s worth the try. Tip: after entering, pour the bucket of ice-cold water on top of you head, it does help.
Enough about the spa. Let’s go back outside.
The mini-blizzard didn’t stop us from sightseeing. We went up the Kok-tobe mountain, a popular weekenders destination, with a cable car (it reminded me of the times when we would go skiing). It was even colder up there, but I enjoyed walking around, especially because it was a fun park (starting up again the chant – “It’s not fair! Take us to the fair!”). Unfortunately most attractions were closed due to the snow. At the end, considering how expensive the lift tickets were, we decided to walk down the mountain, which turned out to be a nice and pleasant walk despite the chilly air.
In fact, Kazakhstan was stunning under the blanket of snow, a condition the country is well used to. Nested in the mountains just a 15 minutes drive from Almaty, there is indeed a well known ski resort and Medeu, an enormous Olympic Stadium ice rink. We could not not go to visit that. It was unfortunately closed, but I was still in awe of the grand space of the entire rink clothed in glistening snow.
Talking of landmark sights, we also visited Panfilov Park, which is home to the Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. Impressively, it is the second tallest wooden church in the world, still standing: the towers looming in the pelting snow. It is now being refurbished, so unfortunately we couldn’t visit this one attraction either, but it was worth coming to the park and seeing the colorful church from the outside. Nearby, a large memorial dedicated to the Kazakh soldiers defending Moscow during WW2 is perched over an eternal fire crackling and raging through the weather.
My early impressions of Kazakhstan, however, weren’t great and only changed once in Almaty.
As I mentioned in my previous post, (https://beyondoverton.com/2018/10/26/uzbekistan-golden-teeth-and-neon-signs-2/) we first entered Kazakhstan through the Caspian Sea before driving into Uzbekistan. We had befriended a Kazakh on the ferry who offered us a ride to Beyneu on his bus. Later on, he asked my dad to lend him money for the petrol, promising he would return it (spoiler alert : he lied). In the end, he claimed the money was his fee for giving us a bus ride to Beyneu. I was frustrated – this person had lied and cheated us and we couldn’t do anything about it.
Another ‘school of life’ situation (as my mum likes to call them), happened while waiting for our train. We had set out for a restaurant close to the station and finally found one. All was well until half an hour later. A man had too much to drink and started stumbling around the restaurant, smashing windows and fighting with his friend. Well, that was interesting, to say the least.
Those experiences were not repeated the second time we entered Kazakhstan. Already at our arrival at Almaty’s train station, we were met by a friend of a friend, who owned a truck transportation business shipping things from China into Central Asia. He kindly offered to organise our Chinese border crossing – which we were extremely grateful for (otherwise, we would have had to take (again!) an overnight train).
In addition, later on, another friend of a friend showed us around Almaty’s surroundings (he brought us to the ice-skating rink) and introduced us to horse milk and camel milk. I found them both a bit too sour for my taste.
Overall, I really liked Almaty (full of amazing cafes and restaurants – with WiFi!). It’s third on my list of favourite cities, after Baku and Batumi.
Trees of a specific fruit are grown all around the city which is why Almaty means ‘father of…’ See if you can guess which fruit it is.
That’s right. Oranges.
Oh my bad. I meant apples.