Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Kazakhstan

IMG_6594 A triumphant Megan soaks up the views after a hairy cable car ride. Image courtesy of Megan Eaves

Megan Eaves, North Asia destination editor at Lonely Planet, has just come back from a week exploring the cities of Kazakhstan.

Tell us more…My trip to Kazakhstan was a ‘press trip’, so I was travelling with a group of travel and aviation journalists and PRs from the UK and southeast Asia. Being with strangers in a really off-the-beaten-track place like Kazakhstan definitely helps solidify a bond – a bit like going away to summer camp.

In a nutshell…We visited the capital city, Astana, which is on the northern Kazakh plains, and the old capital, Almaty, which is surrounded by the Tian Shan mountains. The two cities are very different: Astana is the gleaming symbol of new Kazakhstan’s development, with its bizarre buildings designed by star-chitects like Norman Foster, while Almaty is the leafy older city with streetside cafes and lots of outdoor activities on its doorstep.

Defining moment? We took a series of cable cars up to Shymbulak, a mountain/ski resort near Almaty. At its uppermost, the cable car reaches over 3100m. A few people felt faint at the top, and on the way down, the cable car came to an unnerving halt, resulting in a huge dip-and-sway that had even the sturdiest among us reeling. The views of verdant valleys below snow-capped peaks (in June) were absolutely unforgettable.

IMG_1168 A traditional mountain yurt set amongst Kazakhstan's epic landscapes. Image courtesy of Megan Eaves

Good grub? Kazakh cuisine is very much nomad’s food. Dishes are hearty, usually based around thick noodles, dumplings and stews – grub designed to get you through the harsh, sub-zero winters on the steppe. A lot of lamb is eaten and, perhaps surprisingly, the strong equestrian culture means horse is on the menu, which I found to be delicious despite being a horse-lover myself. Also, having traditional Kazakh tea (black), especially seated on the floor in a mountain yurt, is really unique.

You’d be a muppet to miss…Kazakhstan is a country of epic landscapes. The cities are fascinating and tell a story of the country’s chequered history, but getting out into the vastness of nature here is key. Think of it this way: Kazakhstan is larger than western Europe, but has only roughly 5% of its population! Himalayan mountains with glaciers give way to burning desert canyons, shimmering lakes and plains that seem to go on forever.

Fridge magnet or better? Vodka was a popular choice, although I opted for some of the locally made cognac (a surprise in this part of the world) and chocolate (another surprise). Also, some really, really cheesy postcards.

Bizarre encounter? In Almaty, there are very few official taxis. Instead, any driver on the road will stop and pick up someone and give them a lift. You just stand on the side of the road, stick your hand out, and any car coming by might stop. You’re then expected to negotiate your destination and the price (in Russian, of course), and the driver will either agree or not. This means you need to have a few things to get around in Almaty: a small bit of Russian (or very good hand signals), an idea of how much a ride should cost, your destination written down or on your phone, and not least a strong sense of adventure. We ended up riding along with two brothers, a guy and his girlfriend out for a joyride, and what appeared to be a gangster wearing a gold chain and listening to Kanye West (we didn’t ask).

Megan Eaves travelled to Kazakhstan with support from Air Astana (airastana.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.