Last night I decided to wander with a friend from one side of Almaty (a city of 2 million people) to the other... it took over 5 hours and I got very, very hungry en route (but it was still awesome! I just wish I had a potato with me along the way.) Anyway, after seeing pretty much the entirety of the city after dark, it got me thinking about the whole trip so far. Therefore, I decided to come up with some overall impressions about Kazakhstan. Now, some of you may have seen a particular movie a decade ago (as did I) about this place, so with that in mind, let's just say the film might have been slightly off (either that or things changed rapidly over the past 10 years). That said, let me introduce eight impression (because 10 is a boring number) about this glorious nation:
NATURE IS INCREDIBLE
- Kazakhstan has such a diverse mix of nature, from the endless open steppe, to the Caspian Sea coast, to some of the biggest mountains in the world. This was particularly great while staying in the southern city Almaty since some of the biggest mountains are literally within walking distance.
- There's also several mountain lakes over 3000m (2 miles) in elevation.
PEOPLE ARE FRIENDLY
- Kazakhstan doesn't get a lot of tourism, but people are really nice to foreigners and often will want to get to know you. For example, when one local girl, Lera, heard me and other backpackers speaking English in a supermarket, she introduced herself and then went out of her way for the rest of the week showing us all the best parts of the city.
- Shakir (pictured) manages Almaty Dom Hostel, which is also one of the most welcoming hostels I've ever stayed at.
Food is... Interesting
- There is some Russian influence in the cooking (for example, Borscht and Gretchka can be found everywhere), but local Kazakh cuisine is pretty different from everything I've come across previously.
- Fermented horse milk and fermented camel milk can be found at nearly every store in town.
- Both fermented horse and camel taste fairly sour and have bizarre texture.
- Apples originally come from Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is Developing Fast
- The country has had the fastest growing economy in the world over the past decade and as a result, so much is new and remodeled. Even the capital, Astana, was literally built up out of nothing only 20 years ago. People have told me that it feels like a mix of Las Vegas and Dubai.
Everything is Very Affordable
- A good hostel in Almaty (the largest city), will cost you just about $6/day and going out for a nice dinner should be no more than $5. Public transport is also incredibly cheap and pretty nice.
- And the money is so colorful.
Kazakhstan Drives like Russia. Rural, Back-country Russia (see YouTube)
- Over the past week, I've seen more people run through red lights, swerve around pedestrians at a crosswalk, and pass by with visible collision damage than I can count. It's still not as crazy as Georgian drivers, but pretty close.
- There are also six and eight lane intersections. I do know know how it works.
- Also, for the first time ever, I had a bus driver Skype someone as we drove through town.
- While a majority of the people are Kazakh, there is a sizeable Russian minority (about 25% of the total population), and everywhere you look, from food, to lifestyle, to architecture, you'll see a mix of the two. Nearly everything is written in both languages, Orthodox churches are side by side with mosques, and it all flows together pretty harmoniously.
- If you are white, it is generally assumed that you are Russian.
- Russian is spoken far more in the cities while Kazakh is predominant in the villages and small, rural towns.
- You'll see influences from a variety of former Soviet states, like Georgian Restaurants and Belarussian shops.
Almaty is One of the Coolest Cities in the World
- I've never seen a place quite like it. People are always out and about, including as I wandered back to my hostel at 2:00am last night, but no one seems too intense about anything. It's like it is a mix of being active yet laid back.
- The city is also gorgeous with the backdrop of mountains and parks so unique and large you feel like you've left a city entirely.
- Trees line every street and every walkway. It's like forest met city and created Almaty.