Kazakhstan (Қазақстан)

  • Capital: Astana
  • Population: 18 million
  • Language: Kazakh, Russian
  • Currency: Tenge
  • Location: Central Asia (between Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the Caspian Sea)
  • Interesting Fact: The name Kazakhstan is a Turkic word meaning 'Land of the Wanderers'

(CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW POST)

  MY TRIP

MY TRIP

  HOBO ADVICE

HOBO ADVICE

  EIGHT IMPRESSIONS OF KAZAKHSTAN

EIGHT IMPRESSIONS OF KAZAKHSTAN

PLACES VISITED

  ALMATY

ALMATY

  MOUNTAINS

MOUNTAINS

  ASTANA

ASTANA

  ALMATY DOM HOSTEL

ALMATY DOM HOSTEL

STORIES AND IMPORTANT INFO

  MOUNTAIN RACE STORY

MOUNTAIN RACE STORY

  CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH A TERRIFYING BORDER CONTROL LADY

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH A TERRIFYING BORDER CONTROL LADY

  TREK TO BISHKEK (STORY)

TREK TO BISHKEK (STORY)

  MARSHRUTKA TO KYRGYZSTAN (INFO)

MARSHRUTKA TO KYRGYZSTAN (INFO)

PHOTO ALBUMS

  FIRST DAY IN KAZAKHSTAN

FIRST DAY IN KAZAKHSTAN

  CITY AND NAUTRE

CITY AND NAUTRE

  A DAY'S HIKE

A DAY'S HIKE

  ALMATY (BY DANIEL GANDINI)

ALMATY (BY DANIEL GANDINI)

Important Info Kazakhstan: Know Before You Go

Based on my summer 2017 trip

kz3.JPG

WHERE TO STAY: Almaty Dom Hostel (2000 tenge/$7 per night)

This was my base during my Kazakhstan stay and it was awesome. The name 'Dom' is Russian for home, which pretty much describes the feel of the hostel. Shakir, the guy who runs it, couldn't have been nicer or more helpful and the place as a whole was super welcoming. The bedrooms have air conditioning and there is enough space so you don't ever feel cramped. As for location, it isn't directly in the city center, but all the main spots of the town are within a 10-15 minute walk. Plus, you'll be greeted by the neighbor's dog, Laika, upon arrival. (She's loud, but friendly)

COST OF TRAVEL: Very affordable.

  • 30 minute taxi ride - 2000 tenge ($5)
  • Drink at a bar - 500 tenge ($1.50)
  • Dinner at a descent restaurant - 2000-3000dram ($4-6)
  • Hostels (about 5000 dram ($10) per night)
  • Ride to Krygyzstan from Almaty - no more than 3000 tenge ($10)

TAP WATER: Mostly Safe

In Almaty and Astana, as well as many of the small towns, the water is perfectly fine to drink. However, in several of the industrial cities and near some polluted areas, drinking the water is probably a bad idea. If you're unsure, just ask around and you'll find out.

COMMUNICATION: Russian and Kazakh (very little English).

Although both languages are official, more people actually speak Russian than Kazakh (90% of the country compared to 60% respectively. English is not well known, but people are friendly and will go out of their way to help you if they can. Therefore, knowing a few basic phrases in Russian can be very helpful. Here's a few:

  • Здравствуйт (zdrastvitye) - Hello
  • спасибо (spasibo) - Thank you
  • Меня зовут (menya zovut) - My name is...
  • Я люблю Казахстан (Ya lubloo Kazakhstan) - I love Kazakhstan

SAFETY: Pretty safe

I personally had no trouble during the 10 days I stayed in the country, and the same goes for most of the other travelers I met there. However, there have been a few cases in which people dress up as police offers in attempt to solicit a bribe. This isn't a widespread practice, but just be on the lookout just in case and ask to see the guy's badge if such a circumstance occurs. That said, there is little risk of harm.

TRANSPORTATION: Far distances, low prices

Almaty is the only city with an underground metro which costs 80 tenge (25 cents) to ride. There's only one line, so it doesn't cover the whole city, but the trains are clean and the stations are nice. Other than that, there are bus routes throughout the other cities including the capital, Astana. However, if you really want to go cheap, hitchhiking is pretty common throughout the country. Especially as a foreigner, someone will likely stop for you within minutes. Just keep in mind though, the country is very large and cities are often several hours by car apart with little to no civilization in between, so be prepared for the long rides (for example, it's 12 hours by train from Astana to Almaty).

If you want to cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, there are many taxis and Marshrutkas that will take you there from Almaty to Bishkek. The cost should be no more then 2000-3000 tenge ($7-10) and will take between 5-6 hours total. Sometimes you the driver will only take you to the border though and you'll have to get in another vehicle once you cross over (as was the case for me). For more info on that, please read the following posts.

CULTURAL CUSTOMS

Once upon a time, Turkey and Mongolia had a baby that was adopted and raised by Russia. That's how someone once described Kazakhstan to me, and I have to say, it seems pretty accurate. There is still a resonance left over from the Soviet era and nearly 25% of the total population is ethnically Russian, so it makes for an interesting cultural mix. Therefore, you'll see Sunni mosques next to Orthodox Christian churches next to each other in most town and city centers. The country itself though is largely secular (unlike most of it's Central Asian counterparts) and any form of religious discrimination including against atheists is punishable by law (the movie Borat got this part wrong).

The word 'Kazakh' is derived from an old Turkic word meaning 'wanderer.' Therefore, the name Kazakhstan literally means 'Land of the Wanderers.' You can see traces of the nomadic history throughout the country, including a few groups of people still living as nomads in the steppe (although not in the cities). However, only about 60% of the country is ethnically Kazakh, so you also see a variety of cultural blends.

Overall though, people are very welcoming, so don't be surprised if someone or some family decides to invite you over for dinner within minutes of meeting you (this actually happened to my friend Tristan in Astana).

INFRASTRUCTURE

Compared to the rest of Central Asia, Kazakhstan's infrastructure is significantly more developed. Roads are decently maintained and there is an extensive railway network throughout the country. Kazakhstan as a whole seems to be drastically changing by the day, which is pretty incredible to see. For example, the capital city Astana was built up from a small village to a super modern metropolis of 1 million people in the span of just 20 years. As a result, many of the buildings look futuristic, making both Almaty and Astana stand out drastically from other major cities around the world.

Also, Kazakhstan was the center of the Soviet space program and many sites are still left over from that time. Sputnik, the first ever satellite, was launched into space from Kazakhstan too.

DO AND DON'T

  • DO
  • Go hiking. The mountains are incredible.
  • Visit Medeu. It is said to be the highest ice rink in the world. I never checked to verify, but nonetheless, it is pretty cool.
  • Visit the Park of the First President in Almaty. It is so intricate and enormous, and there's a viewpoint in which you can see the entire city.
  • Eat apples. The fruit originated in Kazakhstan and they remain very delicious there.
  • Visit both the Steppe and the cities. The contrast is drastic but both are incredibly interesting.
  • Prepare for the weather. Kazakh summers are very hot and winters are frigid.
  • Visit an open market. Throughout Central Asia they're huge and pretty amazing. Kazakhstan is no exception.
  • Visit the Caspian Sea
  • Take a train across the country and see the vast steppe turn into huge mountains
  • See the dried up Aral Sea. While there is no more water, it does look like a graveyard for old ships.
  • DON'T
  • Don't wear shoes into someone's house.
  • Don't make Borat impersonations
  • Don't take a large glass of Kumis (fermented horse milk) if you've never had it before. You'll be expected to finish it which is quite a difficult task.
  • Don't enter a taxi before agreeing on a price. If so, you will be overcharged.
  • Don't refuse an offer of food or drink as it is seen as an insult. Ask for a small portion if need be.
  • Don't take a bus if you need to be on time. They are notoriously late.
hobokazakhstan.jpg

My Trip

July 2017

I flew into Almaty, Kazakhstan after a particularly stressful ordeal (see 'New Adventures' section) in the Samara (Russia) airport. However, despite the rough start, Kazakhstan turned out to be incredible and pretty much unlike anything I could have imagined or expected. I spent my time in the country in the general vicinity of the Almaty region. Originally, I hoped to get around a bit more and see more places, but infrastructure in Kazakhstan isn't so great outside the big cities and the country is huge, with vast open steppes, so I ended up staying in the same area.

That said, there was so much to do and see around Almaty that there was never a dull moment. Quickly I befriended a few people from my hostel, as well as a local girl named Lera (who joined us after she heard us all speaking English in a supermarket), and together, we wandered the city, ventured into the surrounding mountains, and even went to a local music festival. One thing I can assure though, I'll definitely be back and I'll see more of the country then.

Hobo Advice

You've probably seen Borat... Kazakhstan in real life is incredibly different. The country is very large, dotted with a few cities within a large sparsely-populated steppe. I was only in the south region, near Almaty, which is pretty amazing, but is pretty unique from the rest of the country. By this point, the steppe has ended and is replaced by huge mountains and dark green forests. I absolutely recommend going here, as the nature is incredible and the culture is a unique mix of Russian, Kazakh, and other Central Asian influences. And just in case you need a break from roughing it during a trekking/backpacking trip, pretty much all the major cities here are very modern, clean and comfortable. You'll have no trouble finding nice and affordable accommodations. If you go to Almaty, I recommend Almaty Dom Hostel. It's awesome!

Kazakhstan itself is far more developed (and developing more by the day) than much of the surrounding area, especially the neighboring Kyrgyzstan. So if you're doing a Central Asian trip, any of the Kazakh cities like Almaty or Astana, for example, are good places to stock up on goods. Plus, since the infrastructure is probably the best in the region (still not particularly great though), it is pretty still easy to take public transport around the country and into neighboring regions. It'll help a lot though if you can speak some Russian. People are very friendly and helpful as long as they can understand you, but English is hardly spoken at all.

Overall Impressions

  • Kazakhstan is big
  • There is such a diverse variety in the nature
  • People are very helpful and friendly
  • English is basically unknown
  • A knowledge of Russian helps a lot
  • The mountains around Almaty are some of the most amazing things I've ever seen.
  • People drive pretty recklessly
  • Almaty's Green Market is an interesting place to find (and haggle for) pretty much anything you could need
  • Camel milk isn't the easiest thing to drink (although I thought it was going to be worse)
  • The society seems pretty open and relaxed towards foreigners
  • As of last year (2016), North Americans and most Europeans do not need a visa for up to 30 days.

Almaty

July 2017

Imagine a new, modern city mixed with fresh, green forests and lush plant life, all the while surrounded by towering mountains with clean white snow all year round. Now throw in a variety of culture (east, west, Europe, Asia, Russia, China, and something unique in and of itself) and mix it all together. Finally, top that off with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere and what you get is Almaty. The city served as the center point of my visit, and although I wish I got to travel around a bit more, I couldn't have enjoyed it more.

It's hard to describe without sounding like a cheesy tourism add, but Almaty truly is something unique in unto itself. It is significantly more developed than its surrounding Central-Asian counterparts but still has (thankfully) resisted the influx of obnoxious western advertisements and seizure-inducing neon lights that plague so many other cities. With that said, I will use the rest of this post, to do my best by outlining some of the highlights that stood out to me and impressions I got while staying there.

Atmosphere

Almaty is alive. Anytime and anywhere you go, you'll come across people out and about, doing something. This could be in the form of a family out to lunch, friends at a bar, an elderly couple at the park, or a mountain climber heading off to one of the peaks. Even when I walked 16km (10 miles) across the entire length of the city with a friend at night (see Lera in 'Awesome People' page) there was still a people presence wherever I went. There was always something happening, but not that type-A workaholic sense. It was kind of a relaxed, laid back, 'let's go outside and see what we see' atmosphere, which made me feel right at home.

Culture

Having been along the route of the ancient Silk Road, capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic during the Soviet era, and with close proximity to China, it's no surprise that Almaty has a pretty distinct mix of culture. While most of the population of the city is either Kazakh or Russian, there are significant Uzbek, German, and Chinese populations among others, which are all reflected in day to day life. For example, just on the street where I stayed, there was a Georgian restaurant, a Belarussian bakery, Chinese visa center, Russian Orthodox church and a mosque. It was something I had never expected to find prior to arrival, but came as a pleasant surprise. Best of all was how harmoniously it all coexisted. It never seemed like one particular tradition was trying to grab the spotlight from the others, and it all seemed to flourish together.

I later found out that, unlike most of its neighbors, there are extensive laws in Kazakhstan preventing any type of discrimination, whether it be ethnic or religious, which include full protection to atheists and those who are non-religious. The population is just about split down the middle between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which was pretty interesting to see from my point of view. mosques and churches would often be side by side and no sign of tension or conflict seemed visible.

Nature

In Almaty, nature was ever-present throughout the whole city. Down every street and along every highway, trees and plant life sprouted up to complement man-made infrastructure with the natural world. Everywhere I went, things just seemed so picturesque and clean. It gave off a certain calming and relaxing effect that is pretty rare for a city of its size (2 million). Because of that, everything just felt so fresh. I never once came across that particular rancid city smell nor did I get that sticky feeling on my skin that that would come after spending a day in a place like Manhattan.

Mountains

 Skyline

Skyline

 Also Skyline

Also Skyline

It doesn't matter which direction you look. North, south, east, and west, the Almaty skyline is lined with towering mountains, making it the perfect destination if you're looking to enjoy the great outdoors. (Again, I apologies if I sound like a commercial. I just think this place is awesome.) One of the easiest way to reach them is by taking bus #12 to its final stop, Medeu. From there, you're already at the foot of four different peaks that rise up to 4000m. And even if you're not quite the most active traveler, the views from within the city are pretty awesome too, so either way, the mountains enhance the trip as a whole.

Location

With its location in southern Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyz and Chinese border, Almaty is in a great spot if you're planning a bigger trip. It takes less that half an hour to get to the mountains, meanwhile ancient Silk Road cities like Taraz are just a couple hours away. And since transportation in Kazakhstan is really cheap, you don't have to worry about breaking the bank to get from place to place. For example, I was able to take a 4 hour van ride for just 2500 tenge ($7) to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Affordability

Kazakhstan is in the middle of a pretty interesting phase. It is by no means a poor country, it's cities are very modern, and infrastructure is pretty well developed. However, everything is pretty much dirt cheap. Even in Almaty, you can stay at a really nice hostel for $6, eat a gigantic dinner for $5 and ride the metro for about 25 cents. This seems largely because the country came into a huge influx of wealth within the past two decades, so all this affluence is very, very new. As a result, prices have yet to catch up to quality. Therefore, I definitely recommend going there sooner rather than later because it is unclear whether this affordability will last much longer.

 

Almaty Dom Hostel

Almaty's best

It was 5:30 in the morning when I first stumbled through the doors after a sleepless night of travel. Not sure what to expect and in desperate search for a bed, I entered and was immediately greeted by the host, Shakir. Despite the fact my arrival had just woken him up, he smiled and showed me around the hostel which, as its name suggests ('dom' meaning 'home' is Russian) was very home-like with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen for all guests. On the wall, there were drawings and messages written by many of the guests who had stayed while couches lay here and there, all adding to the relaxed, comfortable feel of the place. Right away, it became clear to me that I had made the right choice. And then when I walked into the air-conditioned bed room, there was no longer any doubt. This place was awesome.

On top of all that, Shakir was one of the most helpful hostel hosts I've ever come across. Whether you had questions about the city or needed any help arranging future travels, he was there to make the whole process a whole lot easier. As a result, the whole social atmosphere of the place was unbelievably welcoming, seeming to attract interesting backpackers from all over the world. So, I guess I can sum it all up by saying, if you ever find yourself in Almaty, Kazakhstan, stay here. It is amazing and only $6/night.

Eight Impressions of Kazakhstan

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

 Shakir, owner of Almaty Dom Hostel

Shakir, owner of Almaty Dom Hostel

  • 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

 This is Camel Milk

This is Camel Milk

  • 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

 So colorful

So colorful

  • 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.

Culture Mix

  • While a majority of the people are Kazakh, there is a sizable 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.

Summitting a Mountain: My hike

July 2017

 On the ascent

On the ascent

Alongside a new formed friend from my hostel, Stefan, I stepped off the crowded city bus into a much more natural setting. The location was called Medeu, and was just overlooking the city Almaty. All around, the scenery was lined with green trees, lush valleys, and mountains taller than anything I've ever seen (excluding Georgia). It was 11am and we were about to attempt a climb that took the group who initially told us about it nearly 12 hours. We took this as a challenge to complete in half the time, hence our mid day start. Fastening my shoe laces, I looked at the route ahead of us. We were either about to prove our athleticism or our foolishness depending on our outcome. Regardless, I was excited and a bit jitters from the three cups of coffee I just had during the bus ride.

 Stefan

Stefan

We hit the trail and immediately came upon an incline steep enough to stare us in the face. 'This is a good little start. Get the legs warmed up' I said to Stefan who chuckled a bit, thinking this would level off soon. However, an hour later, all laughing had stopped and was now replaces by floods of sweat. As if to punish us for our hubris, the mountain never relented and the slope remained just as steep as ever. None the less, we were still crazily determined to cut the time of our Australian friends (I forgot to mention before that they were Aussies) so we powered through. Like panting dogs after a mail truck, we passed people left and right, never stopping to rest (though occasionally taking pictures).

 Ain't got time for this photo nonsense.

Ain't got time for this photo nonsense.

Two in a half hours in and shirt now fully saturated in sweat, I came across something completely unexpected. I couldn't believe my eyes, but there, standing right on a high ledge was a giant swing with people on it. It was set up in such a way that if one person were to let go, they would likely go sailing into the abyss, but apparently that didn't stop the people in the hour long line that had formed behind it. Stefan and I agreed that this would be a good spot to have our first stop, drink some water and, in my case, eat a few packets of dehydrated instant coffee (yes, I know I have a problem). Five minutes and a few pictures later, we hit the trail again and ascended into the clouds.

 Maybe I exaggerated a bit about sailing into the abyss. Still cool though.

Maybe I exaggerated a bit about sailing into the abyss. Still cool though.

Despite the mix of fatigue and thinning air, I began to feel excited. Not three hours had yet passes and it seemed as if we were nearly there. However, the whole view ahead was shrouded in fog, rendering it impossible to fully estimate just how much was left. Time after time, I kept saying, "It's probably just over this ledge," only to find yet another incline. Stefan just laughed off my optimism as we continued. That's when we saw another climber descending. We politely greeted one another, adhering to the customs imposed by society, before diving into the important question.

"How much longer to the top?" inquired Stefan.

"About 20 minutes, but... it's a bit rough."

Ignoring the second half of the sentence, I perked up. "Sweet! Just 20 minutes! We're gonna shatter the Aussies' time!"

Onward we went, but not two minutes later, we realized what he meant by the second part. The peak was now in sight, but the whole path was lined with sharp, jagged rocks. 'Damn, I'm getting to old for this,' I thought while neglecting the fact Stefan was double my age. (Yeah, I forgot to add that earlier. In his 50s and no trouble keeping up with an overly caffeinated 26 year old. Pretty impressive.) Nonetheless, we powered up. Hands were scratched, toes were stubbed, and sweat fell, but soon there we were. Top of the 3300m (11,000 ft) peak, looking down below at the valley and city of 2 million. The hard part was over and the clock read 2:20, a meet 3 hours and 20 minutes from the time we started.

 Top of a mountain, in the clouds, wearing a Grateful Dead shirt: The Life

Top of a mountain, in the clouds, wearing a Grateful Dead shirt: The Life

 Everything below

Everything below

Savoring the view, we devoured a quick lunch that consisted of two baked potatoes and granola for me, dried apricots and croutons for Stefan. Ten minutes later we began our descent, two and a half hours to cut our friends' time in half. Recklessly, we decided to sacrifice the well-being of our joints and turned this descent into a bit of a jog. Several onlookers looked at us, wondering if we were insane while a few laughed and shouted cheers. Even some wild horses showed their support by running alongside us (although they may have just been after the food in our backpacks since one of them bit mine a few times).

 Be careful when descending

Be careful when descending

 This was meant to be a horse

This was meant to be a horse

One hour passed with only a couple of humorous yet painful falls. We were cruising past other climbers at such reckless pace, many chose to stop and stare. We could actually do it. Cutting their time in half was attainable. Time to focus and descend like a hawk. Another 30 minutes went by and the end was in sight. We we came upon the final path, victory seemed at hand. Bursting out of the woods, we saw it. Right at the place we began, the 4:30 bus sat, engine humming and ready to leave. We were about to do it! 5 hours and 30 minutes in total, just needed to secure a spot on the bus for confirmation. We sprang on just as the doors were closing, elated and ready to celebrate... but unfortunately the mood soon became sour.

As it turned out, the bus was so overly crowded, several security had to push people on in order to get the doors to close (sort of like the Tokyo metro). We were packed drugs on a mule. No room to move, no air conditioning, and (to my absolute horror) multiple screaming babies. There would be no celebration on the bus. Only suffering. We won the challenge were rewarded with a 30 minute rolling nightmare. 'I will be drinking tonight,' I thought to myself, 'but it's no longer because of the mountain.'

 The bus.

The bus.

Astana

Not yet visited

I'll start this by admitting that I never made it to Astana in my trip. Therefore, I am going to attempt to write this from a variety of second-hand accounts from people I spoke to. Is that cheating? Perhaps. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes.

So, to give a little background, Astana was not a city until the 1990s. Prior to it, Almaty was the capital and only a small village with a different name stood in it's place. BUT THEN, the government came into a ton of oil money and decided to construct a major city up out of nothing and make it the country's new capital, hence the name Astana (meaning 'capital' in Kazakh). From there, it has expanded into a bizarre, yet incredibly interesting futuristic metropolis that was described to me as a mix between Dubai and Las Vegas.

The best story I have about it comes from my friend Tristan who, after visiting me in Moscow, decided to take a 2 1/2 day train to Astana because he could. On the way, he met a Kazakh family who invited him to stay with them for the duration of his stay, which he did. Over that time, google translate was used for communication, horse milk was drank (or at least attempted to on Tristan's part), and friends were made.

I still need to contact Tristan directly and find out more details of the story, and when I do, this page will be much more full. But from what I gather, the city is so unique and absolutely worth seeing for yourself. Also, the hospitality Tristan, as a complete stranger who couldn't speak the language, received wasn't just unique to Astana. I found it pretty much everywhere I went, which made the trip such an incredible experience.

Mountains

July 2015

It was 5:00 in the morning and I had just stepped out of the airport in Almaty. Sleep deprived and disoriented, I stumbled forward, looking for some type of non-overpriced ride to take to my hostel. Off in the distance, the sun was just beginning to peer over the horizon, causing me to look up and squint my eyes. That's when I saw them for the first time.

Surrounding the city in every direction, mountains, taller than nearly any I had ever seen, proudly stood, piercing the blue sky above. Green at the base and snow-capped on top (despite it being July) they immediately seized my attention, yanking me from the delirious, sleep deprived state into a present alertness. It was at that point I knew how I was going to spend the majority of my time in this country. I was going to hike, climb, breath the fresh air, and hopefully not get caught in a thunderstorm.

During the week I spent, I ended up doing three major hikes around the city. Two of which involved taking a bus to an area named Medeu at the base of the mountains and climbing up, while the other was a hike to the highest point of the city called Kok Tobe (which can also be reached by cable car, but that's expensive and cheating). Each point allowed me to see the entire sprawling city and surrounding forests below, giving me some much needed relief from busy city life. 

Most of the peaks surrounding Almaty are between 3000m-4200m (10,000-13,500ft). This holds true for most of the southeastern part of the country near the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. The north and western parts of the country are mostly covered by the flat steppe. Technically, the tallest mountain is the Khan Tengri (however it is also partly in China and Kyrgyzstan) standing at 7000m (23,000ft), but most of the highest ones level off at 4,500m (15,000ft). Although snow remains on most of the tops for the entire year, the winter is really the only season suitable for skiing. The summer is more for climbs and treks, which you can make pretty extensive if you feel like it.

Marshrutka to Kyrgyzstan: My Story

The clock struck 10 just as I was stuffing the last bag of food into my backpack. After one exciting, adventurous week in Kazakhstan, it felt all too soon to say goodbye. But regardless, this was the reality of the situation and I was to journey over land across the border into my final country, Kyrgyzstan. My travel companions were two people I had met only a few days ago: Gautier, a tall French backpacker, and Stefan, a German guy who summitted a mountain with me just yesterday. Despite the time, it was already quite warm and sunny out, but thankfully, a soothing breeze provided some much needed comfort. All that was left to do was to wait for the taxi that our hostel owner, Shakir, had ordered. However... there was one problem. The taxi never came.

 Stefan and Gautier

Stefan and Gautier

After a 20 minute wait, Shakir called the cab service to ask what was going on. "Oh yeah, you guys," said a voice on the other end in Russian. "Our driver couldn't find your place, so he gave up. You're on your own." Initially Shakir, trying to be a good host by protecting his guests, flared with anger. However, he knew getting mad would do nothing to solve the problem, so quickly, his anger turned to determination. "Follow me," he confidently said.

 Shakir

Shakir

Curious to see what he meant, we obediently followed like dogs behind their owner. He walked out to the street and held up his thumb, and within two minutes, a middle aged man with short hair in a white sedan pulled over. Shakir asked if he could take the three of us to the bus station, and without any hesitation, the man agreed. We piled in. For the second time in my life, I was hitching a ride to catch a bus. First Ireland, no Kazakhstan. Since neither Stefan nor Gautier knew any Russian, I took the seat next to the driver. "Откудда вы?" (where are you from?) he asked while lighting a cigarette. I replied and his eyes lit up with excitement as neither French, Americans or Germans often travel to the country. He then stepped on the gas and we sped off into the distance.

The driver asked about my general impressions of Kazakhstan, wondered if it was similar at all to the States, while doing his best to teach me a few words in Kazakh. The whole ride took about 20 minutes and when it was over, he let us off at this station, crowded with cars, vans, and marshrutkas. "Рахмет"(Thank you) I replied with the one phrase in Kazakh that I remembered. Grabbing our bags, we exited the car, and were immediately faced with a another man in a sweaty gray shirt shouting "Bishkek! Bishkek!" Assuming he was the bus driver, we asked him the price, to which he replied, "2500 Tenge," (about $7). We agreed.

But as it turned out, this guy was not a bus driver. Nor did he even have a bus, just a minivan with three other people already inside. This seemed a bit odd, but since he was apparently the only one going to Bishkek, we got in anyway, assuming it was our only choice. Moments later, he put the key in the ignition, lit up a cigarette, and off we went. And by that, I mean we tore off into the distance like 1930s bank robbers trying to escape the police. Weaving in and out of traffic, on and off the road, we flew past any and everyone in our way, all the while outdated Russian glam-rock blared from the speakers. The cityscape that had once surrounded us quickly turned into open steppe as far as the eye could see.

 The Steppe

The Steppe

On we cruised, never relenting all the way to the border (a supposedly 3.5 hour trip that took us about 2). Now it was time to cross the border, but suddenly, something unexpected happened. As we got out of the car, our driver said, "Now I head back to Almaty. You need to find another ride on the other side." I looked back wide-eyed.

"What?!"

"Yeah, it should only be 200 som ($3) each to get to Bishkek."

I protested, saying it was not what we initially agreed upon, but it was to no avail. Still determined, we decided to cross the border and see what we could find on the other side. The whole ordeal was pretty simple even though, to Stefan's dismay, the border guard felt it necessary to make several World War II comments while laughing and shouting, "Deutschland! Nein! Nein Nein!" after seeing his German passport. None the less, we were through in under 20 minutes, only to be greeted by a group of excessively aggressive men shouting, "Taxi! Bishkek!" And by aggressive, I mean literally the most aggressive taxi drivers I've ever seen. The second they saw us, they swarmed down from every direction like a cluster of starving mosquitoes upon a group of sweaty fat men. We unsuccessfully tried to escape, but soon it became apparent that they were the only means of transportation. I turned to a large man and asked the price, to which he said, "500 ($7) som, total." We agreed and off to Bishkek we went.

 Our next driver

Our next driver

At first it all seemed simple. Our driver's heavy foot remained steadily down as we followed a single, not-so-well maintained road to the city. But then, we hit the city line and everything changed. The driver stopped, grumbling "Это Бишкек."(this is Bishkek) and motioned for us to get out. We all looked at each other, wondering if this guy was serious. Nothing stood around us, just a sign reading "Bishkek." We were still a good 10 minute drive from the center and our hostel. Stefan protested, "This is not Bishkek! Take us to the center, That's the agreement." But the driver refused, demanding more money. Damn, this guy was trying to grift us too.

"300 som."

"Absolutely not,"

"Get out."

We looked at each other then agreed among us, "Ok, first take us there, then we pay."

None of us knew the city at all, so instead of being dumped off in some random area, we decided to play this sly fool's game until we reached our destination. Granted, 300 som is just over $4, but it was the principle of it that mattered. However, just a few minutes later, we arrived, meaning it was time for the confrontation. The driver pulled the car over, and even before we had a chance to leave, he demanded we pay the extra money. Stefan quickly replied, "No" and got up to leave, but the guy wasn't having it. He began to shout louder, insisting we give him the extra 300. Shouts and retorts fired back and forth but finally we agreed upon 150 to finally get this guy off out backs. We were in Bishkek now. It was time for us to enjoy the city and see some mountains, not argue with sweaty cabbies.

Marshrutkka to Kyrgyzstan: Info

Info as of July 2017

 I admit, this marshrutka picture was taken in St. Petersburg, Russia

I admit, this marshrutka picture was taken in St. Petersburg, Russia

Following Kazakhstan, my plan was to head to it's smaller, mountainous neighbor to the south, Kyrgyzstan. While flying is possible, it is significantly cheaper to travel over land and if you're going from Almaty, as I did, the whole trip only takes about 5 hours. Here I'll give the details of how to do it and what to expect.

There is no train going from Almaty to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan's capital) so the only way to go by land is by shared taxi or (significantly more affordable) by a mini-bus type of vehicle called a marshrutka. Marshrutkas run continually all day from Almaty's bus station to Bishkek, and they usually leave whenever they fill up, so there is no concrete schedule. However, this is not really much of a problem at all since it usually takes just 30-45 maximum to get enough people.

Occasionally, the drivers will try to overcharge you, seeing that you are a foreigner, so if they do, refuse to pay unless they give you a fair price. This should be 2000-2500 tenge ($6-$8). If they say any more than that, the driver is trying to rip you off. Haggle them down, which will work 95% of the time, or just wait half an hour for the next ride. If you know a bit of Russian (or for some reason Kazakh), this can help a lot.

Once you head off, it is usually 3-4 hours from Almaty to the border (sometimes as short as 2 if the driver has a heavy foot). While it might be tempting to doze off or zone out listening to music, I urge to resist these distractions and take in the amazing views of the open steppe. From there, the border crossing is pretty easy, taking me and two friends just 20 minutes total. Keep in mind though, none of us needed visas for either country, which is the case if you're from North America and Europe, but if you do, the crossing may be a little more difficult.

Sometimes, as was the case with me, the marshrutka didn't cross the border (make sure to find this out before you initially get in). If this happens to you, you'll have to take a taxi from the Kyrgyzstan side, and if so, do not pay more than 500 som total, not each (about $7) to get to Bishkek. There will be tons of taxi drivers that will swarm you instantly, desperate for a passenger, so make sure 500 is agreed upon before you get into any cab. From there, it is pretty much an hour drive to Bishkek on semi-paved roads.