I've just got back from a trip to Kazakhstan. A friend is living out there so I thought, perfect opportunity! I have a confession. I knew nothing about the country when I booked my flights, and so spent the month reading up on its history, geography, culture and people. I learnt the cyrillic alphabet and memorised a few Kazakh words (one, two, three, Wednesday, second). I bought some snow boots, had a tricky hunt finding some Kazakh currency and packed my warmest thermals too. I really had no idea what to expect...the journey was long as it included an eight hour stop over in Turkey, which was great as I got to see some of the beautiful city of Istanbul, climb the historic Galata Tower and drink delicious freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
I was very pleased my friend came to met me at the airport when I arrived into Kazakhstan...bartering solo with a golden-toothed taxi driver at 9am would have been a tricky introduction to the rest of the week otherwise.
The city of Almaty where my friend is based is the ex-capital of Kazakhstan. Like every other prominent city, it has roads, cars, people and buildings. However unlike other cities I've been to to, this one was covered in deep deep coverings of snow. Really! It was snowing heavily too on the first day of exploration, and any parts of the body that weren't covered by copious amounts of layers turned pink and red and numb. Roads are wide, and the buildings on each side are vast, grey, and imposing. There are lots of sculptures and statues that adorn the open spaces, and people who are out and about are dressed in warm fur coats and hats. We found ourselves in a Muslim area where there was the most beautiful gold domed and blue tiled mosque and stopped off opposite for food discovering pumpkin and some kind of meat dumplings which were totally delicious. I ate horse. Horse! It was great. Vegetarianism seems like such a long time ago...
The next few days were filled with walking around and learning a few words of Russian as I discovered that although Kazakh is the recognised national language everyone speaks Russian. I like the people of Kazakhstan. They are tough nuts. Smile at them and they don't smile back. But persist in the smile (looking a bit loony) and they'll eventually reciprocate, and you feel a mini victory. I met two girls I had contacted online who kindly gave me some tips on what to do with my time, and decided to spend a few days outside of Almaty. Jumping on an overnight sleeper train that evening I woke up in Shymkent, the third largest city in the country.
I must take a moment to recognise the kindness of the Kazakhs I came into contact with during my trip. Inkar, a lovely girl who I shared a sleeper carriage with and who luckily for me (as it seemed to be rare in Kazakhstan) spoke English and translated between myself and the other two we shared the space with. Her journey was to visit her grandmother for some time, but upon arriving in the grey station of Shymkent she offered to show me some of the city. What better way to experience a place than with someone who knows it? A wander down the streets was followed by a visit to a beautiful Uzbekistan restaurant where colourful murals covered the walls and hot lamb and beef were served with piles of onions.
Later that day I paid 400Tenge (£3) for a 4 hour bus ride to the next stop, Turkistan, which is a mecca for Muslim pilgrimages and has a huge mosque to one side of the town. I was kindly taken out again to another wonderful Uzbek restaurant for some tea (green tea, lemon, sugar - give it a go it's sips of heaven) by Iskander, a local who I had got in touch with via a travellers website. Material draped from the ceiling and gold teapots and Russian cookers... it was dreamy beyond anything I've seen.
The next day I woke up to heavy snow, and made my way to the mosque. Imposing, beautiful, peaceful, colourful and respectful. The time of year keeps many away so I was free to wander around almost by myself.
I travelled by minibus back to Shymkent to get my sleeper train, and through hand signs and phone pictures got to know the Kazakh lady sitting next to me. Kindness and hospitality once again shone and I was invited back to her house for some food. There is really nothing greater than meeting kind strangers. Through the power of google translate I was able to communicate with Kulzhakhan and her son, Nursultan, and she laid out a delicious feast which included meat soup, different cheeses, halva and local bread. We also played universally understood drawing game you can see below. With my train departure time drawing close I was plied with foodie gifts including a bottle of Russian vodka to take with me and accompanied to the station. Absolutely overwhelming.
There is so much to write about Kazakhstan, and so many of the photos I took were on my phone camera as it was more discreet and sometimes it just didn't feel right getting out a larger camera. The people I met out there most definitely made my trip, and I hope to meet them again, as this amazing part of the world has absolutely piqued my interest!