It’s the number one country in the world for potassium and number two for prostitutes. The residents drink fermented horse urine. You can thank Borat for everything we know about Kazakhstan, which is nothing. The only things that Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film parody got right about the world’s 9th largest country, is it’s flag and place on the map. Even the Kazakhstan village scene in the movie was actually shot in Romania, and none of the locals had any idea what the film was about. The point is, unless you’re in the potassium business, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you visit Kazakhstan.
Although the country is huge, it’s population is less than that of New York City. Many travelers opt to visit Almaty, which is the hub of the country and a great base for visiting the other “Stans”. Almaty lies on the northern edge of the magnificent Tien Shan mountain range which creates a dramatic backdrop for the southern part of the city.
Your first impression walking around Almaty might be it’s cleanliness. There’s not a speck of trash anywhere and there’s troops of sweepers keeping everything dirt-less and sparkly. It’s pretty easy to get around with inexpensive buses and a one-line metro that’s easy to use. For everything else, Uber is a good option since you don’t have to speak Russian to get to where you’re going. Downloading a Russian alphabet app on your phone can be helpful to read signs. Many travel words are similar to English and you might be surprised at how many Russian words you already know. You’ll easily be able to figure out drink menus, restaurant signs and read metro stops (which are also in English) with just a few hours of practice.
Many travelers head for the Medeo recreation area about 15 minutes south of the city with its famous ice skating rink, hiking trails and ski resort. A ski resort was the last thing I expected to see in Kazakhstan , but once I took the gondola from Medeo to the snow covered mountain behind it, it made perfect sense. It’s mid-April and there is still quite a bit of snow, but it is so warm, I didn’t even need gloves. It was only $15 to rent skis, poles and boots, and my $10 gondola return ticket to the top of the mountain surprisingly included trips up the ski lifts. You’ll be hard-pressed to find skiing that cheap anywhere and you can take a couple of runs without feeling like you need to stay all day to get your money’s worth. The mountains are beautiful and I found them to be a little reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites. At the top of the mountain as you exit the gondola, there’s a photo op where you can slip on traditional native Kazakh hat and robe to pose with a giant live golden eagle. You get a printed photo and the experience for $6. What a deal! Plus you get to hold an eagle! Who gets to do that?
There’s lots of day trips that you can do from Almaty, but one of the best options is Sharyn Canyon. A cross between Canyon de Chelly and Gaudi, the natural rock formations in this walk-able canyon will astound you. It’s a long hard 3 hour drive to get there, but once you’ve descended to the floor, the 2 hour hike is magical. Some tour companies will extend the tour to a two day trip, including the alpine lakes Kolsai and Kaindy with your visit to the canyon. These beautiful lagoons are nestled high in the mountains and have unreal turquoise color that has to be seen to be believed.
Have you ever wanted to try horse meat? Well, look no further. The Kazakh traditional restaurants feature horse sausage, filets, and the most popular dish, beshbarmak, which is bits of equine flesh with small squares of pasta. It’s supposed to be eaten with the hands (the actual translation of beshbarmak is “five fingers”), but no one will take away your birthday if you use a fork or spoon. There’s entire sheep heads on some menus and lots of dishes with parts of animals that westerners might turn their nose up at. Sheep offal was too much for me, but the beef tongue salad with pickles was better than I expected. If you’re really daring, you can sample kumyss, fermented mare’s milk. It’s the most disgusting drink I can recall ever having in my mouth, but the locals love it and swear that it’s a cure all for many illnesses. It’s sour like lemon juice and yogurt mixed together with a bit of funkiness that I couldn’t identify. It’s definitely an acquired taste. In spite of the “different” options on the menu, most of the local cuisine is pretty tasty, and it’s not difficult to find something you’d eat at home.
Astana, in the north, is the country’s capital, and the showpiece city created by the president with a few impressive modern buildings and larger than life statues. Since the town is essentially artificially created, it gets less tourists and is slower paced than bustling Almaty. You can reach Astana by overnight train ( if you’re up for an adventure) or take a short flight from Almaty.
If you’re interested in visiting the neighboring country of Kyrgyzstan you can hop on a mini-bus or private taxi and be in the capital city Bishkek in about 4 hours. Neither Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan requires visas for US citizens, which makes these countries two of the the easiest places to visit in Central Asia. Both countries are becoming increasingly popular hiking destinations.
Kazakhstan might not be the first country on your list to visit, but you’ll be immediately impressed by its beauty and happy people. There are no direct flights from the US, but Turkish airlines offers great service and a stopover in Istanbul. Many European airlines also service Almaty since it’s the main hub for central Asia.
Most Kazakhs have never seen Borat, so don’t be surprised if they can’t (or won’t) sing along with words of the fake national anthem written by Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother:
“Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world
All other countries are run by little girls
Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium
All other countries have inferior potassium
Kazakhstan, home of Tinshein swimming pool
It’s length thirty meter, width six meter
Filtration system a marvel to behold
It remove 80% of human solid waste”
Rather than getting offended by the movie “Borat”, the Kazakh government seized it as a PR opportunity and created an international campaign correcting the movie’s mistakes and lauding it’s assets. Tourism increased tenfold after the movie screened, proving that “any publicity is good publicity!”
And just for the record, Kazakhstan is an oil country, not a potassium exporter.