We travelled from the new capital Astana to the former capital Almaty by train for 24h - from the north to the south of Kazakhstan. In the south we went for a road trip to some beautiful places and found out that the country has a lot to offer - if you can go there. With mixed feelings and an early cancellation we experienced our road trip and the south of Kazakhstan.
In this blogpost you will find out if we liked Almaty and why our tour through the south of this country was an odyssey for us.
From Astana to Almaty by train
After a long train ride to Almaty we arrived groggy but with high expectations because we heard a lot of good things about the city. The train ride was interesting and not what we expected. We are already experienced with long train rides because we travelled through India by train for 48 hours non-stop before. But here in Kazakhstan the train drive works a little bit different.
First thing was that really nobody in the train spoke English. There was one guy who could understand a little bit but even with his help it was hard to communicate with the people. Our Russian language skills aren’t very developed as well – so we had just very poor communication with others in the train.
Second: In India we brought a lot of food with us and shared with our travel companions in our cabin. Here the people weren’t very used to that and it was a really strange atmosphere sometimes.
But the most strange thing was that we couldn’t sit during the day at the lower seats. In India for example the upper seats have been folded down during the day so all four people could sit in the cabin - sometimes we were even more than four people because Indian people loved to talk with us during the long ride. But at our train ride to Almaty we were told not to sit down and to stay in our upper seats which means that we couldn’t sit at all. Only lay down the whole time because for sitting the space wasn’t high enough. You can image that this wasn’t the most comfy way to travel for 24 hours. But we made the best of it: we heard audio (thank you audible à LINK) books or music, read or slept a lot. All things considered were we irritated by this behavior.
THR FORMER CAPITAL ALMATY
And the strange things continued in Almaty. Even if the city is beautiful located in a mountainous area of southern Kazakhstan in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau we couldn’t get a feeling to the city. Not that the city isn’t nice but we couldn’t connect to it. Almaty continues to be the major commercial and cultural centre of Kazakhstan. Many people think that Almaty is the more beautiful city, we actually aren’t sure about that. We have been to the Green Market which was quite nice and funny. We got really delicious sweets with our coffee which the waiters extra bought for us because we wanted to have something as a side dish. And we visited the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen which is the major park in Almaty. The atmosphere here was peaceful and we observed a few amazing inline skaters who did a lot of great acrobatic stunts. Unfortunately the very beautiful Ascension Cathedral was under construction and we couldn’t get a glimpse of it. In the evening we also found a really nice “restobar” called “Igog” which opened just a few days before. We both got a glass wine for free and enjoyed the modern food. So, in total we cannot tell you why we missed the vibe in Almaty. Maybe we went there with too many expectations?
The road trip through South Kazakhstan - a odyssey begins
We already mentioned that we saved some “Dedication Money” for our world trip. And after a few days in Almaty with a lot of work and not the best mood, we decided to spend our first dedication money for a guided 6 days tour through southern Kazakhstan. Sounds amazing, right? So we found a young guide who wanted to drive us by himself to locations like Sharyn Canyon, Kolsai Lake, Kaindy Lake, Singing Dunes and of course the little things in between. We informed him beforehand that it’s important for us that he will come in the offered 4x4 because we have our “flybee” with us and want to go offroad for great locations. He seemed to be amazed by the idea and we agreed that he would pick us up three days later at 9am.
3 days later he arrived at 8am which surprised us in a way but we hurried up to get ready earlier. When we got out of our Airbnb we realized that he brought a driver with him (which wasn’t part of the deal). He told us that he lost his driver license recently and his uncle who seemed unhappy and grumpy will drive us. Ok, we thought - let’s go, we can deal with that.
After we drove out of the city we realized that the car wasn’t a 4x4. The guide told us that it wouldn’t be a problem for this car to drive us to the promised and agreed locations we want to see. We discussed a little bit on that and pointed out again that it’s an important thing for us to go off the beaten path sometimes to find great locations for drone pictures. He insured us that this wouldn’t be a problem. Ok, we thought - let’s go, we can deal with that.
During the drive to our first stop we asked him what kind of equipment he had brought for the six days and nights. He told us that the brought a new tent and took care of everything. We agreed on that he will tell us when we can buy food during our drive to cook at night. We stopped at a marketplace and our guide brought just a watermelon and ensured us that there will be a place to eat at the canyon. We managed to buy some vegetables and snacks as well. Ok, we thought - let’s go, we can deal with that.
We arrived at Charyn Canyon at noon which was very sunny and hot. We ate the watermelon and then we went for a walk at the upper part of the canyon. The colors were beautiful and we were amazed by the view. Even if the place wasn’t very peaceful because it was busy by tourists like us we liked it pretty much. After the walk our guide told us that we now will find a place to camp and set up our tent. When we asked him how long the walk to the camping side will be, he said it will be just down to the canyon and we can bring all baggage with us. In our case that means around 40 kilogram. Ok, we thought – let’s go, we can deal with that.
When we arrived at the lower part of the canyon our guide went straight ahead without telling us where to go. So we followed him and after 1,5km with our big backpacks (we told him that we don’t want to hike with these and if it comes to hiking we would repack things and just pack one bag for the night) we were very irritated and annoyed and of course exhausted in a way. After 3km with all our stuff on our backs and three extra plastic bags he handed to us we had enough and we got into our first discussion with him. After complaining he told us that the driver was already gone and we were in the middle of the canyon… However we managed to arrive at the camping side with eco bungalows and yurts. Here we saw that it would have been a possibility to drive here. So we wondered why the driver haven’t drove our stuff in and we could have hiked in a more relaxed way. The guide didn’t answered us this question. So we had to deal with that. Not OK we thought – that is not what we wanted for our trip.
The camping side is nicely located at a river where you can swim. Finally and we could relax a little bit. After that we recognized that our guide just had one tent for two people, one mattress and two blankets with him and nothing more. And when I say that I mean it literally: no sleeping bags, no cooker, no food, no water – NOTHING! When we asked him why he brought nothing with him, he just told us that he is new in business and had to learn everything and beside that there is a restaurant in the eco village. In the end we ate there – the stuff is unfriendly and the quality of the food poor. So we were very unhappy with the situation. The only thing which was really nice that night were the friendly travelers we met and the many shootings stars we saw. We had our biggest WOW moment in the night - a shooting star which so huge, that everybody had the chance to see it.
The first night was terrible. The tent had a really bad quality and it was so cold the night that we barely slept. Furthermore it was super tight with three people in the tent (because our guide slept in the tent, too) and every move woke you up again when you finally were asleep. Not OK we thought – that is not what we wanted for our trip.
The second day started with a nice sun rise in a beautiful surrounding. We weren’t very happy but the nature reconciled us a little bit. The travelers from the night before offered us some crackers and we still had some vegetables from the day before. We shared everything and we could organize a guy who drove the baggage for us through the canyon. So we could hike relaxed and that was really a good thing. Ok we thought – we could deal with that.
The driver was already waiting for us and we headed to the next stay, the Kolsai Lake. During the ride we tried to explain to our guide that we need at least some food for the night. He told us that there will be a possibility to eat at the Kolsai Lake. Unfortunately we believed him…
Arriving at the Kolsai Lake we were really amazed by its beautiful surrounding. The water was ocean blue and the trees so green that we really thought everything would be better this time. Then the next discussion began because our driver wanted to leave again to visit his relatives. But we wanted to walk around the lake at first and then to set up the tent. But of course we didn’t want to hike with all belongings again. The driver went angry because he had to wait and the atmosphere dropped totally after we explained that we expected that from him.
After a nice and peaceful walk which calmed us down again we ate our last veggies and snacks and wanted to set up the tent. When we arrived at the camping side there was a really strange smell everywhere and the campground was dirty. And we didn’t want to explain the toilet situation there – it was disgusting. But did we have another choice? Without a driver we couldn’t leave the lake so we were stocked - not OK we thought – that is not we wanted for our trip.
After we set up everything our guide told us that there is no place where we can eat because it’s not open. But during our walk he went with the driver for dinner and brought us five tomatoes and crackers. That should be enough for the night. Not OK we thought – that is not we wanted for our trip.
But the point where we already explode and went into a real fight with our guide was when he explained to us that we couldn’t drive to the Kaindy Lake. He told us that it’s not possible to drive there because the streets are under construction. Later we found out that it wasn’t possible to drive there because the driver was too peaky about his car for the ride. In this moment we couldn’t believe it and decided to cancel the whole trip. Our guide went away and wasn’t seen till the next morning.
Here we want to say a big THANK YOU to our lifesaver that night. Luckily a group of Russians set up next to us with full equipment. They noticed our situation and invited us for dinner and tea. With them we had a nice campfire and Russian music which was like balsam for our souls. This is how our odyssey ends. The first time on our world trip we were super disappointed and very sad about the whole situation. We paid way more than we normally did for something and got way, way less than we expected and agreed on. Super disappointing and definitely not what we wanted for our trip!
Back in Almaty
Back in Almaty we had the luck that we found a nice Airbnb to stay and to licking our wounds. After the disaster with the tour we decided that this shouldn’t be our first expanse from our dedication money and we skipped it. We also were super desperate about good food or at least enough food. That’s why we went out for some restaurants and tried a few things out. Our recommendations for Almaty are:
- Paradise: We found this nice restaurant by accident. There is an outside and inside area where you can find a cozy place to sit down. The staff is friendly and is trying everything to understand you right. It has a great selection and the food is good. Best thing however are the juices. Be aware that there is no offer of alcohol.
- Diviani: This nice restaurant offers a delicious selection of good food and a cozy atmosphere. You will find a lot of local people here as well who are celebrating life. The menu isn’t in English but you can choose by the photos of the food.
- Nominad: This restaurant is nice and the staff very friendly and obliging. The selection of food and wine is great and in a more western style which makes it more expensive. Nice thing is that the menu is in English so it is super easy to order.
- Igog: This new restobar near the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen is a nice place where you can sit inside and outside. The interior is new and modern, you will find rooms where you can smoke and non-smoking ones. The food is expensive but really good. Here we had the best wine in Kazakhstan.
Big Almaty Lake
Last and maybe best thing to do in Almaty is to go out of the city and visit the big Almaty Lake. The landscape of the Lake is beautiful and the water color is amazing. Be aware that this place is popular and busy. There is just one way (you can do it by bus) and everybody takes off on one place. It looks more idyllic than it really is but you can make the best of it. Don’t forget your sunglasses and sun protection.
Almaty and South Kazakhstan in a Nutshell
Kazakhstan has plenty to offer. The south has wonderful landscapes and sceneries. If you don’t go there by yourself make sure that your driver or guide understand what you want and need. If you are uncertain something like our experience could become yours as well - but maybe also not, we really had bad luck with the whole situation. No camping equipment, no real outdoor car, no real food, no real understanding. Our guide was a really friendly young man but he did not get what we wanted and needed - at all! Almaty is a city where you can spend a few days. But we recommend to stay there only for the transition to another destination because it has not so much to offer - at least that is our experience.