The Central Asian country of Kazakhstan shot to fame for all the wrong reasons when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat hit cinema screens all over the world, but as anyone who has visited will tell you, as amusing as the character may have been, to say he didn’t do the country justice would be something of an understatement. Here are ten of many, many awesome things to do and see, from skating mountainous ice rinks to snapping extraordinary architecture.
1. Medeo High-Mountain Skating Rink
There’s always something magical about ice skating outdoors, but ice skating in the mountains takes it to a whole new level. Located 1,700 metres above sea level, the Medeo High-Mountain Skating Rink is the highest in the world. The ice rink, which is found near Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, used to be a training centre for Soviet Union Olympic skaters, and still holds some exciting winter sport events.
2. Kolsai Lakes
Whilst you’re in the Almaty area it would be worth taking in the scenery of the Kolsai Lakes. The scenery is not too different from the lakes of Alaska, with snow-capped mountains reflecting in the clear blue water, contrasting with the bright green vegetation. Channel your inner Bear Grylls by following hiking trails and sleeping in yurts, and if you don’t think you have the fitness capability for a day’s hike, then you can explore the trails on horseback. You can make a whole weekend of it by staying in basic lodges – but unless you want to be living off questionable berries, try to bring your own food, or enjoy local food at the nearby guest houses.
3. Zenkov Cathedral
The century-old Zenkov Cathedral is an architectural wonder. Made without using a single nail, this brightly coloured wooden building can be found, without too much difficulty, in Panfilov Park in Almaty. The interior of the building also has some intriguing art and furnishings, so if you’re a history/culture buff, this will make the perfect day out. This Russian Orthodox Cathedral is open to the public but, as with any religious buildings, make sure to dress appropriately – no mankinis here please…
4. The Green Bazaar
Grab your purse and leave your breakfast at the hotel whilst you take in the scents, sounds and tastes of the Kazakh food and lifestyle in its most famous market. Here you can see plenty of fresh produce, haggle with the locals and enjoy the market’s atmosphere.
5. The Central State Museum
Built in 1985, the Central State Museum is the largest in Central Asia. Not only that, but this is also the only museum in Central Asia to exhibit anthropology, alongside ethnography and history. You may need to put an entire day aside to take your time wondering around this huge museum, especially if you’re one of the rare few who read every artefact description. The building itself is pretty amazing too: with a huge blue dome and open planned flooring, it’s easy to get lost.
6. Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre
This 500 ft. high tent is based in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. The unique construction is something that every backpacker with a flexible budget should check out. This standout piece of architecture is home to a shopping and entertainment centre, an internal park, boating river, mini golf, and an indoor pool and beach – with sand flown over from the Maldives. Kazakhstan really doesn’t do things by halves. There are also plenty of events held here, so keep an eye out for anything exciting happening on your visit.
7. Bayaterek Tower
Yet another astounding building that cannot be missed in Astana is the Bayterek Tower. Shaped like a tree holding an egg, this building is 97 metres high to represent the year that Astana became to capital of Kazakhstan – that’s 1997, if you didn’t get that. Travellers and locals can take advantage of this height by visiting the observation deck to view the entire city. What’s a capital city without a great height to see it from?
8. Chimbulak Ski Resort
Back to the rural landscapes of Almaty, adventurous backpackers should take advantage of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains. You can take the gondola lifts to the height of the mountains and depending on what season you’re visiting, you can either ski or hike down. The ski season usually runs from Dec – April, and offers a range of slopes for both the wobbly skiier and the wannabe pro. These mountains are open all summer, when they become the perfect place for enthusiastic hikers.
9. Charyn Canyon
Known as the Grand Canyon’s ‘Little Brother’, the Charyn Canyon is the second largest in the world. There are lots of different ways for gappers to explore the orange rock formations, whether you want to get up close or take in the view at a safe distance. Visitors can choose to hike the trails, or join a coach/minibus tour, or hire a care and a private driver to give you a guided tour without the waiting around or strict time schedule.
10. Bayanaul National Park
With such a vast landscape, Kazakhstan has more national parks than you can shake a DSLR at. The parks are home to mountain ranges and lakes, but the most popular amongst the locals is the Bayanaul National Park. Home to four fresh water lakes, this land was named Kazakhstan’s first national park in 1985. The most popular spot for swimmers is the Jaysby Lake. Offering clean, clear water and a sandbank to dry off, you might have to get there early to secure a towel-sized space on the shore. But, if it is too busy or you’re not a swimming enthusiast, you can go to Toraygir Lake for fishing, try rock climbing or mountain biking through the hills, speak to locals in the nearby villages, or wonder at a phallic shaped rock. Yep. It’s called “Masculine Dignity”.