Kazakhstan

A unique holiday destination

Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth largest overall, yet it’s home to just 17 million people. It shares its borders with Russia to the north, China to the west, and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the south. It’s where apples and garlic originated and it’s home to some of the world’s rarest tulips; wildlife includes red bears, snow leopards and a wide variety of bird life including golden eagles, flamingos and falcons. It’s a twitcher’s paradise.

Astana, KazakhstanThe two major cities in Kazakhstan are traditional Almaty, the former capital, and brand-new Astana the current capital, and these two cities were on my itinerary. Visa requirements for British visitors have been waived until the end of 2017 for stays of less than 15 days.

I used Holiday Extras’ valet parking service at Heathrow Terminal 4 and checked in with Air Astana, the national carrier. It’s the only airline offering direct flights to Astana, from where I had a connection for the ninety minute flight to Almaty; my luggage was booked through. The four-star airline has won the title ‘Best Airline in Central Asia and India’ for five consecutive years and ‘The Best Airline Staff Service in Central Asia/India’ for the last four years. As you can imagine, the onboard service was excellent.

Economy sleeper seatUniquely on flights from Heathrow, the airline offers economy sleeper seats. Passengers have three economy seats to themselves and a comprehensive toiletries pack. A mattress is laid across the seats which is topped with a duvet; a pillow completes the set-up. It’s a great concept and ideal for people wanting to sleep but whose budget doesn’t stretch to the sleeper seats in business class.

Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR in 1991 and Almaty was the capital until 1997. It is the most developed city in the country and has numerous restaurants and hotels. Although the population is over 70% Muslim there is no sign of what we are told is mandatory religious clothing. Modern Western or Russian clothes are the norm.

I stayed at the Holiday Inn and ate lunches and dinners at a variety of restaurants along with other visitors. The food was good but the service a little haphazard. Customers were served when their food was ready, regardless of others at the table. English menus are not that plentiful but most have pictures of the dishes so you can see what you are ordering.

Kazakh and Russian have been the two official languages for many years but English is now also compulsory in schools although it will take a little time for this to work through the system. The local currency, the Tenge (KZT), has suffered a devaluation so prices are inexpensive by UK standards. Many places also accept US dollars and, of course, plastic.

Zenkov CathedralNext day I joined a guided tour and visited Panfilov Park, home to the magnificent Russian Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral, probably the only wooden cathedral in the world. It was traditionally built using just a few nails. The interior is just as impressive as the exterior; it’s an oasis of calm with the gentle chanting of a priest and magnificent painted screens. The park itself is a memorial to soldiers lost in the two world wars.

Almaty is close to a mountain range and narrowly lost out to Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Medeo dam was built to protect the city from major mud slides and next to it sits the Medeo skating rink, at over 5,500ft above sea level it’s the world’s highest. The conditions are so good that around 200 world records have been broken here. The surrounding hills make it a winter sun trap and the temperature can reach fifteen degrees. Our guide tells us that girls skate in bikinis and it’s where many boys meet their future wives. Shymbulak ski centreThe main ski centre, Shymbulak is reached from here by cable car, and another two take skiers to the top of the runs at 10,500ft. Shymbulak’s guest list includes Prince Harry, and it’s up there with what Europe has to offer.

Next day it’s back to the airport for a flight from the old capital to the new. Astana, my second destination is, like Brasilia and Canberra, a purpose-built capital city. Architect Norman Foster is responsible for some of its amazing structures which include the Khan Shatyr shopping mall whose design can only be described as a drunken cone. Khan Shatyr shopping mallThere are three levels of shops, mostly familiar brands, but on the fourth floor is the indoor Sky Beach Club, complete with sandy beach and sunbeds.

Norman Foster also designed the pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Because the temperature in Astana ranges from 30 degrees in summer to minus 40 degrees in winter, two sides of the pyramid had to be on roller bearings to allow for contraction and expansion.

I saw other amazing buildings such as the presidential palace, a cross between the White House and a mosque, Baiterek, which looked like a 300ft high football trophy, an art gallery that looked like a huge doggy bowl and the opera house built in the style of a Roman temple. Concert HallThe country is rich in mineral deposits and the ultra-modern museum has a Gold Room with many amazing items in perfect condition, including Golden Man, a find dating back to 4th and 5th centuries BC and including more than four thousand gold artefacts.

I was reluctant to leave this fascinating country, convinced there was so much more to see. Kazakhstan is an ideal destination for people looking for somewhere unique to visit, a great alternative destination for winter sports and with two very contrasting cities to explore.

More information

Air Astana offers return flights between Heathrow and Astana from £492 year-round. Air Astana Holidays can add transfers and hotel accommodation to make up a complete package. For example three nights in Almaty and three in Astana with all flights, transfers and hotels on a B&B basis costs from just £729 per passenger. This includes city tours of Almaty and Astana and a seasonal bonus, such as a visit to the Arasan Baths in Almaty or a day skiing at Shymbulak. Optional extras include Trekking, Mountain Biking and Golf . Go to airastana.com or contact the London office on 020 7333 0196, Mon-Fri, 0900-1730.

Holiday Extras offers trusted Meet and Greet services at all major UK airports. To book Meet and Greet parking at Heathrow Airport from £79.99 for eight days, visit Holiday Extras or call 0800 083 8746 quoting WJ791.

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Mike Pickup

Award-winning travel writer & photographer

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