Comedy might well be on the tip of the tongue when it comes to Kazakhstan. But for those in the know, it’s a world away from the tongue-in-cheek travel destination touted by Borat.
Almaty residents, Elisabeth and Isabelle, delicately strutted along many a buzzing city before parking their creative selves in Kazakhstan’s second (and previous capital) city. They’re fond of the country’s proud and ambitious new capital, Astana too. But with the country’s politics moved to an ambitious new futuristic capital, cosmopolitan Almaty has been left the undeniable party playground. That’s not to say you can’t get sushi, champagne and designer clothing alongside the politics. It’s all on offer in these great cities, as Elisabeth and Isabelle rightly know…
What’s special about these Kazakhstan cities?
Almaty: an interesting mix of Europe, Asia and Russia coupled with a well-developed restaurant, cafe and night-life scene. The fabulous mountain setting (part of the great Tien Shan Range) makes exploring the beautiful natural surroundings a must.
Astana: a staggering monument to the vision and ambition of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. It has only been the capital since 1997 and most construction has taken place in the few short years since.
The fast-developing cafe culture in both cities is a really exciting trend, catering to all strata of Almaty society, from teenagers to glamorous young women and businessmen.
Karaoke has also taken off in a major way with new, dedicated venues and existing clubs and bars rushing to add it to their programmes. Kazakhstanis tend to be rather good vocalists, so these are not the places for drunkenly warbling along to the Beatles!
What would you do to feel truly at the city’s heart?
Almaty: head to the Green Market – a truly Central Asian and seemingly unbroken link back to the days of trading along the Silk Road. In a city that can be pretty flashy in parts, this is a nicely grounding experience.
Astana: visit Norman Foster’s Khan Shatyr, a fanciful, plastic-skinned yurt that glows by night and houses myriad Western stores and an indoor beach made from imported Maldivian sand. It perfectly encapsulates Astana’s relentless futuristic, anything’s-possible mentality.
Where would you go to feel hedonistic?
Astana: head to one of the glitzy nightspots to nibble sushi, drink imported champagne (and vodka by the gram) and party with the Astana elite. Many clubs also host elaborate theme nights for the truly decadent.
Where are you favourite places to eat, drink, shop and stay?
Shop: the regular craft fairs attract artisans from all over the region and are perfect for picking up beautiful and memorable souvenirs.
Stay: the WorldHotel Saltanat is a beautiful, modern new hotel in a central location; and the Tien Shan Samal Resort, whilst a little way out of town, has an impressive spa and is set right at the foot of the mountains.
Eat: Cafestar is super glam and the food is pretty delicious too. If you’d prefer to taste local fare, head to the yurt shaped restaurant Fahri, which serves all the local delicacies in a charming and atmospheric setting too.
Drink: Kyoto Bar may be housed in a shopping centre but is a stylish oasis offering suitably chic refreshments. And sister bar Barhat is a sexy subterranean hotspot that’s the perfect launchpad for a night of serious dancing at Chocolate Room club next door.
Shop: it’s got to be the Khan Shatyr!
Stay: the Radisson attracts scores of business travellers and is smart, efficient and very well-appointed; but for a more personal experience the tiny Prestige Hotel is well-priced and cosy with charming staff.
Where would you spend an hour?
Almaty: walking around the ‘Golden Square‘ area of the old city taking in the statues of Almaty notables, pretty fountains tinkling away in summer and plaques on buildings detailing the great and good who resided there under the Soviet Union. Then on past the Opera into one of the area’s many cafes.
Astana: The indoor jungle, art galleries and 1500 seat opera house provide something for everyone. But for some background, and equally for foresight into what the future holds for Astana, head to Norman Foster’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. A guided tour is obligatory but truly eye-opening.
Where would you spend a day?
Almaty: A trip to Almaty is not complete without an excursion to the mountains. Within half an hour you’re at the famous Shymbulak ski resort, which is a perfect start point. Even if it’s not ski season you can get lost in the luscious mountain meadows and cool off by small rivers created by the melting glaciers.
Astana: You can explore much of Astana in a day and it’s well worth it, purely for uniqueness. The old city, also known as the Right Bank, is worth a stroll. Follow this by wandering through to the futuristic, contrasting Left Bank, which houses many government buildings and shopping centres. Between the two take in the River Ishim and the nice park running along it.
Five top tips
1. Both cities are subject to extremes of temperature during the summer and winter and are therefore best enjoyed during the mild spring and autumn seasons.
2. Visitors should be sure to try the delicious local Central Asian food at restaurants Zheti Kazyna in Almaty, Fahri in Astana and Alasha in both cities. On a less high-end note, the canteen-like chain Kaganat (branches all over Almaty) is great for midnight munchies.
3. The novelty of being able to ski or board just half an hour from the centre of Almaty and the surprisingly good facilities post-2011 Asian Winter Games mean that skiing at Shymbulak should definitely be on the to-do list of active sorts.
4. Both Almaty and Astana are now home to an ever-increasing number of glamorous restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. However, there is a real charm to the more dated establishments in the cities. From Almaty’s Green Bazaar to Astana’s Cathedral of Saints Konstantin and Elena, don’t miss out on the cultural insight to a very interesting past.
5. If you have the chance, explore the cities’ surroundings. Within a few hours of both cities, you can find stunning natural parks, which remain untouched by tourists and give an enchanting insight into rural, and arguably the real, Kazakhstan.