By Wan Nadia Khairani Wan Chik
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- My heart leapt at the sight of the snow-covered mountains from the airplane window above Almaty, Kazakhstan.
I was enthralled as all my life I had wanted to feel the snow in my hands and despite it being May, I would still get the chance to do so.
The eight-hour flight from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) via Air Astana was in itself a treat. I was given the opportunity to travel via business class and enjoyed a spacious and highly comfortable seat. The food and beverage served were delicious and each seat was equipped with a touchscreen that displayed the array of entertainment programmes and video games at my disposal.
I was thoroughly entertained throughout the flight. The flight attendants were warm and friendly but this does not come as a surprise as Air Astana has been recognised by Skytrax as Central Asia’s best airline.
Upon arrival at the Almaty International Airport, a fellow journalist from Malaysia and I were greeted by two representatives of tourism company Global Air DMC. They gifted us with a bag of butter cookies decorated with the words “Visit Almaty” and two red apples. The apples were symbolic of the belief that the fruit were first grown in Kazakhstan. In fact, the word “Almaty” in Kazakh means “father of apples”.
A MULTITUDE OF ATTRACTIONS
Kazakh women are also known for their weaving skills.
--fotoBERNAMA (2019) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
We were then introduced to fellow journalists from Austria and Poland who would be joining the programme. Soon after, our Russian and Kazakh tour guides took the group on a cable car ride to Kok Tobe Hill.
At 1,100 metres above sea level, Kok Tobe which means “Green Hill” in Kazakh is the highest in the city. It provided for a breathtaking panoramic view of Almaty as well as some impressive background for selfies.
One of these spots is the “Beatles Bench”, where a sculptural composition of the Fab Four can be found. There is also a Ferris wheel, a jogging track, various picnic spots as well as restaurants and cafes.
Those visiting Almaty for the first time and are keen to try their popular drink “koumis” – made of fermented mare or camel’s milk – can head down to the Green Bazaar. Aside from fresh produce, the popular market is also a good place to buy souvenir.
The Kazakhs are fond of meat dishes.
--fotoBERNAMA (2019) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Other attractions in the city are Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, Republic Square and the Museum of National Musical Instruments. Perhaps the most unique structure in the city is the Ascension Cathedral, which is claimed to be the second tallest building in the world made entirely of wood, without nails.
Our second day in Almaty marked the beginning of a three-day expedition across 1,350km on a four-wheel drive.
The first destination is Valley of Castles, a two-kilometre canyon known for its unusual rock formations located at the Charyn National Park.
We were then brought to the Bestamak Canyon. Our tour guide Sergey Sakharov explained was named after Kazakhstan’s national dish Bestamak, which means ‘five fingers’.
“Legend has it that the king of Kazakhstan fell in love with a girl from the area and ordered her to prepare five dishes. The fifth dish, which uses ingredients like horse meat, onions and pastry, greatly pleased him. The dish was then named Bestamak,” he said.
The canyons, which featured colourful formations of varying shapes and sizes made for impressive visuals. After recording it, we were brought to Satty Village at the foot of the Kolsai National Park. I was so excited to see the traces of melted snow on the roads around the village. One of our tour guides, Gulden Ospanova, was clearly amused by my reaction.
“Tomorrow we will be visiting some lakes and we will see even more snow. I cannot wait to see your reaction then!” she laughed.
We then headed off for dinner which interestingly, took place in a yurt. As we enjoyed our food, we were entertained by a performance of traditional dancing and singing. It was a merry night as we sat around a bonfire and exchanged stories. We spent the night at a guest house at the foot of Tien-Shan Mountain.
The next day we visited Kolsai Lakes which comprised three lakes nestled among the hills of the Northern Tien Shan Mountains, some 300km from Almaty. The lakes were at 1,800m; 2,250m and 2,700m above sea level respectively.
Kolsai which means “the lake in the valley” in Kazakh, has also been dubbed “the Pearl of Northern Tien Shan”, perhaps owing to the clarity of the water in the lakes.
On arrival we found that there were still some remnants of winter left. I was thrilled for the chance to play with the melting snow and this amused Magdalena Meergraf, my fellow journalist from Austria.
“Congratulations! Let me take your photo, perhaps we can even feature it in our travelogue!” she joked as she aimed her camera lens towards me.
In the summer, visitors can rent a small boat to take across the lake. However, they would be required to wear a safety jacket as the lake was over 80 metres deep.
We then travelled to Lake Kaindy, about 12km away from Satty Village. The lake is located at 1,700m above sea level and travellers can choose one of two methods to get there –via four-wheel drive or horseback.
The lake was formed as the result of a major limestone landslide triggered by the Kebin earthquake in 1911. As it result, a natural dam was formed and filled by mountain river water, creating a “sunken forest” that can be viewed by scuba divers.
I was given the chance to ride on horseback for the first time as we explored the amazing landscape formations resulting from the shifting of tectonic plates over 150 years ago.
DESERT TO DESERT
We then continued on our journey and I noted how unique the landscape of Kazakhstan was. On the right side of the road were snow-covered mountains while on my left were steppes and deserts!
Our next destination was the Altyn Emel National Park. The 400 million-year-old Aktau White Mountains is one of the top tourist spots at the park and one that is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountains are made up of stones of varying colour and hue, cut by wind erosion.
The nearby Singing Dune, meanwhile, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The three-kilometre sandy hill with a height of 150 metres produces melodious sounds that can be heard from kilometres away.
“In dry weather and strong winds, you can hear a low sound from the sand dunes that resembles an organ playing or the humming of a plane engine. If you love a challenge, try climbing the dune to the top!” my Kazakh guide Arailym Akhmetova challenged me.
THE KAZAKH HUNS
Those curious about the life of the Huns of Kazakhstan can visit the Kazakh Huns Ethno Vilage, about 35km away from Almaty.
On arrival, we were greeted by two “warriors” on horseback wearing the Saka tribe costume. The Saka are a nomadic tribe who are expert horseback riders and used to ride across Iran, India and Central Asia for hundreds of years before the area was conquered by the Turks in the 4th century AD.
The village was akin to a live museum where visitors can feel, interact and try several types of activities. My friends and I had the chance try archery, horseback riding, drinking koumis
and cooking zhent
– a traditional Kazakh dessert.
We were also served boiled sheep head, a traditional dish meant for the most honoured guests. In the Kazakh culture, the honored guests would then divide the head among other guests and family members. The ears are given to the youngest child in a family in the hope that they would become more willing to listen to the advice of the elders, while the eyes are given to the two closest friends. The sheep’s palate is given to the daughter-in-law while the tongue is given to the daughter of the host so that they would both guard their speech.
Kazakhstan is also known for the saker falcon and golden eagle. We were brought to the Falcon Nursery Farm to see the endangered species that were protected for a spell before being released.
The five days we spent there were indeed not nearly enough to explore the uniqueness of Kazakhstan’s landscape and culture. The country is home to 130 ethnic groups owing to its geographical location which is bordering Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
If you are keen on ecotourism and learning different cultures, it would be a good idea to fly Air Astana and experience for yourself the uniqueness of a holiday in Almaty!
Translated by Sakina Mohamed