Almaty, Kazakhstan

The train from Tashkent felt like a familiar journey following several trips on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railways a couple of years earlier. After pulling away from the station in Tashkent, we almost immediately reach the Uzbek/Kazakh border and have to go through passport control. The train sits for over an hour as passports are collected, bags are searched an forms are checked.

The Uzbek/Kazakh train was a modern one, far better than the trains that took me south from Tashkent to Samarkand and on to Bukhara, and nicer than the Russian and Mongolian trains from those long trips. I was in a kupe (second class) at the end of the carriage which only had two berths, me on the top bunk and an Uzbek woman on the bottom bunk. It was a £50 ticket which seemed fair given it was a long journey and provided accommodation for the evening.

I love these long train journeys. There’s no Internet and no TV which means either switching off or socialising. There wasn’t much chat in the kupe so I read and snoozed my way through the evening.

The next morning I woke as the sun was coming up. Outside the landscape whizzes by, and it’s pretty barren at this point. Occasionally a house or two pops up in the middle of nowhere but aside from that it’s endless plains of southern Kazakhstan.

The train arrived into Almaty 2 station on time at 9.31am to a beautiful morning with blue sky and sunshine. At least I thought it was beautiful but given everyone else seemed to be fairly well wrapped up, it may have been cold by local standards.

Almaty is a spread-out city but one that’s fairly easy to navigate. The Trans-Ili Alatau mountains tower over the town to the south so it’s easy to know in which direction you’re travelling, and on a clear day the mountains make for a stunning backdrop.

The streets are tree-lined, with plenty of wide-open avenues busy with traffic and pedestrians, a good amount of green space and a few parks around. My first plan for the morning, after checking in to my accommodation, was a wander to find some shops for a few essentials. I had packed my bag for the desert heat of Uzbekistan, and I didn’t have much for the mountains of Kazakhstan, so a couple of warm pieces of clothing were needed.

Compared to Uzbekistan, Almaty has far more Western feel to it. It had more restaurants dotted around, a good few bars (Kraftwerk was the only pub I visited in Almaty, and had a great selection of beers). There are some familiar names, even familiar products in the shops, along with modern shopping centres, plenty of coffee shops with free Internet to pass the time. I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about this if I had travelled into Almaty from home, but having spent time in Bukhara and Samarkand, Almaty had an entirely different and more familiar feel to it.

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In the short time I had in Almaty, I didn’t spend a great deal of time in the city after day one, and early the following morning I headed south.

Big Almaty Lake is a relatively popular and absolutely stunning mountain spot around an hour south of the city. It’s a beautiful alpine lake which almost glows regardless of the weather, with a mountain backdrop to finish off the view.

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I hiked around five miles through forest to get there. Despite the recent nice weather, there was still plenty of snow lying around, especially at this altitude, which set the scene nicely, eventually coming to a clearing overlooking the lake.

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The view from this spot is about as close as it’s safe to get. The perimeter of the lake is patrolled by the Kazakh authorities and it appears to be common mistake, especially from foreigners, to venture lake side and end up being threatened with arrest. Having some cash on-hand for a bribe will be the easiest way out of a potentially unpleasant situation. There is a road passing this side of the lake, heading south towards the Kyrgyzstan border, and given the border is only around five miles away, expect to be questioned if you’re seen anywhere near here without “papers”.

I continued around the lake to the north side which is closer to a road and the most popular stop-off point. Not stopping here for long, I continued the road further up the mountains, gaining altitude quickly and getting a few great views of the lake.

There’s a checkpoint further up this hill which looks to be fairly random and is guarded by a lone chap who looked entirely bored. A packet of cigarettes was all he wanted, and I continued onwards.

Not speaking Russian or Kazakh to know exactly why the checkpoint was there, it’s evident further up the hill where there is an abandoned Soviet research facility, also fairly close ot the Kyrgyzstan border, some of which has been repurposed as an observatory. The view, however, is incredible.

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At this point, 11,000ft up, there was a strong, chilling wind, which meant enjoying the view was a bit of a challenge in itself. But entirely worth it.

I caught this area almost perfectly. In harsher weather, much of the area around the lake and higher up the mountains would be dangerous or completely inaccessible, but with snow-capped peaks and easily traversable paths, it was pretty much spot on. A bit more blue sky would have topped it off.

With scenery like this, there isn’t really much reason to stay in the city itself. I made my way back to Almaty with a few stops for the views, and to see some birds of prey at a falcon sanctuary before settling down for the evening.

The next day was to be a longer trip and an even earlier start.

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