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Visiting Kazakhstan Was a Pleasant Surprise

Borat got this country all wrong.

By Bill Wiatrak May 9, 2018

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The Assy Plateau in Kazakhstan.

It’s the no. 1 country in the world for potassium, number two for prostitutes, and the residents drink fermented horse urine? No, but you can thank Borat for everything we know about Kazakhstan, which is nothing.

The only things that Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film parody got right about the world’s ninth largest country are its flag and its place on the map. Even the Kazakhstan village scene in the movie was actually shot in Romania, and none of the locals had any idea what the film was about. The point is, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you visit Kazakhstan. 

Although the country is huge, its population is less than that of New York City. Many travelers opt to visit Almaty, which is the hub of the country and a great base for visiting the other "Stans."

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

Almaty lies on the northern edge of the magnificent Tien Shan mountain range which creates a dramatic backdrop for the southern part of the city. 

Your first impression walking around Almaty might be its cleanliness. There’s not a speck of trash anywhere and there are troops of sweepers keeping everything dirt-free and sparkly. It’s pretty easy to get around with inexpensive buses and a one-line metro that’s easy to use. For everything else, Uber is a good option since you don’t have to speak Russian to get to where you’re going.

Downloading a Russian alphabet app on your phone can be helpful to read signs. Many travel words are similar to English and you might be surprised at how many Russian words you already know. You’ll easily be able to figure out drink menus, restaurant signs and metro stops (which are also in English) with just a few hours of practice.

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The Shymbulak Ski Resort in Almaty.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

Many travelers head for the Medeo recreation area about 15 minutes south of the city with its famous ice skating rink, hiking trails and Shymbulak Ski Resort. A ski resort was the last thing I expected to see in Kazakhstan , but once I took the gondola from Medeo to the snow-covered mountain behind it, it made perfect sense. It was mid-April and there was still quite a bit of snow, but it was so warm, I didn’t even need gloves.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

It was only $15 to rent skis, poles and boots, and my $10 gondola return ticket to the top of the mountain surprisingly included trips up the ski lift. You’ll be hard-pressed to find skiing that cheap anywhere else and you can take a couple of runs without feeling like you need to stay all day to get your money’s worth. The mountains are beautiful and I found them to be a little reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites.

At the top of the mountain as you exit the gondola, there’s a photo op where you can slip on a traditional native Kazakh hat and robe to pose with a giant, live golden eagle. You get a printed photo for $6. What a deal! Plus, you get to hold an eagle. Who gets to do that?

There are plenty of day trips you can do from Almaty, but one of the best options is Sharyn Canyon. A cross between Canyon de Chelly and Gaudi, the natural rock formations in this walkable canyon will astound you. It’s a long, hard three-hour drive to get there, but once you’ve descended to the floor, the two-hour hike is magical. 

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Sharyn Canyon.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

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Lake Kaindy.

Some tour companies will extend the tour to a two-day trip to include the alpine lakes Kolsai and Kaindy with your visit to the canyon. These beautiful lagoons are nestled high in the mountains and have an unreal turquoise color that has to be seen to be believed.

Have you ever wanted to try horse meat? Well, look no further. Traditional Kazakh restaurants feature horse sausage, filets, and the most popular dish, beshbarmak, which consists of bits of equine flesh with small squares of pasta. It’s supposed to be eaten with the hands (the actual translation of beshbarmak is “five fingers”), but no one will take it away if you use a fork or spoon.

There are entire sheep heads on some menus and many dishes with parts of animals that westerners might turn their nose up at. Sheep offal was too much for me, but the beef tongue salad with pickles was better than I expected.

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Image: Bill Wiatrak

If you’re really daring, you can sample kumyss, fermented mare’s milk. It’s the most disgusting drink I can recall ever having in my mouth, but the locals love it and swear that it’s a cure all for many illnesses. It’s sour like lemon juice and yogurt mixed together with a bit of funkiness that I couldn’t identify. It’s definitely an acquired taste. In spite of the different options on the menu, most of the local cuisine is pretty tasty, and it’s not difficult to find something you’d eat at home. 

Astana, in the north, is the country’s capital, and the showpiece city created by the president with a few impressive modern buildings and larger-than-life statues. Since the town is essentially artificially created, it gets less tourists and is slower paced than bustling Almaty. You can reach Astana by overnight train (if you’re up for an adventure) or take a short flight from Almaty.

If you’re interested in visiting the neighboring country of Kyrgyzstan you can hop on a mini-bus or private taxi and be in the capital city Bishkek in about four hours. Neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan require visas for U.S. citizens, which makes these countries two of the the easiest places to visit in Central Asia. Both countries are becoming increasingly popular hiking destinations. 

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Kazakhstan might not be the first country on your list to visit, but you’ll be immediately impressed by its beauty and happy people. There are no direct flights from the U.S., but Turkish Airlines offers great service and a stopover in Istanbul. Many European airlines also service Almaty since it’s the main hub for Central Asia.

Most Kazakhs have never seen Borat, so don’t be surprised if they can’t (or won’t) sing along with words of the fake national anthem written by Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother:

Kazakhstan, greatest country in the world

All other countries are run by little girls

Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium

All other countries have inferior potassium

Kazakhstan, home of Tinshein swimming pool

It’s length thirty meter, width six meter

Filtration system a marvel to behold

It remove 80 percent of human solid waste

Rather than getting offended by the movie, the Kazakh government seized it as a PR opportunity and created an international campaign correcting the movie’s mistakes and lauding its assets. Tourism increased tenfold after the movie premiered, proving that any publicity is, in fact, good publicity.

And just for the record, Kazakhstan is an oil country, not a potassium exporter. 

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