We spent two weeks in Kazakhstan in September 2019. We arrived in NurSultan (Astana) and our guide was waiting for us at the airport and we were taken quickly to our accommodation. This was in an apartment in the Highvill Eliteapart, a large new housing complex. It was well furnished and had a small kitchen/diner as well as a good shower room. From here it was just a 40 minute walk into the city. We visited the Opera on our first night - great experience and very low prices - well worth a trip. Our guide, Irina, was excellent and showed us around the city over the next few days. We saw all the major sites of this fascinating modern city, mosques, museums, memorials, and had time to meet some old friends too. Our guide managed to get us to prime place in queues and helped get some marvellous photo opportunities for us too. Great food throughout, and some fine restaurants, although it is worth having a phrase book to hand if you go shopping for ingredients yourself. Our local friends took care of us in the evenings and on a spare day and it essential to understand that when a Kazakh offers hospitality they really mean it. We have never eaten so well and with so many novel dishes in our lives. We even tried the fermented mares milk and lots of other local dishes! Next stop was Shymkent and the flight from NurSultan was easy - sit at a window to get a sense of scale as you fly over this vast country. Here we were back into history and got a sense of the tremendous history behind the modern country. Some fascinating stories from an informative local guide about the various rulers and tribes that occupied and swept over this area of central Asia over the past two thousand years, as we visited local sites. Next we took a 13 hour train journey from Turkestan to Almaty. Another good way to get a sense of the scale of the country. Had a meal in the restaurant car, and were treated to some delicious slices of watermelon by one of the on-board staff who knocked on our compartment door with no english, but with a huge watermelon, a large knife and a smile! Met by our guide Ansar at the station and off to the Plaza Hotel in Almaty. Nice hotel, with good breakfast, and spacious rooms. A very different city from NurSultan and we had a great couple of days exploring the sites, mostly on foot. Another city with some great restaurants recommended by our hosts. Then a chance to visit the countryside around the city and visits to Charyn Canyon and the lakes at Kolsai and Kaindy. Beautiful scenery and well worth the long walks, and the long drives to get there. We stayed in a homestay in Saty village. Ansar was another great guide and we learned a lot about the country, its culture, recent history, and thoughts for the future. This is such a vast country with so many stories to tell that you can only scratch the surface in a couple of weeks here. But we felt that travelling with the guides and listening to their thoughts about their homeland, and its achievements and challenges, gave us a great insight. We would certainly return.
Very easy interaction to set up the trip. Having seen the itinerary it was clear we would be getting to visit all the key aspects of the cities. We were also very pleased that the local company were able to arrange the visit to the regional hospital. Caroline enjoyed talking to the deputy director about medicine and health support outside the major towns and appreciated the effort that must have gone into making this meeting possible.
For travellers arriving in the apartments a little welcome pack - some bread and milk perhaps - would have been nice. We have had this in other places before.
The guides were very good. Having local guides who were happy to engage about all aspects of their country made the trip really positive for us. In particular two guides stood out. Caroline really enjoyed getting the female perspective from Irina. In many countries we find that there is often a nuanced but relevant difference in the views and approach taken by men and women when guiding a tour. In this case, in a new city, with so much happening, Irina gave us a really good positive perspective on the future of the country. Similarly, as a social and political scientist, I found chatting over the modern country with Ansar to be really insightful. Both guides had excellent communication skills and developed a rapport with us quickly.
You need to see both NurSultan, Almaty and somewhere else, to get a sense of the country. And spend time out in the country if only to get a sense of the scale of the steppe. Visit the Opera if possible - we got our tickets online before we left the UK. Try the local food - and be prepared to be overwhelmed by the hospitality of the locals.
It's all memorable but chatting to the guides about life in modern Kazakhstan and seeing their evident pride in what has been achieved since independence, and where they see the country going, will stay with us for a long time.