Kazakhstan – General information

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Accommodation, Overnight trains, City transport, Going to the post office, Beer, Horse meat, sheep’s head and fermented milk, Food, Souvenirs

Accommodation

If you enjoy varied and unpredictable accommodation, Kazakhstan is the place to go (as, I expect, is the case in many other former Soviet countries). Every hotel was different and had its own quirks (perils and oddities included) and it’s the first time I’ve been abroad in a long time where it hasn’t felt like every hotel room could just as easily have been in the UK as abroad. That said, this kind of appeal isn’t for everyone and sometimes you just want a hot power shower, control over the room temperature and fluffy pillows with an adequate duvet.

A four-star hotel in Kazakhstan will not sparkle with the same four stars as your average European four-star hotel.

When we gave our Kazakh hotels a rating between one and ten, those scores were based on our perceptions of Kazakh standards.

If you want to pay a lot for a hotel in Kazakhstan in the hope of getting a room of, say, British standards you’re probably best choosing a chain you recognise. Alternatively, embrace the Soviet-ness and choose somewhere in a location that suits your purposes and pay more for the location than (suggested) quality. We stayed in one newly built hotel and that was no better than some of the older hotels we stayed in, just a different set of issues. Sometimes on holiday I splash out for a night or two. Based on my limited experience, I wouldn’t do that in Kazakhstan for fear of expensive disappointment.

Overnight trains

We went on kupeq and luxe carriages. I suggest paying more for greater comfort if you are willing to and have the budget.

We were four people in four-bed compartments. We were able to easily sit upright on the top bunk.

The trains are very high and nowhere near as uncomfortable as you might expect for a sleeping train. I know we had the luxury carriages though, but they really were comfortable and clean. Towels and bedding were provided.

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The loos ran out of toilet paper by the morning. I was glad, yet again, to have taken my own loo rolls. The toilet floor, The rare sight of an empty carriage, train from Shymkent to Almaty around 6amunsurprisingly, gets wet. I had Crocs with me for going to the loo. Slip on shoes are all round a lot easier for overnight trains. Also, bear in mind there will be a very long queue for the toilet in the morning, particularly once announcements have alerted everyone that it’s time to wake up (or you’ll have dreadful music pumped through the speakers to ensure everyone is up and ready to disembark quickly). I overcame this by not sleeping well and going to the loo regularly in the night (not that I’d planned it that way!). It’s not fun having to wait in a long line of people when you’ve got up because you desperately need a wee and everyone in front of you is armed with toiletry bags and towels and each person is about five minutes in the toilet/wash room, though one girl did manage to push in front of a queue of us waiting due to “emergency”!

Clocks in the train carriages appear always to be wrong, most likely fast. This can be very confusing and can cause you to wake your fellow travellers an hour and a half earlier than necessary, oops.

Tea and coffee packs from the train, plus train snacksWe were supplied with a toiletry bag and a selection of teas and coffee in a paper cup (there is a samovar at the end of each carriage). This was because we were in a luxury carriage, otherwise bring your own toiletries, as you’d expect.

A snack trolley may go past but there are also snacks available in the restaurant car. I strongly recommend taking your own snacks and take a meal if you’re unlikely to want to go to the restaurant car, of which there is only one on the whole train, which could be a staggeringly long train and you could be seated pretty much the length of the train away from the restaurant car (but, hey, it’s exciting walking through carriages and I felt like we should be in hot pursuit of some dastardly villain, 007 style).

Dinner aboard the train from Almaty to ShymkentThe restaurant cars are fun and delightfully retro. There is a large menu, which I’m fairly sure was only in Russian/Kazakh. However, most things on the menu are not available, so if you speak Russian ask what’s on the menu, otherwise choose at least six dishes in order of preference as the odds are only one of them might be on the menu. Prices are around the 1,700 tge mark and portions are generous. The earlier you go, the more food is available, unsurprisingly.

The restaurant car seemed also to be a bit of a pick up area, with more than a few men and women joining each other for late night drinking and flirting sessions! Great for people watching.

In the morning of your last night of travel, fold your sheets (I reiterate “fold”) and towels and return them to your carriage attendant.

The first train we caught over night was sweltering. I didn’t sleep much. The second train was less hot but still too hot for me. I didn’t sleep much. On the first train, only two small windows in the corridor could be opened. On the second train, with our superior carriage, there were windows we could open in our compartment, though not with the blinds down.

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I wore ear plugs but I could still hear noises from the neighbouring compartment and in the corridor. I could hear people One of our sleeping compartments, Almaty to Shymkenttalking, dropping things, slamming doors, the train starting and stopping … A lot of people slept with their cabin doors at least partly open to allow a bit of air to circulate, but the noise would have been even worse. For me though, the lack of sleep was largely due to the heat and the juddering of the train when it started and stopped.

As for security, there are storage areas under the two ground floor beds and around the top bunks and if you all vacate your compartment to go to the restaurant carriage, for example, you can ask the carriage attendant to lock your door. It felt very secure and safe.

Dramatic and unspoilt by modernisation, view from the Shymkent to Almaty trainThe odds are there will only be one plug in a couchette, I’m not sure about the non-luxe carriages.

The scenery between Almaty and Shymkent was lovely and I’m really glad I had an opportunity to see some of the stunning, unspoilt Kazakh scenery.

City transport

public transport, Oskemen. The green bus, #47, is a common type of busThere appear to be buses and minibuses, sometimes trams, to virtually every street.

It is rare to see a bus map, let alone anything in English. I found one bus stop in old town Astana that had a basic map with bus routes. I knew which of the new town sights I wanted to be near so found which of three buses would get me there. It all went to plan.

In Shymkent, I asked the reception staff which buses from outside the hotel went to Mega (a shopping centre around the centre of the town). They gave me two bus numbers and all went to plan.

If you don’t speak Russian and are likely to get stressed, I would suggest only catching a bus if you know what bus number you want and where you want to get off, by name or sight or by following your mobile phone’s GPS.

To pay for the bus, get on the bus and wait for the conductor to approach you. It appears that each city has its own fixed price, from my experience between 40 and 60 tge, so you don’t have to worry about trying to explain where you want to get off. On handing over the money (correct change, ideally), you either will or won’t be given a ticket

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We used the Metro in Almaty. It is worth using, if only for the grandness and emptiness of it (the latter at least on weekends).Abay Metro station

You buy a ticket from a booth. Again, you need only indicate the number of tickets as the price is uniform, 80 tge when we were there. Your fare is exchanged for a yellow disc that is retained by the barrier machine as you go into the station.

Abay Metro station escalators, AlmatyIt is a very modern metro system, having only opened at the end of 2011, and there are currently only seven stations. The stations are very deep, particularly at Abay station. I was surprised to get vertigo going down the escalator at Abay. It is a VERY long and VERY slow escalator and, as no one was in front of me, the height and depth scared me (but it doesn’t take much for me to get vertigo, though not usually on an escalator).

The platforms are clean and interesting. There are video screens that look like picture frames, there is a countdown to the next train and it is, apparently, very similar to the Moscow metro. The train itself was clean and cool.

A lot of locals use gypsy cabs/bombers, which are drivers who stop for you at the side of the road.

You just stand by the road side and stick your hand out. All travel safety sense suggests these should not be used. We did use them a lot with locals and they were all fine. I wouldn’t be so comfortable using them on my own, particularly as I don’t speak Russian. You MUST negotiate a price before you get in though.Arrival at Almaty station, look at the mountains in the distance

Although Shymkent was cheaper than Astana and Almaty, a price guide is around the 700 tge mark for up to three miles (that is my best guess based on the journeys we did, just to give a vague guideline).

As with gypsy cabs, taxis can be flagged down by the side of the road. However, there are not a huge amount of taxis around and you’re more likely to get a gypsy cab rather than a taxi stopping for you.

I reiterate: negotiate the price first.

You could also end up waiting a fairly long time. Outside the Pyramid in Astana, on the wide but not massively busy main road in front, it took us aboutIn front of the pyramid, Astana, where we waited c10 minutes for a gypsy cab or taxi ten minutes to get anyone to stop, which in the end was a taxi.

If you don’t speak Russian, I strongly recommend having (or getting someone to write) the address you want in Russian to show to the driver. We had picked up our hotel’s business card and showed this to the taxi driver. It cost us 700 tge (a colleague had said it should not cost more than 400 tge but it was a nice, new, air-conditioned taxi and if 700 tge was a foreigner rate, we thought it was a perfectly acceptable one so accepted the 700 tge fare).

There probably won’t be a meter so, as with a gypsy cab, negotiate your fare BEFORE you get in.

Post office, Almaty, Bogenbai Batyr Street/Abylai Khan Avenue, opposite a park

Going to the post office

Brace yourself if you need to post something, it is far, far more challenging than you would imagine, particularly if you can’t speak Kazakh or Russian. There are also not many post offices around – I reiterate that post offices are not on every major street corner. I went to one in Almaty and one in Shymkent and there was no consistency in the price or procedure!

If you are still adamant you will send something from the post office and have actually found a post office, I hope you can speak Kazakh or Russian. If not, to follow are my experiences based on no common language between me and the post office worker and the complication of wanting stamps to post things at a future date.

There might be a ticket machine to secure your number in the queue, for there will be a queue. I should add, neither of my post office experiences took less than about ten minutes.

Whatever you take to the post office for a stamp needs to be posted that day, ideally from the post office at the same time as you go into the post office. I tried but failed to buy stamps to post a few letters (I really didn’t see a single postcard for sale) that I had yet to write. I ended up only posting the one I’d finished and finishing off another letter in the post office.

In my experience, there is a 50/50 chance you’ll need to write the address of where you’re staying on the front of the envelope. I could not and did not take this as an exact science and my approximate hotel name and address did not stop that particular letter from arriving in the UK some weeks later. The staff in one post office also confirmed repeatedly the country of destination (I use “confirmed” in a very loose sense, based on communication/pronunciation issues) and then wrote – I assume – “Great Britain” in Kazakh or Russian on the envelope.

The post takes a while to get to its destination. Weeks.

There appear to be a lot of different prices for air mail to Europe. I paid a different price, reassuringly also getting different stamps with the corresponding amount, in each post office but they all seemed to arrive at around the same time.

To make it simple, make sure you take what you want posting in a ready-to-send format, have the address of where you’re staying to hand and be in a good, patient mood.

Chechil (“Churchill”) and Polar Beer, Pugasov restaurant, Almaty

Beer

Kazakhs seem to have snacks with beer. While with a Kazakh, we discovered what we remembered as “Churchill” (in fact chechil), a salty mass of cheesy string/thread that is a lot more more-ish than you’d expect for a cheese that doesn’t resemble cheese as I know it.

Horse meat, sheep’s head and fermented milk

I had been worried about having to drink fermented mare’s milk, very much a staple in Kazakhstan and something I feel I couldn’t consume due to a strong aversion to milk and all things fermented. I never had to. I also worried about whether I’d be able to eat horse meat, horse penis (yes, really), sheep head and anything else remotely milky (I really do hate milk) or fermented or offal beyond liver or kidney. I did eat horse meat and horse penis but no sheep’s head (I was told that is more often eaten at home for big family events and I was also assured it tastes wonderful).

Besbarmak, traditional Kazakh dish, complete with horse meat.  I was with some Kazakh people when I ate the horse meat so knew what I was about to eat and what I did eat. We had otherwise fairly easily avoided eating anything that was generic “meat”, ie likely to at least include a bit of horse meat. I like to try national dishes in countries I visit and besbarmak is apparently the most popular, so I ordered it. I couldn’t eat all of the meat, some because it was too fatty and some because – well, look at the photo. However, the meaty broth, the fresh pasta and the fresh, green taste made it a largely tasty meal. I also tried a really delicious horse meat dumpling. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of myself for eating horse, but I’m glad I tried the dish and I appreciated that I ate it in a traditional Kazakh restaurant in Oskemen with two women I now consider friends and who let me try all the food they ordered too (oh, those fat udon-like noodles were wonderful – laghman, I believe)

If you can’t speak the language, be aware that “meat” is most likely to be horse or mutton. Otherwise, I don’t think we got any unpleasant surprises with what we ate.

Food

If you can’t read Russian or Kazakh, this is to illustrate that it is impossible to guess what the menu says, Baku Restaurant, Astana

If you’re vegetarian, I expect you’re used to foreign travel presenting culinary challenges. If you don’t speak Russian or Kazakh (and possibly even if you do), I imagine it would be virtually impossible to guarantee you don’t consume any meat or meat derivatives.

Tasty Fast Cheap; what’s not to love?! Food stall in ShymkentIt is easy to find places that serve familiar European/American food in Almaty and Astana, it is not as easy in other cities. There were American fast food chains or knock offs around everywhere we went though. A Kazakh pizza restaurant, however, will serve a selection of fusion toppings, which you can either embrace as being different or get all hot and bothered about!

If you want a supermarket that’s likely to feel familiar, find a Ramstore, a chain of Turkish supermarkets. Uninspiring photo of novelty (to me) flavoured crisps in Ramstore, ShymkentSmaller stores are a lot cheaper though.

We had some decent food but nothing exceptional. For the prices we sometimes paid (particularly in Almaty and Astana), I expected better food and/or more generous portions. I had thought about splashing out and going to a really fancy restaurant in Almaty, just for a one-off holiday treat, but I wasn’t convinced it would be worth it, with price not seeming a guarantee of greatness and TripAdvisor not producing enthusiastic reviews as a whole. On the whole, I probably enjoyed the taste and quality of Kazakh and Russian food more, which is probably as it should be in Kazakhstan.

If you are okay about having your main meal at lunch time and something lighter for dinner, you can save A LOT of money by having a “business lunch” at lunch time. The idea of a cheap meal at lunch time, I believe, is for workers who live too far away to travel home for lunch. Usually for less than 1000 tge, you can get a three course meal with drinks that you would pay a lot more for at dinner time. Do not underestimate what a bargain the business lunch is over dinner.

Cakes at an indoor market in Almaty, opposite Almaty Golden PalaceI have a sweet tooth, but not as sweet as a Kazakh tooth. I found desserts and cakes to be significantly sweeter than I wanted or expected and only the two cakes we bought from Madlen (a growing chain of cake-based cafes and restaurants) didn’t disappoint.

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Somewhere like Oskemen, where it’s really cold in winter and not as warm as other parts of the country in summer, the fruit and veg are not as fresh so perhaps a salad in April wouldn’t be the best choice of dish in Oskement. Pay attention to the geography and resources of the town where you’re eating.

I love food and eating out and it’s something that forms a huge and important part of my holiday experience. I would not return to Kazakhstan for the food alone, though there are few countries whose cuisine draws me back, Italy being one.

However, I did appreciate that I had lots of new dining experiences, from horse penis in broth to selecting random pastries from a phone-box sized bakery using mime and gesture alone and then discovering my two pastries cost a mere 30p or so.

I’m a coffee snob and I only had one ok coffee, which was in Rafe in Astana. I also love tea and there is plenty of choice in Not a remotely flattering photo of me, but it illustrates how much I hate milky tea! Bon Bon, AlmatyKazakhstan, but beware over-milked tea if that isn’t your thing.

I have written a bit about the various places we ate within the city pages.

Felt slippers, ceramics, two scarves, keyring and yurt boxes

Souvenirs

I love bringing souvenirs home from my travels so I can have mementoes of trips around my home and I hadn’t known what to expect from Kazakh souvenirs before I went. I bought A LOT of dried fruit and nuts (not an example of decorative souvenirs, admittedly. 2.3kg c£30), some felt slippers, lots of ceramic nut bowls, a scarf, some Mongolian yak and camel clothing (present!), a yurt box (like the Russian dolls, only a series of yurts) and a keyring.

Pottery, felt, silk, ceramics, warm clothing (e.g. made from wool, felt), gold and silver strike me as the main souvenir materials. Things are not particularly cheap, though cheaper than you’d expect to pay in the UK, for example. There are not a lot of souvenir shops around though.

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