Honestly, I am not a big fan of cities. Traffic jams, packed subways and ugly apartment blocks are just not to my liking. However, I have to admit: cities are convenient. You can easily fly into or out of them, find whatever you need from the supermarket just down the road and eat something fancy. Almaty in Kazakhstan is just like any other city, but it offers something extra that most cities do not. Located a 15-minute drive away from the magnificent Tien Shan mountain range, Almaty is a nature-lover’s haven. Slog all you need throughout the week and relax atop the mountains during the weekend. How amazing does that sound?
Almaty is a small city, but there is just so much to see in and around the area. Aside from the usual museums and historical places of worship, here are nine things you can do in and around Almaty:
1) Ice skate at Medeu
The Medeu ice-skating rink takes the record for being the “highest” ice-skating rink. Located 1,691m above sea level, the ice skating rink sits within a picturesque mountain range. Nothing beats ice-skating with snow-capped mountains all around and the fresh smell of pine trees! To sweeten the deal, it only takes 15 minutes by car to get from the city centre to the Medeu ice-skating rink. Also, there is a public bus that goes all the way to the rink from the city. The location of the rink makes ice-skating a perfect choice for an after-work activity!
2) Take a cable car up to Chimbulak Ski Resort
The views from the cable car are amazing. You will see the Medeu ice-skating rink from above and traverse many mountain peaks to get to the ski resort. This is a great place for skiing in winter and also a perfect place for trekking in the other seasons. From the ski resort, you can take a few more cable cars to reach the final stop, at about 3,200m above sea level. From there, there are many amazing trekking routes that will take you to stunning viewpoints of glaciers, lakes and snow-capped peaks. Again, the same public bus that goes to the Medeu ice-skating rink takes you to the cable car station.
3) See the city from the mountains
If you would like a cheaper hiking experience, consider trekking to Kok Zhailau instead. This is a popular picnic spot as lush green pine trees, fresh air and the picturesque Tien Shan mountain range surround it. The access route to Kok Zhailau is also along the public bus route that takes you to the Medeu ice-skating rink. If you are feeling adventurous, you can visit the tri-brata (three brothers) from Kok Zhailau. It is a steep, but rewarding climb as you can see the entire city of Almaty from the viewpoint.
4) Swim in the lake Number 6
With so many lakes and glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain range, it is no wonder that many of them are simply named with numbers. Lake Number 6 is a gorgeous glacier lake hidden deep within the Tien Shan mountain range. The climb up to the lake is steep and you should take a pair of trekking poles with you. Once you are at the lake, jump in and enjoy the cold glacier waters. For the truly adventurous, you can also climb up the rocky slopes of the mountains around the lake. From there, you will have a bird’s eye view of the glacier, the lake and the countless snow-capped peaks surrounding the lake. To get there, you can take the cable car, mini-bus or walk to the Chimbulak Ski Resort. From there, you will walk past the Soviet-era Medeu dam before embarking on your steep ascent to the lake.
5) Enjoy the aromas at the Rakhat Candy Factory
The Rakhat Candy Factory is Kazakhstan’s own take of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It is the most famous Kazakhstan brand of chocolates and you can smell the cocoa fragrance from a hundred metres away. Pop in to purchase from a huge selection of chocolates and sweets, or inquire if there is a guided tour of the candy factory. The highlight here really is the amazing aromas coming from the factory. Do take a walk around the entire compound. You will realise that different areas have significantly different smells! When you are done, cross the street and walk around the Green Bazaar, the largest covered market in Almaty.
6) Watch sunset at Kok Tobe Hill
Located at the south-eastern area of the city, Kok Tobe is a great place to watch the fiery-red sunsets over Almaty. You can take a cable car up the hill, or a mini-bus from the southern edge of the hill. Alternatively, take a 15-minute walk up and enjoy the views along the way. There are many things to do on the hill, such as visiting the mini-zoo or admiring the grandeur of the television tower. Not only can you enjoy a panorama of the city, you can also witness the beauty of the Tien Shan mountain range from the opposite side of the hill. This is definitely a great place to spend your evening!
7) Visit the Tamgaly petroglyphs
Located 170km from Almaty, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is not only an easy day trip from the city, but a worthy one too. The 5000 odd petroglyphs are a depiction of human history for the past 4000 years. Take your time to walk along the various trails, identify the interesting petroglyphs and read the significance of these symbols. This is an artistic masterpiece and you have to see it for yourself to believe it! Note that it is a challenge to get there by public transport. The best way is to take a day-tour from Almaty or hire a return-taxi.
8) Explore the Charyn Canyon
The Charyn Canyon is the world’s longest canyon. There are many sections that you can explore, though the most popular one is where the Eco-Park Complex is located. Take your time to walk at the bottom of the canyon and on top of the canyon. I recommend walking at the top of the canyon closer to sunset, when the rocks turns fiery red and become full of colour. Note that there is no public transportation to the canyon. The only way is to join a tour or hire a taxi. Alternatively, you can take a bus (to Kegen), stop at the turnoff point to the canyon and walk the remaining 10km.
9) Hike to the 2nd Kolsai Lake
The Kolsai Lakes is a series of three lakes near the Kyrgyzstan border. At the time of writing, the third lake is off-limits. Many people visit the first Kolsai Lake, which is accessible by car. To get to the second lake, you will need to trek uphill in the forest for about two hours. Indeed, the first Kolsai Lake is gorgeous and extremely beautiful. However, do not stop there! The hike to the second lake is equally stunning and you will be rewarded with a picturesque lake at the end. If you have a tent, camping by the lakeside is a perfect choice. Wake up to magnificent views of the lake and the surrounding mountains, the occasional horse striding past your tent and the freshness of the air. The hike to this lake is definitely well worth your time and effort. Again, there are no public transport options to the lake. The only way is to hire a one-way taxi (if you want to camp overnight).
Almaty is a beautiful city with some much to do and see. If you prefer the city comforts, Almaty offers them as well and are value-for-money. However, if you want a convenient way to fly in, enjoy some nature and fly out, Almaty is your best bet. The Tien Shan mountain range offers endless trekking options and the best part is that you can do day-trips to the mountains. Sweat it out during the day and return to the city at night for some beers or a sumptuous dinner.
What are you waiting for? Check out the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan and put that on your travel bucket list.
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Credits: (1) – Tengrinews; (5) – Welovealmaty; (7) – Eurasia.travel