What to Do, Where to Go in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Sunday, April 12, 2009

GETTING THERE: Most flights from Washington Dulles to Almaty, Kazakhstan, connect through Frankfurt, with both Lufthansa and United then flying on to the Kazakh city. One-stop flights start at about $2,000. Some routings (for instance, Virgin Atlantic to London's Heathrow and then Lufthansa to Frankfurt and on to Almaty) can start at about $1,000.

WHERE TO STAY: In Almaty, the Astana International Hotel (113 Baitursynov St., 011-7-7272-507-050, http://www.astana-hotel.com) is a comfortable business hotel; about $220 per night double occupancy. The Hotel Zhetysu (55 Abylay Khan Ave., 011-7-7272-500-400/407, http://www.zhetysuhotel.kz) is a budget hotel in the Soviet modern style. Single rooms start at $55 per night; standard doubles start at $97.

WHERE TO EAT: Almaty's best restaurant district is in and around the Zhibek Zholy pedestrian zone, next to the Tsum department store. Prices can vary substantially, so check the menu before ordering. When traveling, the tastiest (and cheapest) lunch is a fresh shashlyk (Russian-style kebab) and cold Derbes beer purchased from the roadside.

WHAT TO DO: After buying yourself a good English-Russian dictionary, look for a tour. A number of tour operators in Almaty offer treks in the Kazakh wilderness. For package and price details, it's best to contact them directly by e-mail. (In general the price per person goes down as the size of the group increases.) Tour operators can also assist in organizing individual itineraries and obtaining a tourist visa. Here are some names:

Tamerlan Tour (Dostyk Ave. 46/17, Almaty, 011-7-3272-919-042, http://www.tamerlantour.kz/en/almaty.html) has been in business since 1994. Offers 10-day treks into the Tian Shan mountains and Charyn Canyon, featuring lakes, gorges and glaciers.

Asia Discovery Tours (Abai St. 61, Office 19, Almaty, 011-7-3272-508-108, http://www.asia-discovery.nursat.kz) offers a wide range of packages including horseback riding, mountain biking, off-roading and whitewater rafting.

Silk Road Adventures (Adi Sharipov St. 117-44, Almaty, 011-7-7272-924-042, http://www.silkroadadventures.info/en/index.html) offers 10-day hiking treks into the Tian Shan for different experience levels, encounters with eagle hunters known as berkutchi and tours of Kazakhstan's Silk Road.

Ecotourism Information Resource Centre (Zheltoksan St. 71, Almaty, 011-7-7272-780-289, http://www.eco-tourism.kz/index.htm) promotes community-based eco-tourism across the country.

There are plenty of self-guided options in and around Almaty.

The Sunkar Falcon Center, a short taxi ride south of the city (011-8-3272-553-076), is a must-see, with hundreds of indigenous raptors including golden eagles, endangered saker falcons and Eurasian black vultures. Master falconer Paul Pfander performs a daily show April through November.

A giant plain with 47 Scythian burial mounds is on the northern edge of Almaty. It's set to officially open as the Museum of Nomadic Culture in 2010, but you can hire a taxi and visit today.

The Central State Museum (Samal-1, 44, Almaty, http://www.unesco.kz/heritagenet/kz/hn-english) has terrific Scythian treasures, including the priceless Kargaly diadem, once the property of a woman shaman.

Kazakhstan's Silk Road is a short hop on Air Astana from Almaty to Shymkent. Highlights include Turkistan and the Mausoleum Akhmed Yassawi (one of Islam's holiest sites), Taraz and Otrar, a much-celebrated city of the Silk Road conquered by Genghis Khan.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit http://www.kazakhstan-tourist.com and http://www.kazakhembus.com.

-- E.H.

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