In a gem of a country on China’s far western border and off the radar for many, we felt like intrepid travellers as we set off for a week to visit Almaty, Kazakhstan, conveniently located on the Silk Road. This we combined with an overnight return train journey to the freshly-renamed capital city Nur Sultan.
Like many of the former-USSR countries in the region, Kazakhstan has seen GDP sky rocket in the last 15 years. A cocky student confided that his county has within its rich soils every item on the Periodic Table save only two. Sadly, my poor science performances at school meant that I missed out on finding out which are the missing couplet.
Since those harsh days before independence from Russia, the recently retired President established a brash new capital in the centre of his country. Formerly known as Astana and renamed only days before our arrival, Nur Sultan is a metropolis on steroids.
Norman Foster’s giant transparent yurt engulfs an animated dinosaur park, a sand encrusted beach in its apex wards off the worst of the extreme weather, while of course we found the ubiquitous shopping centre.
Elsewhere, the somewhat grotesque “Tree of Life” contains a massive golden hand print in its neon branches of their erstwhile leader. Nur Sultan is not for the faint hearted and we were glad to re-board our luxury train to return the country’s social and cultural hub; Almaty.
The highlight on our smart Spanish train, apart of course from the stunning views from our window, was the wholly unexpected Movenpick ice cream, which we lashed with local vodka. To go with it, and providing endless entertainment, the steppe gave us huge flocks of sheep, cattle, wild horses, countless birds of prey, murmurations of starlings in the budding fruit trees along the route and elegant, muscular shepherds on horseback.
Back in leafy Almaty, we were overwhelmed by a pandoras box of unexpected delights. A perfect day trip comprised well-organised and impressive ski slopes in the mountains which provide a sensational backdrop to the city, plus the ravishing 300-metre deep Charyn Gorge, a miniature Grand Canyon but with no one around, perfect blue skies and a cool breeze it was stunning. The towering red sandstone natural sculptures of the latter loomed above us as we trekked along the valley floor with falcons overhead and a turquoise river at its base.
On another day we headed to Tamgaly, where over 4,000 Bronze-Age petroglyphs were discovered in the 1950s, not drawn or painted, but carved and gouged out of the rock; well-preserved etchings of curly horned deer, animated figures hunting, riding and dancing and large gooseberry headed gods.
Back in Almaty, we glammed up for an elegant soiree at the refurbished opera house to see “Giselle”. As we prepared for our departure, the city hosted the closing concert of the city’s 21st Jazz Festival, providing a fitting end to an almost perfect concoction of surprises and enchantment.