Kazakhstan might not have made your family holiday list yet, but are you missing something? On a recent visit, John Lewisohn found the largest country in Central Asia to be a revelation and definitely a rewarding experience to have with adventurous older kids.
The horizon shimmered white, the interminably flat sandy landscape was dotted with blasted dull green tussocks. Having passed thirty minutes of “nodding donkey” oil derricks we were now in a vast expanse of featureless dun coloured landscape that suggested it might not change all the way towards the Great Wall of China, thousands of miles East.
“Camels, over there, “said Dennis our indomitable driver, coming to a halt and mercifully silencing the heaving and clanking of his bulky 4 x 4, punished by the uneven and rutted track.
Kazakhstan even has its own take on camels
I observed the familiar silhouette of camels with a dizzying array of back shapes. In most of the world camels come in two types: two humped Bactrian and one-humped dromedary. Here, some even had one and a half humps, although all seemed content to munch the unappetising looking shrubs. This is no accident, Kazakhstan purposefully mates both types of camel, to produce hybrids that, like Bactrians, are impervious to the freezing cold of winter, yet produce the copious amounts of milk dromedaries are famed for: a popular refreshment locally. In fact, in gas stations I noticed a large variety of camel milk in the cold section next to the Pepsi and Sprite.
Kazakhstan landscapes are endless and extraordinary
The previous night we’d sampled one of Kazakhstan’s national dishes, Bechbarmak, in the main town of the West Aktau, which we’d flown into on a very comfortable six hour Air Astana flight from Heathrow. The aforementioned Bechbarmak was served either with sturgeon or stewed horsemeat, both options resting atop nests of thick noodles, which looked like deconstructed lasagne sheets. Like all meals we had the portions were huge and made with obvious pride in what is a very distinctive cuisine I grew to relish.
So, what has this got to do with family holidays I imagine you are now thinking. Well let me say this: I am well-travelled, like to think I have seen a lot of the world and viewed a lot of diverse landscapes. Kazakhstan shifted my axis on what this earth is made of, and looks like.
Vast expanses of it are totally alien to you and me, and yet just as much a part of this planet as those landscapes that are more familiar and immediately comforting.
Without getting too deep, the long hours in the car, immersed in this seemingly endless plain, play with your mind; as I suspect it will too with your family should you choose to visit. And that, I think, is a good thing: an education by osmosis, percolating your subconsciousness. Also, given the world our children are likely to grow up in, it’s important for them to see with their own eyes the landscapes inhabited by nations who may one day shape their geo-political future.
This is almost certainly like nothing you’ve experienced
Kazakhstan is vast, the 9th biggest country in the world. After travelling such seemingly huge distances on our four day trip I was amazed, looking at a map afterwards, that we’d only visited a tiny corner in the far West of the Country, seemingly within spitting distance of the Caspian Sea. The ‘Wild West’ rarely appears on itineraries from tour operators that offer Kazakhstan as a destination. Yet this region, known as Mangystau, has some quite extraordinary landscapes.
The better-known areas are in the East, near the old capital Almaty, which is framed by the towering snow-capped Tienshan mountains. In fact, our flight from Heathrow to Aktau flew on there: an additional two hours flying time.
When I asked Dennis how long it would take to drive to Almaty, or to Astana the present capital, also in the East, he looked genuinely confused and said to the best of his knowledge no-one had ever attempted it, but he guessed it would take a week by car: by train it’s at least three days.
A hotel come sturgeon farm is another Kazaksthan first
Aktau did not even exist 60 years ago. Back in the days of the USSR, the Soviets created the town from scratch having found both Uranium and oil deposits.
Aktau translates as ‘White Mountains’. That’s the view of the coastline coming across the equally expansive Caspian Sea, eastwards from Azerbaijan and Russia. It’s a town of oddities. With no natural fresh water the town survives on recycling brackish sea water. Even odder, it has no street names, just numbered districts and apartment numbers – not the place to be an Uber driver.
Lack of time meant we only skimmed the surface of the town. Brutalist Soviet architecture, with heroes of the Soviet Union painted onto the ends of blocks, stood out, as did a shady park with cold war Mig plane statues, and a moving WWII memorial, where a permanent fire is kept lit.
It was noticeably hot here, so a boat trip from the harbour was very welcome and we even enjoyed a lovely swim in 18C beautifully clear and calm water. Boats can be hired for a few hours at a very reasonable price of around 100€. It’s a growing city and seems quite prosperous, I saw no beggars and plenty of shiny new skyscrapers under construction.
The Caspian Riviera Hotel in Central Aktau houses its own sturgeon farm and aquarium. Ranging from one metre long five year olds, swimming in tanks up to the main aquarium populated by over 750 older fish of some two metres plus. Dependent on the breed, eggs are produced at 16 or 24 years old and some sturgeon can live to be 130. If you decide to spend a couple of days in Aktau, this makes an interesting excursion.
Off-roading in the Valley of Stone Balls
To get the best of Mangystau province’s highlights it’s a necessity to go off-road on full-day trips. Chalk white plains with tiramisu shaded outcrops only hint at the physical oddities over the horizon, such as the Valley of Stone Balls at Toryysh: one of the most mysterious phenomena on the planet. Some believe these huge circular stone balls, weighing hundreds of kilos, were the creation of some ancient forgotten tribe. Another theory is that the wind shaped them into perfect spheres. Some have been split in half, as if a mighty giant has smote them with something akin to Thor’s hammer. Kids will love having photos taken with them trying to push these giant balls down the hill.
Relatively close to the giant balls is the Underground Mosque of Shakpak Ata, hewn out of the mountainous chalky rock. Cross-shaped, the mosque has four chambers serving as prayer rooms and is reputed to have been a haven for wandering Sufis and mystics since the 10th Century. Incised on its chalk white walls are depictions of animals, plants and ancient Arabic. Elsewhere on the cliff are 2,000 more tombs, hidden away in numerous niches.
Try the local hiking, if you dare
Even stranger, and several hours bone jangling drive from the giant balls, is Bozjyra: a magnificent creation of weathering and erosion on the Ustyurt plateau.
Bozjyra has two sharp peaks, frequently called fangs, and it’s like a bleached out, more extreme, version of Arizona and Utah, with huge 200m high buttes, limestone mountains and vast clay deserts. If I had seen Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in their Interstellar camp here, I would not have been surprised. It’s that alien and quite awe inspiring in its scale, with plenty of hiking available, although that’s not for the faint hearted as there as some vertigo inducing drop-offs.
Then there’s Rixos Water World Hotel, with beach
Interspersed between these geological oddities are strange little towns like Shepke: pumiced by the wind and home to 25 petrol stations with only one operational.
Dennis said 70 litres of petrol costs £5, so they won’t be going electric here in a hurry. The definition of desolate, Shepke was populated by grazing horses and camels, a fast-food store that appeared to have been closed since Lenin died, and curious little piles of decaying yellow bricks, synonymous with every town we visited. A web of telegraph poles disappearing across the plains, and above ground, gas pipes snaked around every building.
Back near Aktau, we visited a great family friendly hotel, the well-known Rixos Water World hotel, with a beach and “an all-inclusive, all-exclusive concept”. Food is more international in style, there are multiple room types, swimming pools and it’s a haven for children, with a theme park and water park: free for guests and popular with locals.
Want bragging rights? Kazakhstan delivers on those
Summing it all up I’d recommend a flight to Aktau, a day trip in Aktau town with the boat trip and sturgeon farm to soak up a bit of local culture, a few days at Rixos Hotel and from there a couple of full-day excursions in a 4 x 4 exploring the otherworldly landscapes. Then, board another flight from Aktau to Almaty in the East, to discover the very different world of Eastern Kazakhstan.
How to plan for Kazakhstan
How to get there
Kazakhstan national airline, Air Astana operates regular flights out of several cities including Hong Kong and Seoul