Snowy ridges and rock carvings in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with Jules Verne
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Central Asia’s mountains and alpine lakes are magnificent
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen offended many
Kazakhstanis with his satirical film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make
Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. But the
mockumentary, following spoof journalist Borat Sagdiyev, wasn’t filmed in the former Russian Republic –
which is nothing like the fictional location – and actually piqued travellers’
interest in visiting. It’s well worth it.
Rich in oil with vast areas of desert and shrubland,
Kazakhstan is over a quarter the size of the USA, and has some spectacular
scenery, especially along its border with Kyrgyzstan. There are no moustachioed
men wresting naked (that I saw, anyway) but fabulous mountain peaks, dramatic canyons and ancient
Joined by tour manager Pippa and 17 other Jules Verne travellers, I
flew to Kazakh former
capital Almaty (Apple Tree City) via Istanbul. In this modern metropolis in
the foothills of
the Trans-Ili Alatau
group learnt about the country’s ancestral nomadic culture at the Central State
Museum. The intricate gold-stitched costume – with regal pointed hat – of
the Golden Warrior, whose remains were found in a burial mound dating from the
3rd century BC, takes pride of place and is a symbol of national
At Panfilov Park, the city was
celebrating Victory Day to commemorate the 1945 surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Forces. Families
were enjoying the sunshine on the Public Holiday and laying carnations on war
memorials beside Zenkov Cathedral, an ornate butter-yellow painted wooden
church made entirely without nails to protect it in this seismic zone.
Leaving the humid city behind, we
drove to the Medeo Ice Rink, at 1,691 metres above sea level the world's largest high-mountain
skating rink, and took a cable
car up to the surrounding powdery white slopes to breath in the fresh air. Skiers
sliced by as I negotiated the slush in my sandals, neglectfully unprepared for the
vast temperature difference at altitude. (Pack for all kinds of weather,
including hat, sunscreen, waterproofs and good footwear.)
I did have walking shoes in my suitcase and they were definitely needed
for a visit to the Tamgaly Petroglyphs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the
Tamgaly Gorge, abloom with the Kazakhstan
tulips native to this zone. There are
over 5,000 rock carvings, including sun-head deities and many long-horned
animals, with some sacred images dating back to the Middle Bronze Age. Kazakhstan is sparsely populated
but we did meet a group of local schoolgirls on an educational excursion to
this arid spot who were eager to try out a few English words.
Heading to the Kyrgyzstan border,
we passed herds of camels and a string of horses, sheltering in the shadow of a
bus stop. Travel can be a little bumpy as road surfaces are gradually being
improved – don’t expect the M1 – and be prepared to occasionally use simple
hole-in-the-floor earth closet toilets in isolated locations. It’s definitely
In Bishkek, we were serenaded at
dinner at the Arzu restaurant by musicians in richly embroidered Kyrgyz costumes
with flamboyant plumed hats. The three-stringed komuz, integral to Central
Asian music, is made of apricot or juniper wood and is played at speed with amazing dexterity.
Meals in this part of the world often start with soup or salad
(lots of cucumber, tomato, onion and red pepper), followed by roast meat,
carrots and potatoes or noodles. It’s simple but plentiful, with good bread,
and vegetarian options. Fermented horse and camel’s milk are popular drinks –
and worth a taste – but I preferred the local beer and green tea.
Leafy Bishkek, gateway to the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains, has wide
boulevards bordered by irrigation channels to water its thousands of trees. The changing of the National Guard in front of
the flagpole on Ala-Too Square is a very formal spectacle, the soldiers in
their extra-large peaked caps strutting with very a high goose step in total
Over 94% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous and Ala Archa National Park
(said to be a favourite of Vladimir Putin’s) is a wilderness with glaciers and
wildlife trails. We kept to the main path, passing a few traditional felt yurts, but
didn’t spot any elusive snow leopards while sipping a glass of bubbly, chilled
in the icy river.
To the east in the Chuy Valley, the Burana Tower, an 11th century minaret, is sited where
the ancient city of Balasagun once stood and is half its original height after
centuries of earthquakes. Its position, backed by looming snowy crests, is a scenic photographer’s
In the cities, our hotels were
modern with an international feel (though with intermittent Wi-Fi and some
erratic showers), but two rural overnight stays were memorable. The family-run
Ashu Guesthouse in fertile Chon-Kemin valley is decorated in national Kyrgyz
style with bright rugs in bold colours on the floor and walls. Its village
dining room was a cosy place to watch a thunderstorm roll by and listen to the
distinctive call of a brazen cuckoo.
The Caprice Hotel basks in an
idyllic location, too, on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, an enormous expanse of
water which never freezes. Though fed by snow melt, it’s also full of hot
springs. We strolled to the waterside at dusk and soaked up the last of the
day’s solar rays, sat contentedly at the end of the wooden jetty.
Near the eastern tip of the lake,
the city of
Karakol, established as an outpost of the Tsarist Russian Empire, is home to
the 1895 Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. During Bolshevik times, the
building lost its onion domes and became a gym and coal store but it’s now been
restored, peaceful and scented with beeswax candles.
As our flights home were back from Almaty, we motored back to
Kazakhstan, patiently waiting for local cowboys to encourage their herds of
cattle and goats to move out of our way. With one last day to sightsee, we couldn’t miss the Big Almaty Lake, a pristine bright
turquoise natural reservoir 2,511 meters above sea level. It’s sometimes obscured by mist but on a
bright day, it was truly mesmerising.
Jules Verne’s Peaks and Petroglyphs tour to Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan costs from £2,145 pp including flights and taxes, transfers, 9
nights' accommodation, breakfast daily, 9 lunches (packed lunch on
Day 4 & 9) and 6 dinners. Visit website
or call 020 3131 2520. Departs 14 August, 4, 18 September
and 2 October 2019; 6, 27 May and 17 June 2020.
Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.
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