When the train arrived in Shymkent, we walked to our car which, of course, was at the other end of where we were at. We got to the Kazakh check guy who stood in front of the door. He looked at Robb and even without looking at his passport, he said, “You, Robbert. And you, Elaine.” We nodded and showed our IDs. It was quite comical, actually.
After our first try on the Kazakh railways from Astana to Almaty, we learned a few things about train travel in Kazakhstan. First, try to book seats 17 and 18 of any car. On some booking websites, it appears there are also seats 19 and 20 in your compartment. There is no 19 and 20.
We got to put our stuff wherever we wanted. It was nice. Still a bit claustrophobic, but nice.
We arrived in Almaty and headed to our new hostel located closer to the metro station.
If you ever see an ‘Apple Hostel’ anywhere, run the opposite way. We wandered around the building looking for some signs of what could be a hostel. We asked a security guard where it was but, of course, all in Russian. 20 minutes of roaming and random button pressing got us to the hostel.
The hostel itself had a weird vibe. It was as if we were crashing at a fraternity house, but we were the people nobody wanted. A lady called Robb out because he took a shower in the ‘female only’ shower. There was only one shower in the entire hostel.
The only saving grace about the hostel was it’s proximity to my favourite Almaty restaurant, Basilic. Robb and I randomly picked some dishes since there was no English menu (thank you Google Translate!) and what we got was amazing.
While we were trying to communicate with the waiter at Basilic, a couple at the next table overheard us and started talking to us in English. They asked if they could show us around Almaty. It was very random, so we accepted.
They suggested we go to Kok-Tobe (Кок-Тюбе), the highest point in Almaty at 1,100 m (3,600 ft).
The young couple was Ali and Yerkezhan. Both were 22 years old and had studied abroad before returning to Kazakhstan. They were excited to speak English again.
It was really interesting to talk to them about their lives. They were from Astana but moved a to Almaty for business opportunities. They an entertainment business that was doing well, then it burned down. From what I could gather, it was fairly recent.
It was really nice of them to share their lives with us and show us around. After we got down the mountain, we said goodbye and parted ways.
The next day, I let Robb have a day to himself for a day hike somewhere in the mountains. I spent my day at Sova (сова) Espresso Bar where I paid American prices for a pumpkin raf (latte) and overnight muesli. It was still worth it.
I also met a very nice guy from Singapore named Sayufi who got his Uzbekistan visa. He was just happy to speak English with someone who can understand him.
Robb got back from his hike safely, although slightly disappointed because he couldn’t make it all the way. Too much snow!
I found myself back at the Uzbekistan embassy the next day when Robb got the news that his LOI arrived a week earlier!
It was great we both got our visas earlier expected, we also found ourselves stuck in Almaty a week longer as my visa starts later than Robb’s. (Sigh…)
Our last night at Apple Hostel brought the best sentence I’ve heard in a long time. The receptionist, Kristina, knocked on our door. With her mobile phone, she read out loud, “Don’t go in underpants,” (said with a heavy Russian accent) then quickly walked away.
In an effort to quickly check out of the hostel, we got up early, packed our bags and got out. Robb suggested the elevator, but because it was only one flight of stairs, I said to walk it forgetting that I was carrying 18kgs on my back and another 10kgs in the front. As I tried to move my phone from my pocket, I slipped and fell like a flipped turtle. I also landed on my ankle funny. Robb later asked how my egg was growing. Good thing we got another week in Almaty!
Since we had relocated to the wonderful Hostel OK for a week, we’ve pretty much stopped being tourists. We go to the market for dinner where the girls there giggle at us while we try our best to order in Russian. To our credit, we can count to 3 now!
Almaty had become our time when we actually had to plan. Usually, we like to go with the flow… If we like the place, we stick around a little longer. If not, we move on. But when you’re in the Stan’s where we need to pick up visas along the way, some actual dates would help significantly.
One of the main reasons why we stayed in Almaty was because we had to get wait for Uzbekistan visas.We also wanted to experience Nauryz.
We took a short trip up to Medau, Almaty’s’ famous outdoor ice skating rink. It was nice to be up in the mountains breathing fresh air. We could’ve gone skating but with my ankle still not happy and my ability to fall on all things icy, we skipped it.
Then we tried to take a chairlift to Shymbulak, the ski resort village. But since the majority of the signposting was in Russian and Kazakh and the only English said “gondola ride,” we got a variety of prices that just kept going up.
We gave up and got some coffee while watching the chairlifts go up the mountain.
Our last day in Almaty was spent packing and drinking coffee with our friend, Milana, who we met in Shymkent. She had just finished a 5-day hike with 130 people. That’s pretty hardcore!
In a span of a week, Almaty went from a winter wonderland to sunshine and blue skies. Crazy!
Overall, we stayed in Almaty for 16 days! Thank you Uzbekistan embassy for this! But Almaty was relaxing. We almost became locals, taking buses like professionals.
- Accommodations: Hostel OK run by the lovely Kymbat. Clean rooms, great showers. This place also rents out to locals, so we got some insight into the city.
- Getting around: Download 2GIS. This app was invaluable during our entire time in Kazakhstan. Pick a city and it’ll provide you will all the bus routes you need to get from A to B. And you can use it offline. Available for Astana and Shymkent too.
- Coffee: Sova (сова) Espresso Bar has excellent coffee and comfortable seating to work on the laptop all day long. Traveler’s Coffee is a Russian chain but does French press coffee.