Since we were forced to stay in Kazakhstan a bit longer than expected, we decided to head west to the desert area. We bought our tickets last minute, so when we checked in, the ticket agent asked, “Are you sure you fly with SCAT?” to which I showed him the receipt.
The ‘biggest’ airport to land was at Shymkent, the country’s third largest city. The airport was one small building. The baggage claim was a tiny room. We all couldn’t fit at the same time!
We were greeted at ShyCity Hostel by Milana, an Almaty girl who happened to be at the hostel for a job interview and Vladimir, the Muscovite who owns the house. Milana had studied English in Florida several years ago and was eager to practice her English again.
Milana first took us Blinchiki (Блинчики) for breakfast. This amazing restaurant which served both savory and sweet Russian-style pancakes. And with some pancakes costing under $1, we went back for lunch too.
Shymkent felt like a small town, even though it’s the third largest city in Kazakhstan. While chatted, we learned that Milana loves hiking and was very hesitant to take the job at the hostel. She would be taking care of all the administrative stuff, but that also means she would be stuck at the hostel for the summer months and miss lots of opportunities to do some hiking. And she’s also not a big fan of Shymkent.
In the afternoon, Vladamir took us in his BMW and drove us around the outskirts of Shymkent. Vladamir spoke almost no English, so Milana was our translator. At one point, we did discover that he understood some German.
Vladamir was on a mission. He wanted us to try samsa (Самса), a savory baked hand pie like snack. Because Shymkent is so close to the Uzbek boarder and the Uzbek people make the samsas, we went out to the outskirts of town to find some. We first drove out to remote cafe literally in the middle of nowhere. Google couldn’t even pin where we were. But Vladamir seemed to know the owners of the cafe. They said that the place would be beautiful in the summer, but as they were doing major repairs at the end of winter, it looked like one big mess. But sadly, no samsas were to be found.
More driving, window rolling and asking random people on the street ensued. Finally, an hour into our search, we found them in the remote village of Aksukent where the Uzbek population outnumber the Kazakhs. We each got one and it was amazing. Baked in a tan-door oven and filled with mutton, it was warm and filling.
Our tour of Shymkent ended at Dendrosaya garden (Дендросаябақ). It had nice, open spaces. We were told by Vladamir that we should come back in the summer time when things were blooming. (Of course!)
We said goodbye to Milana who went back to Almaty by train that night. We spent the next day in Turkestan.
We decided to treat ourselves one evening by having shashlik, skewered meat. We found a restaurant called Fizuli (Физули) near the hostel. It was a pretty fancy place with individual rooms. The waitress convinced us to have “selected lamb” pieces versus the “normal lamb” and pork chops. And we washed everything down with Shymkent beer. Everything was amazing. So we pay a bit more but what we got was a whole lot better. For us, it costs 6,600KZT ($20.77/€19.36), a shocker considering our meals generally average 2,000KZT ($6.30/€5.87) and that’s including cake.
Our last day in Shymkent was uneventful. We walked around some more and found some interested sculptures. I also enjoyed pointing out to Robb all the samsa stands we walked past. He found his new favorite snack.
We left Shymkent a lot earlier than planned because we realized all the things we did want to see were closed for the winter. But Robb and I enjoyed our time in Shymkent. We got to stay in a great hostel and the family welcomed us even though we could barely communicate.
Recommendations for Shymkent:
- Accommodations: ShyCity Hostel was great. They were very accommodating and welcomed us with open arms, even though we couldn’t understand each other.
- Getting around: Download 2GIS for Shymkent. This app was invaluable. Once downloaded, you can get bus routes for all points in the city. It can be used offline and is available in English.
- Coffee: Coffee Grinder (Кофейня “Кофемолка”) has sofas and fluffy pillows for lounging around. Their coffee was also really good.
- Food: Shymkent claims to have the best shashlik in all of Kazakhstan. Fizuli (Физули) was pricey, but amazing. No fancy tricks. Just meat grilled to perfection. For the dirt cheap option, go to Blinchiki (Блинчики). Savory and sweet pancakes available.