Almaty, Asia, Kazakhstan, Newsletter, Trip Reviews

Exploring Almaty Region, Kazakhstan

12/05/2023 by .
Exploring Almaty Region

Andy Mossack discovers horses, apples, mighty landscapes and a warm Kazakh welcome exploring Almaty Region, the former capital of Kazakhstan.

Early afternoon and I’m sitting in a front-row seat at the Sunkar Falcon Farm watching Paul do his thing. Paul is a skilled falconer. And something of a legend in these parts. I’m trying to concentrate on what the legendary Paul is saying but distracted by the enormous Vulture perched well within touching distance on his left forearm. Fortunately, it’s not looking at me, but staring wantonly at the foot-long bone currently residing in Paul’s hand, while Paul is saying something about swallowing it whole…..

Exploring Almaty Region

We’ll come back to Paul. But that birds of prey display capped a trip for me filled with stellar performances from a cast of colourful characters – some human, others natural – but all of them essential ingredients in this Central Asia drama. With its border with Russia in the north, the longest land border in the entire world, and another border with China on its eastern flank, Kazakhstan is a giant land of majestic landscapes staffed by a people each proudly reflecting their individual nomadic roots.  After all, that’s exactly what Kazakhstan translates as – the land of wanderers, and most have, at some time in the past, wandered in from neighbouring countries.

Today it’s a country at the dawn of a modern tourist age, and its potential is endless.

Exploring Almaty Region

So, here’s a taste of what awaits you when you go exploring Almaty region, just one small section of an otherwise giant canvas, but it is a perfect place to start from.


Whilst most of Kazakhstan is vast open plains and deserts, towering mountain ranges, lakes and rural landscapes, the former capital is quite different. It is the country’s financial and commercial centre, perhaps born from the profitable spoils of its position at the crossroads of the ancient Silk and Spice routes. It’s a sprawling metropolitan mix of skyscrapers and fancy Tsarist/soviet era architecture, yet the spectacular backdrop of the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains lends something of a wow factor to proceedings.

Exploring Almaty region

There’s plenty of green spaces and leafy streets too, not to mention a surplus of apple trees. The result, some say, of an edict ‘encouraging’ every household to plant at least three trees during the initial building of the city. Whatever the reason, there’s no shortage of spectacular apples for sale wherever you look.

Almaty is perhaps the perfect place to witness the cultural diversity of Kazakhstan with plenty of expats mingling with locals speaking both Kazakh and Russian.

It is surprisingly excellent value for money, and taxis are an incredibly cheap way to get about the city so don’t hold back, grab one and go sightseeing.

Panfilov 4

Panfilov Park

One of my favourite green spaces is Panfilov Park, a place always busy with locals picnicking or biking on sunny days. Right at its centre lies the spectacular Zenkov Cathedral, (also known as the Ascension Cathedral) a Russian Orthodox church built in 1907. It’s remarkable because it is made entirely from wood – even the nails, although you would never know it. The park is named after the Panfilov heroes, twenty-eight soldiers of an Infantry unit who lost their lives defending Moscow from the German forces during the Second World War.

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Another good place to stroll, particularly in the evening, is Arbat Street, a pedestrianised walkway lined with familiar western retailers like Zara and Mango, but also local artists and entrepreneurs, and plenty of cafes and restaurants for people-watching. There are some pretty fountains and a few arty installations too, all making for a relaxing amble.

If you really want to mix with the locals, then head over to the Green Market the beating heart of the city since the late 1800s. This is where you’ll get the sounds, smells and colours of authenticity, where everyday people are out stocking up for dinner. The indoor two-level market is packed with stalls selling dried and fresh fruits and apples (of course), nuts, cheeses, freshly baked bread, huge slabs of meat, fresh fish, vegetables, and spices.

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Despite the huge array of fresh produce, it is spotlessly clean, and the displays are surprisingly creative. My picks? Look out for the guy selling freshly pressed fruit juices while you wait and buy some of the small marble-sized cheeses that every Kazakh has to hand to snack on. Why not try out kymyz – fermented horse milk – pretty much acknowledged as the national drink.

With the mountains on the doorstep, breathe some of that fresh mountain air in no time at all by taking cable cars up to Shymbulak, a resort area for winter skiing and summer hiking. Epic views of the Tian Shan massif and the restaurants up there are excellent.

Leaving the capital and exploring Almaty Region

Charyn Canyon National Park

Charyn Canyon

We’re exploring Almaty region outside of the city now.  A two-hour drive from Almaty brings you to one of the first natural wonders to benefit from Kazakhstan’s tourism investment. A brand-new visitor centre welcomes you to the Grand Canyon’s little brother, still an awesome sight at 150 km long and 300 metres deep. The second biggest canyon in the world.  From the visitor centre you can take a 40-minute walk down to the Charyn River, still flowing through the bottom of the canyon.

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On the way you’ll pass through the Valley of the Castles, a moonscape line of natural wind-carved pillars of red sandstone; gigantic silent sentinels guiding you through the valley and on down to the riverbed. It is a sensational place to sit and picnic and just spend time watching the rushing river and thinking about the wonder of nature. If you don’t fancy walking back up, there is a frequent shuttle bus you can take but you’ll still need to climb up some steps back to the visitor centre.

The Kolsay Lakes National Park

Kolsay Lakes

Another couple of hours of driving and we are now firmly among the peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains some 3,000 metres above sea level. A place of glacial lakes and dense forests, where it is said snow leopards still roam freely. There is a trio of lakes to visit at Kolsay, the first two are relatively close together, while the third is a tougher trek and some 500 metres higher.

The first lake is accessible by car on a paved road and can be reached by a short series of steps down to the water’s edge. It’s an 8 km trail around the water to the second lake, but you can take it for a short stroll and end up in a clearing with two wooden docks where you can sit back and take in the gorgeous scenery.

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Another must-see nearby is Lake Kaindy with its ghostly sunken forest.  It’s an uphill 2 km walk from the car park, or you could do it on horseback if you fancy hiring a horse and guide. It is well worth the effort though. This stunning lake was created from an earthquake landslide in 1911 flooding a small forest and submerging the trees. The bleached tops of the submerged spruce trees poking out of the turquoise water, mixed with the surrounding alpine vista, make a magnificent moment. And I do love having a moment.

The Huns Ethno Village

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35 km outside Almaty in the Novokamenny Gorge, lies the Huns Ethno Village, a journey back in time to explore a typical nomadic Kazakh village. It’s an interesting opportunity to learn about Kazakh nomadic life and customs. A tasty lunch is included together with sessions on wool yarning, yurt construction, archery and an impressive display of Kazakh horse-riding skills.

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It seems all Kazakhs are born with horse riding skills and waste no time in showing them off. Expect plenty of thundering horse action including arm wrestling, saddle acrobatics, and wife-chasing (yes you read that correctly!)

Which brings us back to famous Falconer Paul at the Sunkar Falcon Farm and that huge vulture. It is still patiently eyeing up the enormous animal bone in Paul’s hand waiting for his go signal. He gets it, and in the blink of an eye swallows it whole.

And not so much as a burp. If you’re exploring Almaty region don’t miss this.

All images except feature page (C) Andy Mossack

Tell me more about Exploring Almaty Region

For more information on exploring Almaty Region and visiting Kazakhstan please visit the Official Kazakhstan Tourist Board.

Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s national carrier has consistently been awarded a 4-star rating by Skytrax. it currently operates five direct flights on Airbus A321LR from Heathrow to Almaty with just a short technical stop in Actau.

Named the best airline in central Asia and India for the last six years, national carrier Air Astana offers direct return flights between Heathrow and Astana from £495. Air Astana Holidays can add stop-over transfers and hotel accommodation, using international brands such as Holiday Inn, Hilton and Marriott, to make up a complete package

Where to eat in Almaty

Sandyk Restaurant very popular restaurant offering authentic traditional Kazakh cuisine. Live traditional music during dinner.

Delpapa  Lively Italian Osteria complete with red checked tablecloths.

Restaurant Lariss Ivannu Khachu  Very tasty Georgian fare. Bakes delicious fresh Georgian bread in-house.

Where to stay while exploring Almaty Region

The Rahat Palace Hotel is a modern four-star hotel well-positioned to get to all the major sights in Almaty. Good size rooms and an excellent breakfast.

Currency of Kazakhstan is the Tenge currently £1 is T 556




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