Inspiro Group - Travel and Logistics
Inspiro Group - Travel and Logistics
Inspiro Group - Travel and Logistics
96, Boulevard Erkindik, Bishkek,
720040, Kyrgyz Republic
Tel.: +996 (312) 30-46-17, 90-12-95
Fax: +996 (312) 90-12-95

Almaty Travel Information

Almaty Travel Information

Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan, and is still its largest city. Most countries with diplomatic representation in Kazakhstan have moved their embassies to Astana, the new capital, in the past year or two. Some maintain consulates in Almaty.

Almaty is the financial, economic, and cultural center of Central Asia. The city boasts a large tourist, student, and expat community, and includes a diverse citizen base of Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Germans, Poles, Chinese, and many more.

Bearings: a small mountain range borders the city to the east and in the far south on a clear day you can the snow capped mountains. The city, in general, slopes from south to north (i.e. you are going south if you are traveling uphill).

Get in
By air
For people from most countries, the easiest way to get to Kazakhstan is by air. Several airlines have regular flights into Almaty, including the low-cost carrier Air Baltic from Riga, Lufthansa, KLM, bmi and Turkish Airlines, to name a few. It's roughly a 7-8 hour flight from Europe. Kazakhstan Airlines is no longer operational, leaving Air Astana the national carrier of the country and operator of most domestic routes. Air Astana, with a fairly modern fleet of Airbuses and Boeings, has direct flights from major European cities such as London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, and is a comfortable and reasonably priced alternative to the European airlines. Visas must be obtained in advance of arrival, as they are no longer available on arrival at the airport, (unless you are arriving from a country that has no consulate, and that type of plane-side visa usually need to be coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at least one week in advance).

Easy connections from Almaty include Moscow, London Heathrow, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Turkey, Seoul, and Dubai with direct flights. Air Arabia flies to Dubai twice a week and Air Astana flies to Dubai daily.

When leaving by air, you need to fill out a customs declaration form. There is a multilingual computerized kiosk available but don't bother with this - it's quicker and easier to fill one out by hand at the stand immediately opposite the entrance to the check-in area. The forms are available in several languages including English and German. Check-in desks open around 3 hours before flight departure and you are not permitted into the check-in area until the desks for your flight have opened. Your customs form will be examined when entering the check-in area; there may be substantial queues.

By train
From Russia:
There are many rail connections between Russia and Kazakhstan. Train 8 goes from Moscow to Almaty, and departs from Kazanski Station. The trip takes about 82 hours, with stops in Saratov, Uralsk, Aktobe, Turkistan, and Shymkent on the way.

From Urumqi, China:
The N955 train leaves every Saturday and Monday night (11.58 Beijing time) direct to Almaty. To buy the ticket in Urumqi the office is in a hotel to the right of the main station. Tickets need to purchased a few days in advance and cost 541 yuan (about USD80). Ticket sale for the Saturday train starts on Monday 10am, for the Monday train it starts Friday 10am. The train on Saturday is very busy, while for the train on Monday it is possible to purchase the ticket on the same day. Organizing the Kazakh visum in Urumqi takes at least 2 working days.

The trip takes 34 hours, six of which are spent clearing Chinese and Kazakh immigration. Taking the bus or flying are better options if you are in a hurry.

If you are leaving Almaty by train remember that there are two main train stations.

By bus
Buses leave from Urumqi and take 14 hours to get to the border at Korgas, and from the border it's another 12 hours into Almaty. They cost Y106 (about USD13.25).

Buses also leave from Yining and it takes about 10 hours to go to Almaty. They cost USD 30 or Y150. These buses leave two or three times in a week, ask the busdrives in Yining when they will go. You could also take a bus to Korgas from Yining (Y30 - Y38) and go to Kazakhstan by foot from Korgas. After being on the other side of the border you could take a taxi which will cost about 3000 Tenge to go to Almaty. The trip from Korgas to Almaty is about 4 to 6 hours.

OVIR, Corner of Baytursnuly & Karasay Batyr, ? 8-3272544145. Mon-Wed & Fri: 10:00-13:00 & 15:00-19:00, Passport collection: 17:00-19:00. Enter the side door through the blue porch and go to window No. 3. You need: photocopies of your passport photo-page and your Kazakh visa as well as your accommodation's address. 28/07/2008 Single-entry visa: KZT745. edit

Get around
Remember that the mountains outside of town are critical to direction. When someone tells you to head "up," they are telling you to head towards the mountains. When someone tells you to head "down," they are telling you to head away from the mountains.

Public buses and trolleys can take you around much of the city for affordable prices (50 tenge per person).

Marshrutki (Russian: Маршрутки) are small privately owned vans which serve much the same purpose as buses, but at a higher price. But you can stop it as a taxi in any place.

Taxis come in two types, those with "Taxi" painted on the side, and every other privately owned vehicle. If you want to go somewhere, stand on the curb and stick your arm out. Pretty soon someone will stop. Tell him where you want to go and negotiate a price (somewhere between 200 and 400 tenge (1,5 - 3 US Dollars) is a normal price for a foreigner taking a short trip). These are really efficient, and although it takes a bit of getting used to, it is the perfect solution to getting around. Usually a car will stop within 30 seconds to 3 minutes of having your hand out. If the driver does not wish to drive to your destination, no problem. The next one will stop a minute or two after. You'll need the name of your destination street and the nearest cross street, in Russian, in order to get to where you want to go. Very few people speak or understand even basic English.

Kazakhstan English Language Theater, Ave. Abay 2. Started in 2001, the Kazakhstan English Language Theater (KELT) is the most professional amateur English language theater in former Soviet Central Asia. KELT does two shows a year, and runs English language theater classes and workshops periodically throughout the year. Located on the campus of KIMEP Institute in the heart of Almaty. Visit KELT online at edit

Turgen Gorge. In the National preserve Ile-Alatau in 90 km from Almaty a delightful place of the nature – Turgen Gorge - is situated. In the gorge that has a depth of 44 km. you can take pleasure from visiting hot springs, waterfalls and plenty of forests. Gorge is famous with its waterfalls and relic Chim-Turgen moss fir-woods that spread over the ground and create a dense fir-tree carpet

Big Almaty Lake. Big Almaty Lake (Bolshoye Almatinskoye Ozero) is one the most admirable mountain lakes of Almaty outskirts, located in Trans-Ili Alatau in the gorge of Bolshaya Almatinka river on the height of 2510 above see level. It lies in the cavity and is like a sparkling mirror, surrounded from all the sides with majestic peaks. Three main peaks tower over the Lake: Peak of Soviet (4317m) – in the South-East, Ozerniy (4110) – in the South, Tourist Peak (3954 m) in the South-West. Depending on the season the Lake changes its color from light-green to turquoise-blue.

Alpine park. Outside town, on the road to Chimbulak. Medeu skating rink is on this road too. Presidential Palace. You will not be allowed to go inside. Nonetheless, the scenery and architecture is breathtaking. If the guards are out front, it means the President is there.

National Museum. Opposite to Presidential Palace. Blue-roofed. Features displays on Kazakh history, from prehistoric times through the Mongol periods to the present. 45-minute guided tours available (in Russian only).

The 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park. Honours the men from Kazakhstan who died on the battlefields of the 2nd World War against Nazi fascism. There is an 'eternal flame' by the war memorial where schoolchildren put flowers on the last day of school, and newlyweds also come to have their photos taken there. In the park is an Orthodox church built in 1870 without a single nail, painted in dollhouse colors with a metallic steeple. You can often hear the beautiful singing coming from inside.

Old orchards. The orchards give Almaty its name. Ironically, most have been destroyed in recent, ill-thought out building developments, but a few remain.

Republic Square/New Square. Former administrative center. Since the capital was moved to Astana, this square has been renovated. TV stations occupy some buildings. There are flower gardens. There is also a Kazakh memorial, consisting of a tall statue of the golden boy, an early Kazakh figure, whose name is Altyn Adam, and circled by metal bas relief panels recounting the history of Kazakhstan, from the time of the fierce Amazon-like queen, to independence 10 years ago.

Arbat. Almaty’s artist row on a tree-lined pedestrian street. "Arbat" - is a nickname of the street. The real name is Zhybek-Zholy (Silk road). On the same street you can visit the big mall - TsUM (in Russian - ЦУМ - Центральный Универсальный Магазин). At the East end of this pedestrian street there is the Silk Way Mall. Here you can find WiFi internet access at cafEmax on the second level (500 tenge for 100 minutes) and a selection of "upscale" shops. Most of these shops are imitations of western chain stores such as Zara. They also imitate western prices.

Chocolate factory. Tours possible.

Medeu. The highest olympic sized ice stadium. More than 180 world records were made on this ice. Fun to visit in winter. Tipsy teenagers teeter across the ice, coloured lights and loud pop create a slightly surreal but fun ambiance. There is also a large mountain-water swimming pool just below the ice rink, open in summer. The water is extremely invigorating, about 15 degrees celsius!

Chimbulak. Ski-resort. Opened from November till April-May. A base for some great hikes. You can hike up to the top to get a great view of the city. Or you can bypass Chimbulak and carry along the road, past the hotel and walk up to the dam and then the glacier. A tough but beautiful walk. Hiking is definitely a highlight here.

Charyn Canyon. The second largest canyon in the world. Located 200km to the east of Almaty. Recommended for tours more than one day. One of the most remarkable nature wonders, left by world ocean is the canyon of Charyn river in 200 km from Almaty. Charyn Canyon is considered to be a miniature of the Grand Canyon carved by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona. It is unusual and very diverse in its forms that remind the towers of fairy-tale castle. That is why canyon has another name- the Valley of Castles. On the slopes there could be found the remains of fossil fauna, dated 300 mln years.

Medeo Ice-skating stadium. Outside town, on the road to Chimbulak. Skate rentals are available.

Ski or snowboard at Chimbulak ski resort.

Hike in the mountains, at least when weather is permitting.

Go to Barakholka, a large vendor-style market, to find name brands (knock-offs) for cheap.

Panfilov Park, a beautiful park in the center of the city, featuring Soviet-era architecture and Cobor Cathedral, built without a single nail.

Walk down the hill one block from the main entrance to Panfilov Park and visit the Green Market, an indoor/outdoor labrynth of stalls selling everything from homemade goat cheese or Korean salads to hand-knit woolen mittens and socks and pirated DVDs and CDs. (Wallet in your front pocket, lest the pickpockets relieve you of your hard-earned money.)

Ride the cable car up to Koktobe for wonderful views of the mountains, vineyards, and Almaty. The cable car leaves from Satpaeva and Dostyk (still sometimes referred to as Lenin street) and costs 500KZT (about $5) one way. Buy souvenirs and have a cup of hot chocolate at a table under the shadow of the TV tower.

Any number of the city's nightclubs of cafes if you're in the mood for dancing.

Pack a picnic and drive 2 hours out to the Tamgaly petroglyphs (about 30 kilometers past Copa off the road to Bishkek). The famous "sunman" is worth the drive.

Drive 3 hours to the famous Charyn canyon and see the gorgeous red and orange sandstone layers.

The "Singing Dunes" are also not too far - a day trip.

As of 13 May 2008, $1 equals about 120 tenge and 1 Euro is 187 tenge. As a comparison: a Snickers bar is 54 tenge; a can of Coke is 55 tenge; a cheese pizza at il Patio is about 800 tenge; a cinema ticket for a movie is about 850 tenge; a small trip about 10 minutes in length in a taxi - 300-400 tenge; cigarettes 50-100 tenge; vodka 350 tenge+, beer 500ml 70 tenge+, a litre of juice is around 135 tenge. Beef is 500-1500 tenge a kilo, pork 400 tenge a kilo, horse meat 1500 tenge a kilo. A loaf of bread is 35 - 50 tenge. A 2 bedroom modern apartment is $2000 a month. Clothing is expensive unless buying knock-offs at Baraholka. Green Market is generally expensive. Ramstor is a large, modern, high profile hypermarket on Furmanov. It is REALLY expensive compared to other stores. Buy in smaller local shops, or Baraholka, to save on costs. If money is not a problem, LOTS of over the top European designers have stores on almost every street throughout Almaty.

On the Arbat street you will find 'TsUM' (stands for 'Centralniy Universalniy Magasin'). Every post-Soviet town has this department store. It's filled with hundreds of identical little counters selling electronic goods on the first floor, and souvenirs and clothes can be found on the second. There is a good selection of souvenirs.

The green market, or 'Zelyoni Bazaar' in Russian, has fresh vegetables, dairy products, and meat, as well as a number of non-food household items. Fruit and vegetables are on the lower level. On the upper level you will find dried fruits, nuts, spices, honey and plants, as well as cheese and meat. The meat section includes horse sausages and is a bit challenging to the nose, so vegetarians beware.The prices increase seasonally, and unless you come from Tokyo or London, you will find it quite expensive, as opposed to your "usual" Asian market shopping experience.

Handmade carpets.
Felt goods. Handmade dolls, rugs, and slippers made with boiled lambswool and natural dyes.

Handcrafted metal jewelry, including a "tumar", which is a pendant that opens like a locket.

Handcrafted leather chess sets in a leather folding case with a board pattern stitched on. In most souvenir shops, and on ground floor of Silkway

One Saturday a month, there is an 'ad hoc' market on Ablai Khan across from the Tsum. Craftsmen from all over Kazakhstan come and sell their wares. It's worth checking out.

In Almaty there is also a market place called Barakholka, which is 4km long and 10 rows wide and can be seen easily it is a very busy place. You can find virtually anything there, and if the price isn't right, you can easily haggle with the merchants. Want to find a $300 winter coat for about $45? It's possible.

As the city continues to modernize, stores and brands such as Levi's, Mango, Diesel, and Adidas continue to establish stores in the city.

Korean restaurants. Almaty has a huge diaspora of ethnic Koreans. The ladies sell their salads at the market places around town, and there are several quite good restaurants. One of the more Korean popular restaurants is in the square in front of the entrance to the Exhibition on Temirazova (a few blocks away from the Intercontinental and the new Holiday Inn). You'll often see business men from Samsung and LG here lunching with people from the Korean embassy. Another popular Korean restaurant is a block north of (down from) Aiteki Bi/two blocks east of Park Panfilova in the ground floor of an apartment building. Strange location, but very popular and very clean.

Modern International restaurants are not easily found around Almaty, but a new lounge restaurant called "boudoir" has picked up the baton, and offers "contemporary global cuisine" in an intimate underground space. The menu includes kangaroo and crocodile dishes, and specialties of the house are the live mudcrabs cooked in 5 different ways, and the chef's selection of homemade icecreams. In January 2008 boudoir introduced "liquid nitrogen ice cream" to the experience, where the chef comes out to the table with base ingredients and makes ice cream at the table with lots of drama and freezing vapours from the superchilled LN2.

Menus are in English, Russian and Kazakh, and the place has the funkiest cocktail menu in Central Asia. Open till midnight 7 days a week. Boudoir is located on Bogenbai Batyr underneath the Kazpost (near Ablai Khan).

Georgian restaurants.
Feature khachapuri, cheese filled bread, eggplant stuffed with nuts, spinach with nuts, and various savory kababs. Try Tbilisi on Zheltoksan or Pirosmani on Ablai Khan (two blocks down from TsUM). Georgian restaurants are a great place for vegetarians to dine.

Indian restaurants.
One of the more popular Indian restaurants is Namaste, on the corner of Kosmonaft and Satpaeva (about mid-way between the Intercontinental and the Hyatt). Service is very slow, but if you have time the food is pretty good. Govindas is a wonderful Indian restaurant that is entirely vegetarian. The food is really quite good and the atmosphere is, for Almaty, remarkable: it is a NON-SMOKING restaurant!!!

Pizza restaurants
Restaurant chain il Patio / Planet Sushi. Predictably passable pizza and decent sushi in a clean and efficient atmosphere at decent prices. Almost all the sites have non-smoking sections, which is unusual in this town.

Mama Mia's, Gogol between Ablai Khan and Panfilova (across from Dastarkhan grocery store). Another pizza restaurant, but with a large assortment of fresh salads (a good place to go when you tire of carrots and potatoes in the winter time). A small, separate non-smoking section. For a change, stop in and order your dishes to go, then walk across the street to Dastarkhan to buy some sodas and pastries for dessert; then walk two blocks east on Gogol and eat in Park Panfilova.

Venezia, On Dostyk (Lenin) between Satpaeva and Abai. Four pages of choices. The pizza has very good thin crust. The restaurant has two rooms that are designated non-smoking.

Individual restaurants
Tinkoff is a fun restaurant with its own microbrewery on site. It is one of a restaurant chain based in Russia. The Almaty restaurant is on Satpaeva between Kosmonaft and Seifulin, and has an excellent array of beer, even if it's a little costly. Turandot is a very cheap and very tasty Chinese eatery with two locations: one on Abai (between Kosmonaft and Zhandosova) attached to the theater building (within walking distance of the Hyatt/circus/amusement park) and the other on Ablai Khan just below Makataeva. The one at the theater has an outside cafe during the summer months. Servings are huge, so don't go overboard! There are plenty of vegetarian dishes to choose from, including tofu dishes. Our favorites are celery with cashew nuts and chicken crusted in sesame seeds.

Tau Dastarkhan. This restaurant is located halfway up to the mountains in a large area made up of "islands" with Kazakh, Russian, Georgian, and Uzbek kitchens. Not to be missed in the summertime. It's as fun to walk around and see the various settings as it is to eat.

Sapphire. This is a late night club and restaurant for the young people. Basic Chinese menu and live DJ with a dance floor. the main drawcard here is the shisha, or 'hubbly bubbly' 'nargile' or 'water pipe'. Other places in Almaty have shisha (fruit flavoured tobacco, smoked for an hour or two from a hookah), but this is one of the few to use real charcoal and authentic Al Fakher shisha tobacco from UAE. The bar delivers the vodkas pretty promptly too.

The grill on top of the hill at Kok Tobe (take the cable car up, near Hotel kazakhstan on Dostyk) in a picturesque setting overlooking Almaty. You are perched over the city on a wooden verandah (some parts nice & shady) and it is an awesome setting. The beers are a bit pricey, but the shashliks are awesome and a few drinks here is a 'must do' experience

Zheti Qazyna, an Uzbek restaurant on Abylay Khan and Makataev. Three rooms, one Uzbek, one Asian (ie Chinese), one air-conditioned European. The Uzbek room has wonderful wood decorations, blue-tiled kitchen you can see into. We had Cheburek (kind of fried pie with different fillings -- lamb, spinach/egg, potato) which were very filling, a fish stew and some Manty which were like large ravioli filled with lamb and pumpkin. We added a bottle of Georgian wine and some mineral water, and the whole lot set us back around $100, but the atmosphere was great.

Princess is Chinese restaurant, near the Baths. Awful service, bad food, eg, two members of my recent five person (Kazakh) party suffered food poisening. A previous evening, food took over an hour to arrive at table and then was not very good. Although some people find the food to be very nice. Princess is usualy crowded with Americans and Asains, looking to eat some very spicy chinese food, people who can't handle spices shouldn't bother trying.

Soho. Well, Run into expat men trolling for local young local women in a smoky atmosphere. Lunch isn't bad - a buffet with a nice assortment of breads, soups, salads, and main dishes called a "business lunch" at a reasonable fixed price. However the evenings are quite pleasant with live music and reasonable drink prices - no entrance fee during the week. Soho is a great place for a single business man to attend during the night. It is not a very classy joint and is usualy packed with Almaty's working woman. Never the less they have one of the best bands in Almaty and YES! they sing in english! Some of their covers are better than the originals, it's a must see event. Try making a booking for a table, to avoid having to stand at the bar.

Mad Murphy's on Tole Bi, unless you're desperate for an Irish pub. The food is predictably mediocre and the bar is thick with smoke and English-speaking expats. Prices are a little steep but you are getting what your money's worth. Some of the best americanized food in Almaty. Although it is filled with middle/elderly buisness men mostly from America and The U.K it has recently attracted a younger crowd becuase of its fabulous live band. On fridays and saturdays the crowd at Murphy's is treated to great live english music, by the end of the night the whole bar is rocking to the band.

Central Tavern - bad service, and they rip you off if you are not local

What to eat
Local food:
"Five fingers", a traditional Kazakh food. "Beshbarmak", a stew with leaves of noodles and pieces of lamb. "Baurzaki", heavy, spongy bread dough cooked in deep fat (similar to a donut, but not sweet). "Plov", a rice dish with meat and carrots or other vegetables. "Shashlik" (Russian: Шашлык) is the most tasty Kazakh food. It is a kebab that is made out of chicken or lamb. Shashlik is not fried, but is grilled over charcoal. Shashlik is popular throughout this part of Central Asia. You can also easily find "doner kebab" or "shaurma" at any number of stands through the city. Just be sure to use the stands with the most customers - it is often the best food, and it is freshly prepared.

Almaty has many modern supermarkets, offering everything from a bakery section to toiletries to vodka. Any food you could possibly want to find is readily available.

There is a chain called "Gros" (really) that has convenient locations around town and a good selection of drinks and snacks. Ramstore also has at least three locations, but is a bit pricier as it caters to expats willing to spend a lot of money on imported food. The favorite stores among locals are Stolichni (super helpful staff and decent fruits/vegetables year 'round, on corner of Ablai Khan and Kabanbai Batyr), Dasterkhan (excellent baked goods, especially cakes and cookies!!! on Gogol between Ablai Khan and Furmanova), and Silkway City (a few locations).

Of course, if you really want to save money and enjoy an adventure, go to the Green Market and bargain with the old ladies selling Korean salads, apples, eggplants, cheese, honey, and even arucola and rosemary sprigs!

Tea is widely available, mostly very good and often quite strong. If you are on a budget this is the thing to order with your food. Tea is culturally important in Kazakhstan - "chai" time is one of the most important things a visitor can engage in to learn about the culture.

Coffee Don't! Unless you like Nescafe. Exception: Modern coffee houses and western style caf?s are appearing in Almaty. They serve good coffee at western prices. Coffee Delia (Kalinina/Furmanova) is very popular with expats and does ok coffee.

Water: The municipal water is more or less drinkable, with no real nasties, but try to boil it if possible. Bottled water is cheap and easily available. When at restaurants, ask specifically for "Tassay" or "Sary-Agash", very good local bottled waters that are a fifth the price you'll pay for your Perrier or Vita if you simply asked for bottled water.

Tien Shan, local brew brewed in a modern factory by German brewmasters - pretty good.

Russian Baltica, numbered from 0 to 9. There's no alcohol in Baltica 0, a lot of it in Baltica 9. Numbers 3 and 5 are quite good and close to what most people are used to.

Be sure to sample Alma-Ata beer, brewed in Almaty.

Two other Kazakhstani beers worth trying are Karaganda and Shymkent. There was a time that Shymkent beer (Zhigulovskaya variety) was one of the best in the Soviet Union. It has a unique flavour, brewed in a factory built by Czechs. Quality may have declined in recent years, however.

Try the local variety, a good one can be had for less than $ 4.00 a bottle. Bebigul is perhaps the most consistently good wine, and it comes in a semidry red or semidry white. Foreign wines, even Georgian ones, are very costly. Do not drink wine in restaurants, it's usually sickly sweet and very expensive. Also, many expensive, imported "wines" sold in stores (even reputable stores) are actually well-made counterfeit labels pasted on bottles of red-tinted water, so beware!

Very good vodka at 4-5 $ per bottle - an alcoholic's paradise. In restaurants that do not usually cater to foreigners you get 200(!) cl if you order a vodka, smaller servings not available.

Buy a bottle of Kazakhstan Vodka to take back. It is in a pretty bottle with a picture of Kazakh hunting with a falcon seen through a "window".

Try Edil vodka, which is made with the pantacrene of local deer antlers.

Corner of Baytursnuly & Karasay Batyr (Near the OVIR). Eight computers and a telephone service but you can't use USB devices. 28/07/2008 KZT240/hour.

In the underpass of Zhibek Zholy & Tolebaev (Near the Silk Way mall). KZT240/hour. 27/07/2008.

Get out
Tamgaly –Temple of Sun.In 170 km from Almaty, in the North-West direction, a unique sanctuary in the open air- Tamgaly is located. In the desert lands, where ancient rocks and gorges tower their crowns, a chain of kurgans-burial grounds lie. This is the very place, where a gallery of rock drawings left by ancient people of Saks and Turks tribes could be found. On the petroglyphs you can see deities, that Kazakh ancient people worshiped, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic creatures, spiritual rites. Nearby Chimbulak is a skiing village. There are a number of ski resorts in the area.

There are the gorgeous Tian-Shan mountains and lakes around Almaty, the most famous of which is the beautiful Big Almaty Lake.

There is a nearby desert park with a giant canyon (Charyn Canyon), although it does not approach the Grand Canyon in size. It also has petroglyphs and waterfalls.

If travelers have several days to spend (and are craving a beach experience), Lake Balkhash, the largest lake in the nation, can be reached by bus within 12 hours or private car within 8 hours. Lake Balkhash is half fresh (the eastern half where the river enters from China) and half salt (the western half). There are a couple of 2-star hotels in the village of Balkhash, which is the half-way point between Almaty and Astana if you want to drive 800 km instead of flying or taking the train.

The Tamgaly petroglyphs, a UNESCO site, are about 2-1/2 hours away by car (on the road to Bishkek). The petroglyphs range from ancient (3,000 years) to "modern" (75 years), and feature pictures of the Sunman and hunting nomad tribes. There are also several grave sites. Not to be missed in the spring, summer, or fall, but watch out for snakes when it's hot!

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, is a 3-1/2 hour drive away on the best highway in Kazakhstan (pot holes are rare and you can keep a 100km pace easily after leaving the Almaty oblast, but watch out for crazy oncoming passers). It is definitely worth the drive if you have a day or so to spend. You'll wind along the foot of the Tien Shan range through incredible landscape created by young volcanoes. Most of the "local" felt goods and rugs sold in Almaty come from tribes in Kyrgyzstan, and can be bought for a quarter of the cost in Kyrgyzstan. Make it into a two-day excursion and stop at Tamgaly petroglyphs on the way from or the return trip to Almaty.

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