Kazakhstan - short trip to the giant country of Central Asia is written by Jens Skovgaard Andersen.
Qualification for the World Cup
As a travel-loving football fan, I usually look for good excuses to go to obscure places to watch ball.
Denmark's national team was in a pool with Kazakhstan in the qualification tournament for the WC 2018, and this of course means that there is an away game on the program in Kazakhstan. In footballing terms, Kazakhstan is in Europe, but a quick look at a globe reveals that it might be a bit of an innuendo.
Well, a small western corner of the vast country is just within the geographical area of 'Europe', but the rest is in every sense Central Asia.
As the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, hosts World exhibition EXPO17, and the modern national stadium is therefore involved for that purpose, Denmark's match was relegated to a more traditional open stadium in the old capital Almaty.
Almaty, on the other hand, is in the south-eastern corner of the country very close to the Chinese border and just over the border from Kyrgyzstan, so it's quite a trip.
Luckily for someone like me, Turkish budget carrier Pegasus Airlines flies to a bunch of fun destinations, and Almaty is one of them. When I searched for flights over there, I could see that it would be cheaper to fly to Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, and take a minibus – which is called 'marshrutka' in those parts – across the border to Almaty in Kazakhstan.
The bus journey takes approximately 3-4 hours including border control, so it is manageable. And the price is just under 40 kroner, so there was rather reason to complain about that.
A trip to Kazakhstan can start in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Arriving very early in the morning at Bishkek's modest airport, passport control went smoothly. Visas are currently free for Danes in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and I waited in the arrivals hall until the most aggressive taxi drivers had found other customers or calmed down.
The free wifi at the airport was used to find the cheapest way to get into town and it turned out there was a marshrutka right outside the terminal into town for a fiver. I took it.
The Marshrutka driver was nice and dropped me off at the bus terminal even though he had no stop there. I, on the other hand, was the last one to get off, so it didn’t matter that much.
At the bus terminal, I quickly found a minibus with 'Almaty' on a sign in the windshield, and then it was just a matter of waiting until there were enough passengers for us to leave. We only drive when it is full. That part is very civilized, and it does not matter that someone pays extra to be a tourist, or that someone fills more than a single seat with their belongings.
The trip north around the Tian Shan mountains to Almaty was quiet and the views were impressive and gave a good impression of the vast grasslands and rocky landscape of Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
Beautiful Almaty - the ancient capital of Kazakhstan
In Almaty, time passed quickly with being calm with the 43 other Danes who had taken the long road to battle. Cheap beer and good food - if you are into meat on skewers - made the mood high.
Almaty's sights include a funicular up a hill that the rest of us would probably call a mountain, and from here there is a view of the city and the real mountains that stretch on the horizon to the south. Up at the top there is also a very Russian-like fairground, which you know from all the parks in the former Soviet Union.
And then there is a very small zoo with ostriches and a statue of the Beatles.
The actual football match in Kazakhstan went as it should, and the Danish fans had an excellent day and evening around the stadium with even more cheap draft beers, countless photos with the locals and a victory for the national team.
My little hostel, which is rightly a converted 3-bedroom apartment in a block of flats close to the stadium, was not used much, as Almaty in Kazakhstan is a cozy town to stroll in.
Goodbye to Kazakhstan and hello again to Bishkek
The return to Bishkek was the same as the outbound trip, and this time I was joined by another traveling football fan who was also going out of Kazakhstan and on to Kyrgyzstan and traveling around.
When you're in Central Asia anyway, you might as well take in as much as possible.
After some confusion at the border, we arrived as planned at the bus terminal in Bishkek and went to my hostel in the center, where I checked in, and my temporary travel companion Thomas and I then went exploring the city.
Bishkek has a bit of a bad reputation among travelers as there isn't supposed to be that much to do. And that's probably true too. However, as in all other ex-Soviet cities, there are large squares, imposing buildings, statues of various heroes and lively parks.
It was only a single day in the city, but it could well have been a little longer.
The next day the trip went once more to the bus terminal. This time, the goal was to find a bus to Lake Issyk-Köl, which is one of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan. I found a marshrutka to Cholpon-Ata on the north coast about 4 hours from the capital, while Thomas took a longer trip around the lake to Karakol at the eastern end.
In Cholpon-Ata, the main attraction is the beaches, which attract tourists from the local area in droves in high season. It was obviously not high season when I was there. A few days of relaxation and walks were wonderful and it gave a tinge of the feeling of being on holiday. But then the country road called again.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had been two fantastic travel destinations. Now the adventure was reaching its end.
I was going to fly from Bishkek to Istanbul in the afternoon, so I was up early and with marshrutka back to the bus terminal in Bishkek. You get to see a lot of asphalt and views that way.
In Bishkek, a taxi to the airport was found, and the short trip to Central Asia was coming to an end this time. Ahead waited 3 days in Istanbul and a ticket home to Copenhagen.
A Central Asian seed has been sown, which will probably grow big in me, and I will definitely return. And I already have a ticket lying at home to Kazakhstan again. Central Asia is calling.
Have a good trip to Kazakhstan and Central Asia
You must see this on your trip to Kazakhstan
- Kolsai Lake
- Charyn Canyon
- Ascension Cathedral