ALMIGHTY AL­MATY

Kaza­khs are right­fully proud of their vi­brant, mod­ern na­tion with oo­dles of at­trac­tions

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION KAZAKHSTAN - ED GANNON

OK, let’s get the Bo­rat thing out of the way. Tell peo­ple you are trav­el­ling to Kaza­khstan and nine times out of 10 the re­sponse is: “Ah, Bo­rat”. Twelve years af­ter Sacha Baron Co­hen poked fun at the Kaza­khs in his fa­mous par­ody film, Bo­rat still looms large. So much so that while I was there, six Czech tourists thought it a good idea to dress in Bo­rat mank­i­nis and pose in the cap­i­tal, As­tana.

The stunt earned them a $90 fine and, pre­sum­ably, frost­bite, with the tem­per­a­ture hov­er­ing below zero.

It is a joke that is wear­ing thin. Ask the coun­try’s for­eign min­is­ter, Kairat Ab­drakhmanov, who im­me­di­ately rolls his eyes, then reels off a list of movies that have ei­ther made fun of his coun­try or de­picted it as a cen­tre for ter­ror­ism.

“Air Force One, the ter­ror­ists at the start of that were from Kaza­khstan,” he says. “And we’ve been in a cou­ple of James Bond films as the bad guys.”

He ad­mits Bo­rat is a ma­jor im­pe­tus be­hind the es­tab­lish­ment of the staterun Kazakh Tourism Na­tional Com­pany, the aim of which is to show the coun­try as a vi­brant, mod­ern and sta­ble coun­try at­trac­tive to tourists and in­vestors.

This is a coun­try try­ing to shed its Soviet-era im­age and open its doors. Con­sider that you could read about the Czech Bo­rat wannabes on Face­book and Twit­ter while in Kaza­khstan. Con­trols are more strict in some other “stan” coun­tries and neigh­bours, such as China.

Kaza­khstan is the ninth big­gest coun­try in the world by size (Aus­tralia is sixth), with a rel­a­tively mea­gre pop­u­la­tion of 18 mil­lion. Part of the for­mer USSR, it has only known one leader since 1991, Pres­i­dent Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev.

For a part of the world known for its hot­head strong­men lead­ers, Kaza­khstan ap­pears to be a hot­bed of sta­bil­ity, be­ing home to a stag­ger­ing 131 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties.

While loom­ing large over the coun­try with seem­ingly ev­ery sec­ond build­ing named in his hon­our, Nazarbayev has earned praise as a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate who is grad­u­ally trans­form­ing the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem from a pres­i­den­tial dic­ta­tor­ship to a par­lia­men­tary democ­racy.

The re­source-rich coun­try shares a 7500km-long border with Rus­sia (the dis­tance from Lon­don to New York) and 1750km border with China. Keep­ing those volatile pow­er­houses apart is a ser­vice to hu­man­ity.

The coun­try’s big­gest city is Al­maty, which sits in the coun­try’s south, near the Kyr­gyzs­tan border and at the base of the Zai­ilisky Alatau moun­tain range. Spec­tac­u­lar moun­tains up to 3500m high vir­tu­ally lean over the city.

Few cities of two mil­lion peo­ple can boast a 25-minute drive from city cen­tre to a ski re­sort cable car, but that is what you get with Al­maty. For the skier, the city of­fers the beauty of ski­ing all day with­out re­sort-priced ac­com­mo­da­tion, food and drink.

The Shym­bu­lak Ski Re­sort is the city’s clos­est ski re­sort, at a base el­e­va­tion of 2200m, up to a peak of 3200m, pro­vid­ing for long sea­sons on its 20km of runs. This is the place that, in 2014, closed so Prince Harry could ski in pri­vate. Ap­par­ently there was no need to, with crowds of­ten sparse, and lit­tle, if any, queu­ing for chair lifts. On the day we vis­ited, two weeks into the sea­son, there were few skiers about, de­spite me­tre-deep snow.

Opened in 1954, Shym­bu­lak was once the train­ing base for the USSR win­ter Olympic ski team and un­der­went a ma­jor ren­o­va­tion in 2011, with a new neigh­bour­ing re­sort in de­vel­op­ment.

At the base of the re­sort, sit­ting in a deep val­ley, is the Medeo skat­ing rink. Even if you are un­sure about don­ning the blades, a visit to this spec­tac­u­lar set­ting is a must.

Al­maty car­ries the motto of the city of 1000 colours. It could also be the city of mon­u­ments, be­fit­ting a city that in 2016 cel­e­brated its 1000th birth­day. Stat­ues of fa­mous Kazakh philoso­phers, writ­ers and po­ets dot city streets, but it’s the mon­u­ment of Pan­filov’s Twenty-Eight Guards­men, sit­u­ated in the park of the same name, that is sim­ply breath­tak­ing.

The 28 men, part of an Al­maty in­fantry­men unit led by Gen­eral Pan­filov, died de­fend­ing Moscow against the ad­vanc­ing Ger­mans in 1941. Their ac­tions de­layed the Nazi ad­vance, al­low­ing the de­fence of Moscow to be bol­stered. Cast in bronze, the enor­mous in­stal­la­tion dra­mat­i­cally con­veys the dark­ness, yet tri­umph, of the men’s mis­sion.

In the same 18ha park is the con­trast­ing Holy As­cen­sion Cathe­dral. It is no less breath­tak­ing, but in such a dif­fer­ent way. The cathe­dral is a riot of colour, and can­not help but lift the spirit.

It is re­put­edly the sec­ond largest wooden struc­ture in the world. A few min­utes’ walk away is the Green Bazaar, a sym­phony of smells, noise and en­ergy. Green Bazaar is the place to buy sou­venirs, and the ven­dors are happy to hag­gle.

Al­maty is also a city of cul­ture, with 26 mu­se­ums and 12 ma­jor the­atres, in­clud­ing the Kaza­khs State Aca­demic The­atre of Opera and Bal­let. There is also a de­vel­op­ing con­tem­po­rary arts cul­ture, in­clud­ing the newly es­tab­lished con­tem­po­rary art space, Trans­forma.

And then there are the parks, vast and beau­ti­ful ex­panses of green through­out the sprawl­ing city cen­tre. To take them all in at once, ride the cable car up to Kok Tobe moun­tain for great views of the city.

From here you can also see the eye­catch­ing Sunkar In­ter­na­tional Ski Jump­ing Com­plex that looms large over Al­maty. The com­plex has five world-class jumps that are so close to the city you ex­pect the jumpers to land on the free­way.

You could eas­ily spend a week in Al­maty, with day trips to Big Al­maty

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