Winter in Kazakhstan
Winter is a great time to visit Kazakhstan. Wrap up warm and get out and about to explore the world class cross-country skiing facilities situated near Astana, try some ice fishing or visit an ice hockey match. In Almaty you can go downhill skiing or snowboarding, ice skating, have a spin around the park on a horse-drawn sleigh or catch a performance of a classic ballet in this land of snow and ice.
Winter in Astana
While Astana is not blessed with snowy mountains on its doorstep like Almaty, it still has a lot to offer skiers. In and around the city there are numerous opportunities to try out cross-country skiing, a form of skiing on flatter terrain. This type of skiing is all about propelling yourself along using your own strength rather than relying on the slopes to get you going.
The snow-covered paths of Astana’s Central Park are good for beginners. More advanced cross-country skiers may want to try the biathlon trails around the purpose-built ski base at Shchuchinsk, 250 km north of the capital. The base also has ski jumping facilities and serves as Kazakhstan’s National Ski Centre, training the country’s ski jumping and biathlon specialists. You can find more information at www.skisite.kz.
In winter, many of Kazakhstan’s rivers and lakes freeze over and when this happens a hardy breed of fishing folk appear. Wrapped in layers of padded clothing, these figures can spend hours huddled over a hole in the ice, seemingly oblivious to the frigid temperatures, while they wait for the fish to bite.
Besides a fishing rod, the main piece of equipment you need to catch your supper from the frozen depths is an ice screw, which is used to make a hole in the ice. You also need lots of warm clothing and a good supply of patience.
Look for where other people are fishing to find the best spots and, more importantly, this is where the ice will be thick enough to support your weight.
Astana’s River Yesil is a popular spot for ice fishing, but the more adventurous anglers head for Lake Tengiz, which teems with pike perch and bream. The lake is located in the Korgalzhyn State Nature Reserve, which is a three-hour drive from the capital.
Astana is a great place to catch some of the action in the fast and furious sport of ice hockey. Barys plays in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), Europe and Asia’s answer to North America’s
NHL (National Hockey League). The
KHL brings together teams from Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Finland, Slovakia and China.
Barys, which translates as ‘snow leopard’, play in the KHL’S Eastern Conference and the team includes players from Canada, Russia and Sweden as well as Kazakhstan. Its home is the 11,500 capacity, state-of-the-art Barys Arena, which opened in 2015. The arena is also used as a venue for concerts and other sports events.
The hockey season runs from September to February and there are home matches in Astana up to three times a week – you can check the schedule on hcbarys.kz and tickets can be booked online via the ticketon.kz website.
Winter in Almaty
The peaks of the Ile Alatau mountain range are less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Kazakhstan’s commercial hub and these mountains are the perfect place for some winter fun. They offer a complete package of activities for winter sports enthusiasts with downhill ski runs for all levels from complete beginners to experts and some dedicated snowboarding runs.
For skiers who like to beat the crowds and get on the slopes early, the S.N.E.G Hotel is ideal. This small boutique hotel can only be reached by cable car from the Shymbulak Ski Resort, so in the early morning you can step out of the door and have the slopes to yourself for a few hours as the cable car does not start running until 09:30. There’s an on-site restaurant with amazing mountain views but the hotel only has six rooms, so it’s advisable to book well in advance.
Medeu, the world’s highest ice-skating rink at an altitude of 1,691 metres, is a perennial winter favourite with Almatinians. Because of this it can get jam packed at weekends, but if you can, come on a week day then you may be lucky to have the ice more or less to yourself.
The rink has an early session from 10:00 until 16:00 (15:00 on Wednesday and Thursday) and a late session from 18:00 until 23:00, every day except Monday. It has skate hire and it’s a 30-minute ride from the city on the number 12 bus, which leaves from the stop opposite the Hotel Kazakhstan.
Big Almaty Lake, enclosed by soaring mountains, is an easy day trip from the city. The lake is so close to Almaty yet it feels a world away from the bustling city. The alpine setting is amazing with the turquoise lake framed by fir-tree clad, snowy peaks. It takes about an hour to reach in a 4x4 and often, when the weather is bad in Almaty, conditions around the lake can be perfect with the sun shining and bright blue skies.
In the city
With its snow-dusted evergreen trees and the multi-coloured Ascension Cathedral at its heart, Almaty’s
Panfilov Park looks like something from a 19th-century Russian novel. To complete the feeling of having stepped back in time, in the depth of winter you can take an exhilarating spin around the park in a horse-drawn sleigh.
To warm up a bit, head for the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, located in the park in a turn-of-the-century wooden building. Here you can learn all about the traditional music of Kazakhstan and hear it being played. The museum opens from 10:00 to 19:00 every day of the week except for Monday.
Continuing the cultural theme, Almaty’s Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre will be performing Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet The Nutcracker from
21-23 December. This famous ballet has become synonymous with Christmas and New Year since it was first performed in 1892. This December’s production features stars from leading ballet troupes in Russia and Germany. Tickets, with prices starting from
10,000 tenge ($27) are likely to sell out fast, so check out ticketon.kz to book your seat.