In the beginning of the year, I was planning a trip to Kazakhstan for snowboarding. Unfortunately, I was not able to go on this trip that time. I would not let this year end without taking this trip. Air Arabia is flying conveniently from Sharjah to Almaty in just 4 hours and also Flydubai has good connections to what used to be the capital of the country until 1997 under the influence of the Soviet Union.
Until today, it is the biggest city in the country and still the trading as well as cultural hub. Now the capital is Astana, which is located further north. Visa for most nationalities is on arrival. However, make sure you check beforehand. You will need to exchange money at the airport and before you are heading to the mountains as there are no options otherwise.
From the airport the drive to the resort Shymbulak in the Zaiilisky Alatau Mountains takes about 45 minutes. If you arrive early in the morning, it is advisable to arrange a car through the hotel as the street from Medeu to Shymbulak is closed and can only be passed with special permission. You can also take the lift from Medeu to Shymbulak, which takes another 30 minutes. In Medeu itself, you will find one of the highest ice skating rinks of the world at an altitude of almost 1.700 m above sea level. You just need to make sure you are there in time as they have specific opening timings and breaks in-between in order to prepare the ice. Equipment rental is available as well as lockers.
Everything is well organized. Nevertheless, always carry an ID with you, as you require leaving it as deposit for your rentals. The experience is definitely worth it. In contrast to all the ice rinks, I have seen so far, this is something different. You can take breaks, have a coffee to warm up, some food to boost your energy or just relax in one of the little snack bars around the rink.
From Shymbulak you have direct access to the ski slopes. The employees are very helpful with whatever you need. You can obtain discounts for your ski pass if you stay there. The best nevertheless, are the Sauna facilities. There is one in the hotel itself, which can be used in the evening. Timings for male and female vary and you will get to know from the reception. There is also a traditional sauna situated in a separate building outside the hotel. This is the perfect ending to a long day in the cold.
The ski and snowboard rental is just a few steps from the hotel below the ski lift. Clothes and gloves should be brought along otherwise, everything is available. When I checked for the temperature before travel, it was showing -21°C. Well prepared with plenty of warm clothes the adventure could begin. Thankfully the sun was out which made the temperatures much more bearable.
Hitting the slopes for snowboarding I was so excited to experience the beauty of the mountains for the first time this year. My usual trips to Ski Dubai were finally rewarded with the pleasure to be out in the nature for this activity. Surprisingly there were hardly any tourists around. Neither in the mountains nor in Almaty itself. To hear English was very rare or any other language than Russian. It was great to see that the locals are big fans of winter sports as well. Whether it is snowboarding, skiing or ice-skating. However, there are so many other things to do as well. You can do snow hikes with experienced guides or paragliding from the top of the mountain at 3.200 meters. For that, you should contact Samuryk Paragliding school and club at the Information Centre. It was my first time to paraglide in the winter and it is definitely freezing but so worth it! You will also be able to film the flight and have a great memory. In Shymbulak itself, there are various restaurants to enjoy delicious national dishes. If you are hesitant with the local food, there are plenty of options to choose from. Nevertheless, there is hardly any dish without meat. If you still want to be on the safe side, you will also find international restaurants throughout Kazakhstan and even in Shymbulak.
For the last day before heading back, exploring Almaty was on the list. Therefore, the last night would be at the Mercure Almaty City Center Hotel. It turned out to be an amazing choice due to its location and facilities. The most important landmarks are easy to reach walking.
A must visit is the Bazar where you can shop for your souvenirs. From there you can pass through the fruit and vegetable market where you can try delicious specialties. On the other side and a few steps away lies the central mosque, which is an impressive building and a nice place to warm up. The Central Park is probably nicer during the summer time. It holds a small Zoo, Dolphinarium and lots of activities for kids. St. Nicholas Cathedral lies on the other side of the city but is easily reachable with bus number 25, which costs about 50 Fils for the whole trip. Public transportation is very convenient in Almaty. The metro is supposed to be worth a visit as well. Back at the hotel and happy for the amazing Spa with a view to warm up in the sauna. Probably the best massage I had so far to recover from the past days on the slopes. For the evening a visit to the Opera was on the program. It is definitely worth a visit if time permits. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office at very affordable prices starting at 20 AED.
To round up the evening, there is a great traditional restaurant to enjoy the local food. The staff at the hotel has great knowledge of the city and is happy to help you out with arranging everything you desire.
Such a wonderful place to spend a couple of days or even more. Highly recommendable for a short and active getaway! ■
Written by: Denise Ostermann
Photos: Denise Ostermann
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