ALMATY, 2014 — Located right on the Silk Route in this financial and cultural center of Central Asia, this writer stood on top of the ski slope, the one meant for beginners.
Looking at the colossal scale of nature, with snow-capped 4,000m peaks of the Zailysky Alatau mountain range looming high above the Almaty skyscrapers, it was difficult not to be sucked in by the spirit of adventure.
Strapping up the pair of skis, sliding down the gentle slopes of the famous Shymbulak Ski Resort was a dream come true adventure, with a bit of bravado thrown in.
Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak, stands 2,260 metres above sea level, and is abuzz with Kazakh revellers, since it is just 25km from Almaty’s city centre.
Temperatures range between a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius in the summer and minus seven degrees Celsius in the winter.
The skiing season at Shymbulak normally begins in December and can run into April, and its fame is growing among Kazakhs and Russian skiers, as well as snowboarders.
Short of going to Europe, this is the nearest skiers can get to an Alpine experience – a ski resort with spectacular snow-covered mountain ranges in the backdrop.
Skiing down slope
“A lot of people fall in love with the sport the first time they try on a pair of skis, so you can’t risk not trying. You’ll probably have a great time,” a skier said with a smile, offering all the encouragement one needed.
With mercury plunging to six degrees below zero, though the sun was shining in the sky, three journalists from Malaysia could only manage a couple of rounds, as it was getting late.
Before skiing down, the skiers or snowboarders need to step onto a carpet lift, known as the ‘magic carpet’, to transport visitors to the beginner or intermediate slopes. For experts, a cable car gondola lifts them to longer and higher trails.
Adventure is always tinged with hesitation, and when a five year old whizzes past you full speed, even as you mull over whether you will have the guts to survive this beginner’s slide that is actually more like a gentle caress of the slope, you know the moment is going to live with you forever.
Half an hour of skiing, and this writer came to know the wages of not being prepared. Fingers had gone numb and legs screamed for mercy. Surely, a pair of jeans and thin gloves were no alternative to proper skiing gear.
However, skiers and snowboarders can bring their own equipment or simply rent gear from the outlet at the resort, paying 5,000 tenge or RM100 (RM1=50 tenge) for an adult and 3,000 tenge (RM60) for children under 10 as rental for skis, boots and poles.
A four hour skiing pass comes for 3,000 tenge (RM60) for an adult and 1,750 tenge (RM35) for children during off-peak days. During peak season, the rates are somewhat higher.
Also, the resort houses a hotel and a variety of restaurants and cafe, including PappaRoti, a coffee shop brand of Malaysian origin.
Gondola and ice-skate
To reach the base of Shymbulak, skiers needs to hop on the world’s third longest gondola ride to cover 4.5 km in about 16 minutes, definitely not meant for the faint-hearted.
With the return tickets priced at 2,500 tenge (RM50), the journey from the Medeo ice-skating rink to the peak was worth the ride for its breath-taking views of some amazing scenery and awe-inspiring nature, the snow-covered mountains and pine trees.
Since adventure and a date with snow seemed to be the order of the day, a go at ice-skating at the world’s highest ice rink seemed just the thing to try, notwithstanding the reality that one was soon skidding all over the ice.
Noticeable for its Soviet speed-racing mural, the enormous oval sugar bowl style Medeo ice skating rink is located 1,691.2 metres above sea level. Built in 1972 for speed skating, the facilities were upgraded for the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
Admission tickets cost 1,800 tenge (RM36) for adults and 1,000 tenge (RM20) for renting gear, though beginners may look for more conservative choices.
Shopping for souvenir
The Green Bazaar, also known as Zelyoni Bazaar, certainly makes for an interesting wander. Any visit to Almaty is incomplete without a stopover at this city’s famous shopping area, particularly for those adept in the art of bargaining.
Tourists can find an endless variety of foods, such as chocolates, nuts and a range of meats, including horse meat, the Kazakhi speciality, and other traditional delicacies. Also available in the Bazaar are handicrafts, souvenirs and also winter wear, all at reasonable prices.
Most salespersons at the enormous bazaar are friendly and helpful, even as they struggle with improvised sign language with haggling customers. Very few know English, and communication can be an irksome barrier, though access to the bazaar is easy, and it is well organised.
Armed with a calculator and determined to strike a good bargain, this writer bought a number of fridge magnets for 200 tenge (RM4) each, a Kazakhstan football jersey for 3,500 tenge (RM70) and a kilo of pistachios nuts for 2000 tenge (RM40).
Although the Kazakhstanis are very hospitable and friendly towards foreigners, language does become a barrier, since few people speak English in the country.
Most people speak Kazakh and Russian, and signboards in the Cyrillic script of the Slavik people can be quite a challenge for tourists.
One will be lucky to come across some young urban youth who do speak fluent English, but their numbers are very low. However, most flight attendants and hotel receptionists were able to dabble in some English, though the media entourage had to fall back on the services of an interpreter to communicate with the locals.
While sign language is a universal trick up any tourist’s sleeve, technology also helped with many using an application downloaded to smartphones to translate words from English into Russian, and vice versa, as they interacted with people in restaurants and at airports.
One unique feature of urban life in Astana and Almaty was the 24/7 access to a taxi, but because of a rather peculiar tradition. One can wave down any passing car, and invariably the driver will ferry you to your destination if it is anywhere on his way, albeit for a small fee.
“We don’t have to use official taxis in most cities here. Anyone can be a taxi driver as long he owns a car,” explained Bolat, a 20-year-old Kazakh youth.
According to the Counsellor of the Malaysian Embassy based in Astana, Amarjit Singh Sarjit Singh, Kazakh people are generally law abiding citizens, something that makes people confident when they wave down a car, just as if using a taxi.
“Whether it’s midnight, and whether the passenger or the driver is a man or a woman, they know if you mess with the law, the law will come after you. So nobody wants to take the risk, as Kazakhs are trained to always follow the rules,” he said.
The third Secretary of the Malaysian Embassy, Jamaaiah Che Ross, said Astana is a safe city and tourists are well received by the Kazakh people, especially by the younger generation.
“Generally, you will feel safe here. You can even see that women walk alone without any fear,” she said.
Members of the media entourage personally experienced this when they ventured out at night to sample local restaurants and cafes. Though unaccompanied by local residents, everyone felt safe.
Well worth visit
While Astana, the second coldest capital in the world, is a beautiful, vibrant city punctuated by tremendously futuristic architectural buildings, Almaty, with a population of 1.5 million, offers immense natural beauty and endless tranquility.
Since it’s time to conclude this series, it’s also time for a full confession: this writer fell in love with the beautiful country, especially the city of Almaty.