My flight to Almaty wasn't until 11:35am so had an unrushed morning before setting off to the airport on the Dubai metro.
About to check in for my flight on Air Astana, the national airline of Kazakhstan that first flew in 2002.
Grabbing a chicken fajita airside. Kazakhstan had recently extended visa-free entry for a handful of countries so I was using my UK passport for this trip.
Today's flight was a simple direct DXB-ALA flight, taking a slightly indirect route flying over Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (and not Afghanistan).
The view out the window shortly after takeoff to Dubai and Sharjah beyond. The flight was quite full and seemed to be almost all Kazakh expats flying home.
Some Air Astana crackers and tomato juice I was served shortly after the seat belt signs were turned off.
Roast chicken and potatoes along with strawberry cheesecake and arabic mezze for lunch. Quite tasty for an 'economy' meal! A friendly Kazakh lady I was sitting next to was interested with all the photo's I was taking, and inquired if it was my first trip to Kazakhstan. She said she worked for Air Astana and was very interested in my feedback. I assured her everything was great and much better than the only other airline on this route (LCC flydubai).
Flying high above Uzbekistan.
And the snow-capped mountains in Ugam-chatkal National Park.
On approach over the city to Almaty International Airport. After a smooth touchdown on the runway almost everyone broke out into hearty applause!
And disembarking for the short bus ride to the terminal at 5:40pm.
After a bit of confusion (a few foreigners including me forgot to fill out an entry form), I was stamped into Kazakhstan. The lady I sat next to on the plane was a little concerned about my plan to catch a taxi into the city (as they are notoriously unscrupulous), so she organised an honest driver to take me into the city.
With my driver Rashid on the way to my hotel in Almaty. He was quite friendly and we had a good chat. He said he was a Kazakh born in Kyrgyzstan. He showed me photo's of his beautiful girlfriend, also from Kyrgyzstan, but had a Kygyz mother and Kazakh father. Unfortunately this mean't his parents weren't too keen on them to marry though.
After a few false turns (the hotel location on Google maps was wrong), I finally made it to my hotel, Hotel Tahar. As I was only going to be in Almaty for ~12 hours I had chosen a cheap, but well reviewed budget hotel. It was in a good location in the city centre, very clean and for only 4,500 tenge ($19) for the night I was quite happy.
I then went for an evening stroll in Almaty. The first stop was to exchange some USD to Kazakh Tenge. The currency had been devalued by ~25% only a week ago so made everything a bit more reasonably priced.
Ascension Cathedral, the second tallest wooden building in the world.
Locals enjoying the warm summer evening.
I then went for dinner at a Georgian Restaurant and had some delicious Beef Chashushuli and Lamb manti (dumplings). The total price was 4,400 tenge (~$18).
Going down the escalator at Zhibek Zholy metro station.
On the ride for one stop north. The metro is quite new, and was opened in 2011 after 23 years of construction.
And finishing my journey at Raiymbek Batr station before heading back to my hotel for a good nights rest before tomorrow's adventure.
Outside my hotel ay 7am, about to picked up by our guide/driver, Sergey, in his J70 series 4WD Landcruiser. Sergey was born and bred in Almaty. On the trip also were a Dutch couple, Remco and Sandra, who were exploring Kazahstan for 2 weeks after crossing over from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan previously in the week.
Today's plan was to head east out of Almaty, first stopping in Baiseit (A) for breakfast before continuing on to Sharyn Canyon (B) for a 2 hour hike. Then proceeding on to the village of Saty (C), where our homestay was, and then doing an excursion to Lake Kaindy (D) in the afternoon.
Negotiating the hectic early morning traffic on the outskirts of Almaty.
Stopping to get some fuel.
A cemetery as we head east. Islam is the religion of about 70% of the population in Kazakhstan.
Stopping at Baiseit at about 10am to have a break and get some supplies.
Getting some fruit.
And some Shashlik for'second breakfast'. I had only had a muesli bar and some nuts for breakfast in Almaty so feasted on the tasty beef and bread.
Continuing our journey east.
And stopping to admire the beautiful mountain scenery.
And the seemingly endless plains.
We arrived at the entrance of Sharyn National Park at about 12pm, ready for our 2 hour hike.
Beginning the hike down the 'Valley of Castles'.
The cool air and scenery made for a pleasant 45 minute hike down the valley.
And a panoramic photo with the cirrus clouds above.
And the Charyn River at the bottom of the valley.
Trekking back up the valley with Sandra in the distance dwarfed by all the 'castles'.
A UAZ-452 off-road van to shuttle people back up the valley.
And back at the top, looking down on the surreal 'Valley of Castles' below.
Back in the Landcruiser again for the journey to Saty, with the Kyrgyz border only ~50k's in front of us and the Chinese border ~120k's behind us.
Trying to negotiate around a local 'roadblock'.
We had ran out of tarmac at this stage and were now on loose gravel roads.
Stopping to take in the breath-taking scenery of Saty Gorge.
At about 3:30pm we finally made it to our homestay in the village of Saty, and about to enjoy the friendly hospitality of a local Kazakh family.
The outdoor toilet out the back with an amazing view!.
At about 4pm we sat down for a late lunch of Plov with our host family and definitely didn't go hungry.
Fording a river in the Landcruiser as we set off up the valley to see Lake Kaindy.
And cruising through the mud.
Stopping to chat with a local in a Lada Niva 4x4.
Flying through the trees.
We then reached the end of a road for the final hike down to the Lake, where a local family was staying in a Yurt.
After a short 10 minute hike, we took in the awe of the surreal beauty of Lake Kaindy.
The lake was created as a result of an enormous limestone landslide, triggered by an earthquake in 1911.
We then walked up the track to see the view from above. The flooded fir trees have not yet decayed away, with their dry tops rising above the cold water.
And on the way back at dusk, after I got my boots and trousers wet from crossing the river to get this shot!
Sunset with Saty on the left-middle.
Back at our homestay in Saty with my room and bed for the night at the end of day 2.
And in the wood-fired and steam filled Russian sauna. A great way to relax and unwind after an awesome day exploring the Kazakhstan country-side.
Another hearty Kazakh meal of Beşbarmaq for dinner.
The moon was out but we still got to see the stars before getting a good nights sleep for another day of exploring.
Omelette for breakfast on day 3.
The local family also had cows which they would hand-milk, and after a special request they gave me a glass of fresh milk to taste. Much better than the supermarket stuff! We also got to try some home-made chesse.
Todays plan was to set out from Saty (A) and drive to Lower Kolsai Lake (B) to do some hiking before returning to Saty for some lunch. Then heading east again, stopping for fuel (C), taking in an amazing view of the Sharyn River (D), heading north-west before leaving the tarmac again (E) to head up through Kok Pek Pass and onto our camp-site for the night (F).
On the gravel road for the ~40 minute drive.
And at Lower Kolsai Lake for a 3 hour hike through the valley.
Some friendly locals trying to catch some fish. They were speaking mostly Russian and/or Kazakh and I only spoke English but we managed to have a bit of a chat.
Taking in the amazing view and beautiful deep blue water. Such a contrast from Dubai!
We had 3 hours before heading back to Saty, so I made the most of it to venture into the forest.
And a selfie before I had to head back.
We then drove back to Saty. Outside the local mosque in Saty, where the call was being made for Friday prayers.
And back at our homestay for lunch, with their cute dog called Bani. Very hard to take a photo of her as she always wanted to rush up to you and lick you to death!
Spicy beef and noodle soup for our final meal in Saty.
Before we headed off, our homestay family were very gracious and let me take their portraits.
Back on the road again for the four hour drive to Kok Pek pass.
Stopping at a small town to refuel.
And at a shop across the road to stock up on some Kazakh candy.
A panoramic photo of the Sharyn River from above.
We then headed off-road again. On a bridge over the Chilik River.
The dark clouds and grey scenery again made for some surreal and beautiful views.
On the dirt track up Kok Pek pass.
And the barren but very picturesque landscape.
Clouds rolling over the mountains.
In the Landcruiser heading through the pass.
Our 4WD dwarfed by the dramatic Kazakh landscape.
We reached our riverside campsite just before 6pm and then pitched the tents before dusk.
Our camp-site under the trees lower right, with the sun trying to peak through the clouds at dusk at the end of the valley.
Fire Control. The 'Chinese Wall' Rocks in the distance.
We then sat down for some dinner rustled up by Sergey with beef, potato and pumpkin stew with bread and coleslaw.
Warming up by the campfire with Sergey, Sandra and Remco with some hot tea.
And my comfy sleeping bag for my night in the tent.
After a decent night's rest, I went for a short hike up to see the sun rise over the mountains.
Simple but tasty breakfast of eggs and bread for breakfast after rolling up the sleeping bags and breaking down the tents.
Today we would head west from our campsite (A) along the Assy Plateau, stopping at the Assy Obervatory (B), going for a short hike to see a waterfall in the Turgen valley (C), stopping for lunch on the main road (D) before making the final journey back to Almaty.
Stopping to take in the view of the Assy Plateau.
The Assy Plateau is >2000m above sea level, and is used as pastoral land in the summer before becoming covered in snow in the winter. In the distance are two Yurts used by the Shepherds.
Goats and sheep.
Getting the feet wet (again!).
Grazing horses with the Assy Obervatory in the distance on the right.
The Assy observatory at an altitude of 2750 meters. It is the only observatory in Kazakhstan with an ideal astroclimate: high transparency of the atmosphere, no light pollution and very small turbulence.
Enjoying the view west. And where Sergey made a short video of our impressions of the trip.
We then exited the Assy Plateau and drove down the Turgen Valley, stopping off to buy some fresh raspberries.
Then went for a short walk to see a waterfall. Unfortunately quite a bit of rubbish and graffiti though made it not so picturesque.
Soon after we hit the main road to Almaty, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch.
And had some tasty Kazakh lamb manti.
Back in Almaty at 4pm where Sergey dropped me off at my hotel where I bid farewell to everyone and thanked Sergey for the awesome trip!
My hotel room for my final night in Kazakhstan, the Saraichik Hotel. The hotel was situated in the north-west part of the city out in the suburbs. Far from the city centre but quite close to the airport.
After a shower and a clean change of clothes, I went out for a walk and checked out the local shops and bought a few things (bottled water and some Kazakh chocolate to take home) at the supermarket.
I was pretty exhausted so opted for dinner at the hotel. A glass of Russian Žatecký Gus to start.
And getting to sample some more tasty Kazakh cuisine, horse! Apart from having a small bite in Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago, it was my first meal of horse and it definitely didn't taste too bad.
An early start this morning getting up at 4:30am but fortunately the hotel had prepared breakfast for me.
And back at Almaty Airport after catching the hotel shuttle with a Kazakh lady.
Airside about to spend my last Kazakh Tenge.
And about to board the Air Astana A320 after a really cool few days in Kazakhstan!