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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

ALMATY WINTER CALL


Shymbulak Ski Resort Map

When one has a desire to ski, a limited time to take off and literally lives in the desert – civilised desert city, but still – the obvious solution for any UAE resident would be to hit Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates. Although a good option for getting a warm up in before heading out on a winter vacation if out of practice, an indoor ski resort was not going to cure this craving. I needed fresh air, real trees, a mountain covered in natural snow and an après ski well-stocked! It just so happened that Kazakhstan was promoting itself as a choice for skiing holidays through UAE travel agents and Tony just happened to be copywriting one of the destination packages through his work.


Almaty it turns out has several ski resorts. The largest, most modern and the closest to the city, is Shymbulak Ski Resort who’s skiing season is on from December – March. Flights from Dubai to Almaty leave twice a day and they are only 4 hours and 20 minutes long! Long weekend? Yes please and thank you!


We arrived in Almaty on a Tuesday at 17:45 with no dramas. We had booked a room at the very central Shera Park Inn and asked them to organise our airport transfers as we had read it could be difficult dealing with taxis. Firstly because of language barriers and secondly, they’re not metered. Hotel taxis are branded as taxis, but local taxis are not so you can’t tell them apart from regular cars. You simply have to stick your arm out by the side of the road and hope one will stop for you and not rip you off. Well we tried to waive them down to no avail and ended up using the hotel taxis for the duration of our stay. A regular taxi on a short trip within the city from A-B would typically cost between 500-700 Tenge, whereas the hotel taxis are 2,000 Tenge. To give you a perspective, 2,000 Tenge is $6. From our hotel to Shymbulak Ski Resort it cost us 6,000 Tenge or $18 for a drive of roughly 30 minutes. It should cost 3,000 Tenge with a local taxi if you can get one. We found one both days at the exit of the ski resort’s Gondola Medeu (Cable Car Station), so they are there. You may have to wait a while for one to arrive. Or you can take the bus which will take you to the Kazakhstan Hotel and is of course a much cheaper option, if also a bit longer.


As a side note, Medeu boasts the highest ice skating rink in the world, not to mention, it’s huge! If you fancy a bit of ice skating to some Russian pop music and you have the time, this one could be for you.


Medeu's ice skating rink seen from the Gondolas.

From the Almaty International Airport straight to the hotel, we checked in, dropped our bags off and headed out to the first restaurant on my list. Daredzhani, located next to the Kazakhstan Hotel on Dostyk Avenue, is well known and reputed for its Georgian food. We have never had Georgian food to make any comparisons to, but we found it excellent and the restaurant had a nice ambiance. Conveniently placed within walking distance from the restaurant was the Guinness Pub, just 2 minutes around the corner, which had a really good local live band playing rock classics. During the week, everywhere is fairly quiet and there seems no need to make table reservations. English is not commonly spoken, so some Russian would be useful, but with some pointing, some giggling, the odd word or two, you can communicate to a certain degree which both parties will eventually understand. Everyone is so incredibly nice that the whole place has a feel-good notion about it.


We got our first proper look at Almaty in daylight the next morning as we made our way to the ski resort for our first day of snowboarding. You can see the snow covered mountains in the distance while the city is layered in mud gardens and lifeless trees during the winter season, but you know from online research, the landscape will become a very green and flourished background to the Tsarist, Stalinist, Modernist, and Post-Soviet period structures and architecture. Hiking in the back country would be worth coming back for. There are a lot of outdoor activities on offer.


We started to familiarise ourselves with our taxi driver as there only seemed to be a few of them reserved for the Shera Park Inn and we had a regular. Communication was made easy, he would type a question to ask us into his phone and have it translate to English. Clever...


Shymbulak’s highest point reaches 3,200m above sea level and the base is at 2,200m so there is only a 1km incline to it. This is the smallest ski resort I have ever been to (Ski Dubai does not count). We had virtually no visibility on our first day. It was foggy and snowed for the most part of the day which kept us hopeful for more snow to look forward to the following day. Enclosed cable cars in-between the chairs on the lift were a welcome sight and a very nice touch. It was not cold, but it kept us dry and warmer during the pause going up. The runs of Shymbulak are all red, apart from the short blue ones right at the summit or back down at the base. The chair lift to the right was closed during our time, but it would not have added a different run as the slopes are all connected. First time skiers do not have many options available to them, so I would advise to come with some experience.



With our first day done and dusted, we were pooped and happy. It was nice to have snowfall and some fog, it was a pleasant change for us. We didn’t get to take many photos because of it, but we made the most of it. We got our dose of snowboarding in. Once back at the hotel, we got directions to the next restaurant on our list and decided to walk it. I had read that besides having to try Georgian, Uzbeki food was also a must, so I picked Tyubeteyka which is on Dostyk Avenue and the concierge back at the hotel said it was a great choice. Yes, yes it was! We thoroughly enjoyed it. We finished our night at the Yard House Pub next door before the walk back to the hotel. Driving etiquette in Almaty is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else before and needs a mention. Pedestrians take priority and cars will automatically stop for you to cross even before you reach the crossing. Try that in Dubai…


The view from the terrace.
The different food options at the resort. We had breakfast at Paul.

The second day brought perfect weather, with incredibly blue sky and clear as far as the eye could see. From the top of the resort, right down to the bottom end… Such a contrast from the first day. We decided to come up to Shymbulak for breakfast as I couldn’t face eating the hotel’s buffet selection (Tony says I’m a food snob – so be it, I know what’s good and what’s not) and we had coffee and croissants on the terrace at Paul. Awesome! As this was our last day at the resort (I couldn’t have done a third day to be honest, 2 is more than enough if you are used to ski resorts with variety) I switched my snowboard for skis to get some time for both.


A busy slope on a week day.
Opting for the comforts of an enclosed cable car.
Perfectly blue sky contrasting with pure white snow.
A busy slope.
Sunshine skiing!
Having the mountain all to yourself.
A red slope.
Up at the summit.
Up at the summit.
Taking lessons in stride without the pressures of a crowded slope.

We came to ski at the beginning of March which veers towards the end of the season, thus ending with slopes of ice after the first few hours of opening. That soft first layer of snow very quickly disappears with just a few runs. Ice is not much fun to ski on and it’s hard work on the legs, but the great thing about skiing during the week and away from public holidays, is that the slopes never get busy, so you don’t have to worry so much about a skier hurdling at you from behind. Just make sure to plan a trip there before the end of the skiing season so you get the best of the snow.


Heading back down to Medeu.
Some very strange looking structures seen from the Gondola. Still trying to find out what they are.

Day 3 was reserved to explore Almaty! We could have started with the KOK-TOBE TV Tower, to see the city’s highest view point at 1,100m, but it was a particularly grey day with harsh light and wouldn’t have done the views any justice. There is an endless list of museums to visit in Almaty if you have the time and some large parks to stroll in, but with it being winter and quite sombre, we didn’t want to spend any time in them except if there was a landmark of interest. We started with the Green Bazaar furthest away which is the city’s main market. The main point of interest here is the food hall with its rows of butchered meats on one side and the innocent vegetables and fruits on the other. Every single animal body part is on display here for your purchase. Suffice to say, you won’t want to spend any considerable amount of time in there. On exiting, you will find the souvenir stands with all their tack in which we found our obligatory Kazakhstan fridge magnet.


KOK-TOBE TV Tower in the distance where you can see the city’s highest view point at 1,100m.
Snowy mountain background.
The Green Bazaar where you can find all sorts of things, useful or not.
Souvenirs

Walking on, we came to the Central Mosque with its gold domes and minarets, the largest mosque in Kazakhstan. It can hold up to 7,000 worshippers at a time. Walking through the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, we were disappointed to find the Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral under refurbishment and covered in boards and scaffolding. This is the ninth most unique wooden structure in the world, designed by local architect Andrey Zenkov. This building is worth seeing inside and out. It is made of Tian Shan fir trees and was under construction from 1904 to 1907. The 56m high church withstood the Kebin Earthquake in 1910 which measured 7.7MW, while almost all the other buildings in the city were destroyed.


Central Mosque with its gold domes and minarets.
Parks are very popular.
Ascension Cathedral under refurbishment.
Ascension Cathedral under refurbishment and covered in boards and scaffolding.
A sneak peak inside the Ascension Cathedral.
A very cute Eurasian Red Squirrel.
Another resident park Eurasian Red Squirrel. Looking at you, looking at me!

Walking on further is Arbat Walking Street, the most popular pedestrian street with cafés, small shops, a shopping mall and the odd street musician and performer. There is a street gallery where city artists exhibit their work. It can be a mix of paintings and sculptures, but there were only paintings on display when we were there. After a lot of walking we stopped at a tiny little pub hidden above a kebab shop called Pub-Corn which we had all to ourselves to have a local brew and popcorn. The bar tender brought Tony a nice big old pint and handed me half a pint with a straw! There’s a first for everything. The second time around, he handed my drink to me (still a half pint for the lady), again with straw, but removed the straw himself, and had a good chuckle as he cleared the rest away. A really nice place. And to finish off the perfect day, we marched on down the stairs to Viva Doner and had the Kazakhstani version of a shawarma. It was fantastic!


Arbat Walking Street.
Graffiti art.

We were up at 4:30am the next morning to catch our flight home! A really fun trip and perfect for 3 full days.


INFO

  • Dubai (DXB) to Almaty (ALA): Air Astana – Best time options and good prices

  • Flight Duration: 4h 20m

Currency and ATMs

  • Kazakhstani Tenge

  • ATM’s are found on every street corner and there is one at Arrivals at the airport. You can withdraw money with Visa, Mastercard and Maestro.

  • You need small change for taxis and buses so make sure you have change.

  • There is only one ATM at the Shymbulak Ski Resort so make sure to get cash earlier on in case the ATM runs out or is out of service as it so happened to us.

Visas

  • British Passport holders get a registration card on entry which needs to be filled out, gets stamped and is to be kept throughout your stay.

  • Other passport holders will need to check online.

Language: Russian

Shymbulak Ski Resort (Website)

  • Season: December to March

  • Timings: 10am – 6pm

  • Night Skiing: Twice a week from 7pm – 11pm

  • Gondola Medeu to Shymbulak: 2,500 Tenge roundtrip

  • Ski Pass Week Day: 5,500 Tenge

  • Ski Pass Weekend: 8,000 Tenge

  • Ski Pass Badge: 1,500 Tenge which you need to buy once and top up each day

  • Equipment Rentals: 5,000 Tenge/day (old equipment) or 8,000 Tenge/day (new equipment)

  • Lockers: 500 Tenge/day with a 2,000 Tenge deposit

Recommendations for Eating Out

  • Georgian: Daredzhani Restaurant on Kurmangazy Street off Dostyk Avenue

  • Uzbeki: Tyubeteyka Restaurant on Dostyk Avenue



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