Friday 28 April 2017

Kazakhstan: Need to know

GETTING THERE

Air Astana flies direct to Almaty from Heathrow. It operates a comfortable, modern fleet (0044 129 359 6622; airastana.com).

STAYING THERE

Avoid the lower-end hotels if you can.

For those in need of luxury, there's the Rixos Hotel, off Kabanbai Batyr Street (007 727 300 3300; rixos.com). This is the best show in town really, for location, room spec and a stunning Turkish spa. Tours and guides can be booked in the hotel. Many rooms offer stunning views.

Deluxe doubles from €280 per night.

A good option for mid-range budgets is Hotel Zhetysu. Located not far from the pedestrianised Zhibek Zholy area (007 727 250 0400; zhetysuhotel.kz), it has its own travel agency. Good-sized double rooms from €50.

CURRENCY

The local currency is the Kazakh tenge (KZT) -- €1 is about 210kzt.

COST OF LIVING

A beer in a bar costs around €1.25. Dinner for two in an average-priced restaurant is about €50. Almaty was recently listed as the 72nd most expensive city in the world for expats; behind Dublin (42), but ahead of Montreal (98).

GUIDES

Very few locals speak English. Russian is the lingua franca. Booking a tour guide through your hotel is recommended.

VISAS

Arrange through the London Embassy (0044 207 5814646; www.kaz embassy.org.uk).

Citizens of some countries need to obtain invites before being issued with a visa. Irish citizens do not. A visa costs around €110 for single entry lasting up to 30 days.

As well as a satisfying passport stamp, you'll get a small migration card when you enter the country. Hold on to it -- you'll need it to leave. Keep photo ID on you at all times.

SIX MUST DOS

•Get your guide to bring you to the Ile-Alatau National Park, and to the yurt restaurant nearby, just outside Almaty. It has no phone or discernable address, but tell your guide it's opposite the Falcon farm. They'll know it then.

•Try local dishes shorpa and baursaki. Eaten together, they're like a warm, squishy version of soda bread. You might want to skip another regional delicacy known as qazy -- smoked horse sausage served with cold noodles.

•Play chess in Panfilov Park, in the shade of the Holy Ascension Cathedral. It's stunning, a bit like something Disney would design.

•Pick up spices and herbs at the Green Market on Zhibek Zholy Street. A lively easygoing market.

•Pop in to 4A Coffee on Zhibek Zholy (007 727 271 82 37; 4acoffee.com) for the best cappucino in town.

•See the Central Mosque on Pushkin Street, a beautiful, blue-domed structure built in 1999.

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