Apologies in advance this post will be a stream of consciousness mostly text post because, well, we were so busy working we didn’t get to see a whole ton!
Ended up working until mid-afternoon in downtown Bishkek, and at 4pm we got ready to head to the Almaty. Our office in Bishkek had arranged a driver to take us to the border, and our office in Almaty had arranged another driver to meet us at the border and take us the rest of the way. Sounded like an easy plan, and as someone who’s gotten used to negotiating minibusses and share-taxis the last couple years it was a rare treat! Not only the chance to not have to negotiate, but comfortable and uncrowded. Score!
Traffic in Bishkek wasn’t awful for a Monday afternoon, and about 30 minutes later we were at the border. Our Kazakh driver was already waiting for us on the Kyrgyz side, and walked us through the car lines (the pedestrian lines were super long on both sides of the border, and apparently he knew some tricks that we could just walk through the much shorter car lines…it took quite a bit of yelling, complaining, and posturing, but in about 15 minutes we were through the border. His car was parked on the Kazakh side, so he loaded up our luggage, and we got ready to head out. I turned back to take a quick snap of the border from the Kazakh side:
Very soon after the border, things got very rural…very fast. We drove for around two more hours before we started to see any signs of the city, and then spent nearly another hour fighting Almaty traffic trying to get to our hotel. All total from downtown to downtown travel time was around 4 hours, and that wouldn’t include any time fighting at the border or negotiating with taxis.
Our hotel was the Rixos Almaty and appeared to be located pretty centrally in the city. It was around 8pm by this time, so after checking in we decided to head out quickly in search of a bite. Nothing was easy to find and we were getting pretty hungry at this point, so just decided to admit defeat and head back for room service since we had an early morning. Unfortunately work was incredibly busy here, so there wasn’t a whole ton of time to sightsee. So, I’ll do a mini hotel review first.
The obvious place to start, since I just mentioned room service, is with the food. Let’s just start by saying that for the region I thought prices were outrageous. I ended up with a club sandwich and a beer from room service, which came to nearly $45. Stunning. I was expecting to get something pretty awesome for that price, but you be the judge:
From there, however, things got quite a bit better. The breakfast buffet was included in our room rate, and I would say it was top notch. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, espresso drinks to order (we’re not talking a machine whipping up an automatic cappuccino, these were actually handmade), lots of meats, cheese, pastries, eggs to order, pretty much you name it they had it. One of the highlights was….horse carpaccio! I like a good amount of protein when I eat breakfast, and it was actually pretty tasty!
Our events were in the hotel, so the hotel also did buffet lunches each day, which were equally as good. We never ate dinner in the restaurants, but the quality of the restaurant catering for lunches was excellent. For as disappointing as room service was, it was quite shocking just how good the buffet meals were! Plus, they had an amazing dessert selection which one of my colleagues enjoyed a bit!
They also did coffee service for our meetings, which always came with proper tea sandwiches, pastries, etc. A nice selection. I have to say that the catering here was well above average. We also had drinks at the bar most nights, which although a bit on the expensive side ($10-15 for a drink) were at least well done.
As far as facilities, I think the hotel would have felt more at home in Dubai. I didn’t really expect Kazakhstan to be a home of marble floors, gold (or is it faux gold) and brass fixtures…it was just a little overdone for my taste, but definitely had that “nice” feel to it. The gym and spa were connected, and although I didn’t see the spa facilities there was a very nice indoor pool, and the fitness room was well above average for a hotel. Several cardio machines, a good selection of free weights, benches, and a few machines. Not like a gym, but definitely enough for a few days!
The room itself was excellent. Ice cold AC, a nice washroom, and a nice comfy king size bed with Kazakh chocolate turndown service every night. Can’t really complain there!
Oh, and the view from my room wasn’t bad either. Notice how the clouds just kind of melt into the mountains?
However, although I never got to experience them, I have to say the hotel entertainment in the lounge looked….entertaining? Smooth, sexy, AND cool!
One final note on facilities, about a three to four block walk from the hotel was the Stolichnij supermarket, which was a huge place, in the oddest shape I’ve ever seen for a supermarket. Maybe 5 meters wide, and a good 100 meters long….it was just a strange shape. Oh, and the whole 100 meter long wall was filled with alcohol of every shape and size. It was seriously impressive…and open 24 hours!
Since I’m talking about food, I’ll do a quick review of where we ate.
Because it was close, we were short on time, and wanted to be outside, our hotel concierge recommended Line Brew for a small team dinner. The ambiance and al fresco aspect was awesome, and they brewed their own beers which were at least decent. Nothing to write home about, but not bad either. The staff, however, spoke very very very little English, to the point where my very basic Russian needed to be used. There’s nothing to prove yourself in a new job like being trusted to order food for your entire team…I just hoped I got it all right!
After managing to explain to the staff what a vegetarian was, and getting them to make horse noises when I asked what something else was…it was time to order. We ended up ordering what we knew to be some kind of “hair cheese” appetizer (that’s how it was described. I knew it was cheese, and they kept using words to describe it until I knew one…hair!) which I expected to be like string cheese, but was more like a pasta….but made of cheese if that makes any sense.
I ended up ordering the ground horse burger, which was actually pretty tasty! …and that’s all I’ll say about that! Our other meals were at “local” restaurants I didn’t get the name of, but were able to serve a large group with a set menu. One was a newish Georgian place which was quite good, although their “homemade wine” was absolutely atrocious. They had a rather amusing live band, and some rather amusing local characters hanging out in the restaurant.
We had one other dinner at a local bar/restaurant which was completely unmemorable, but they made adequate pizzas and had beer…and was great for people watching. It was a couple blocks from the hotel, but unfortunately that’s all I know about it.
Lastly, I’ll end with another view of the mountains from our local office, it’s what I’ll remember most about Kazakhstan – the amazing vistas! Unfortunately I didn’t get a time to get out of the city and play tourist at all, but at least we got to see a fair amount on our drive from the border!
Next up….Almaty to Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways!