Aksai Gorge near Almaty Kazakhstan

Almaty just exudes ‘nature’ and ‘mountains’. From almost anywhere in the city, the Tian Shan Mountains form a beautiful snow-capped backdrop to city life. After spending nearly two weeks in the city waiting on an Uzbek visa, though, getting out of the city and into these mountains was my highest priority.

Finding a homestay in the Aksai Gorge, a twenty or thirty minute ride from the center of Almaty, I jumped at the chance to get out of town. Aksai offers the opportunity to both see the rural side of town and then get out and stretch my legs on the hike up to the Russian Orthodox monastery nestled at the top of the gorge.

My first evening is beautiful. I joke with the husband and wife, play games and practice counting in English with the children, and go for a long walk through the neighborhood with the family dog.

Leaving the houses behind, I climb to the top the nearest hill. Though Almaty stretches out to my back beyond a hillside of grazing sheep, the view forward pulls me and builds excitement for the hike tomorrow. A lone house, perched on the hillside across a narrow valley, gives way to the canyon beyond as the light dims and cloud moves in.


In the morning, those same clouds have blanketed the world in snow. I whine on the way, but do eventually make it up the gorge to the monastery. By the time I arrive I’m much more interested in the monks’ cooking fires than their spiritual passions.


Despite the unwelcome cold, I’m still able to recognize the beauty of the situation. Just outside this biggest city in Kazakhstan, I’m able to escape to nature and stay with a warm and welcoming family.

This, alone, makes time spent in Almaty worth the wait.