Medeu & Chimbulak
Dostyk Avenue, running southeastwards out of the centre of the city, turns into Gornaya Street and rises into the hills, following the valley of the little Malaya Almatinka River. This is the most straightforward route into the hills: half an hour drive from the centre of town and you can already be at the cluster of buildings around the large open-air ice rink that marks the holiday complex of Medeu. Medeu & Chimbulak are Almaty’s playgrounds in the Malaya Almatinka valley, both easily visited on a day trip from the city. The winter sports facilities here were upgraded for Almaty’s co-hosting (with Astana) of the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
Medeu, some 16km out of town, is located at an attractive spot in the valley at an altitude of between 1,500m and 1,750m, among a mix of evergreens and birches standing beside the fast-flowing waters of the Malaya Almatinka. The focus of the place is the ice rink (www.medey.kz), a stadium of a building, with eight large floodlights, which fills the valley floor. Originally built in 1972 but fully renovated in time for the 2011 Asian Winter Games, 10,500-sq-metre rink was a major training base for the ice skaters of the USSR, and many speed skating world records were set here. A relief on the outer wall of the building depicts two speed skaters straining for victory. Medeu is still an important centre for the training of winter sports athletes from Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region, though from around November to April, depending on the weather, the ice rink mainly plays host to somewhat less talented city-dwellers, cautiously circling the rink to a backdrop of Russian pop music. The rink stays open until well into the evening.
Even when the rink is closed people come to relax at the shashlyk and drink stands, and to take a walk in the surrounding valleys and hills. You can rent skates, though you need to leave your passport or money as deposit.
The other main attraction at Medeu is the dam across the valley, which rises up immediately to the south of the ice rink. Constructed in the 1960s by means of controlled explosions, the dam was built to protect Almaty from potentially devastating stone and mudflows precipitated by a combination of heavy rains and the rapid thawing of snow in the mountains. A mudflow following the course of the Malaya Almatinka Gorge caused havoc in 1921. The dam was called into action on 15 July 1973, when some 4.5 million cubic metres of water and debris, flooding down the gorge, were stopped short here. The dam today offers the challenge of some 830 steps from base to top, though there is at least a little cafe two-thirds of the way up. Most visitors, including large numbers of wedding parties at weekends, simply drive up and park at the top. The view is excellent: northwards down into Medeu, and southwards to Chimbulak and the highest peaks of the Zailysky Alatau. At weekends, you can even have yourself photographed in the company of a slightly lethargic golden eagle, if that is what takes your fancy.
The road climbs a further 4.5km from this barrier to the Chimbulak ski resort (www.shimbulak.kz), which has ski runs for all levels and a total drop of 900m (and a bowling alley for evening diversion). The origins of the resort lay in the post-war Soviet desire to develop a centre for downhill skiing, and the first Soviet downhill skiing championships were held here in 1950. The facilities have been considerably expanded over the last few years, and Kazakhstan will likely make a bid to host the Winter Olympics here in 2018. Improvements include the construction of a 4.5km gondola from Medeu to Chimbulak, new chairlifts and an upgrading of the restaurants at the resort.
Around the large car park, at an altitude of 2,260m, are scattered the few buildings of the resort (www. shymbulak.com). A sequence of three chairlifts takes you up from here to the Talgar Pass, at 3,163m, and a newer chairlift rises separately to 2,785m, to the head of trails used by snowboarders and expert skiers.
The ski season runs from about November to April, with weekdays considerably quieter than weekends. Equipment hire and instruction are available, though it’s much cheaper to rent in Almaty at shops such as Yeti if you can manage to lug the gear up to Chimbulak. It takes three lifts to reach the top of the runs at the Talgar Pass.
Getting there & away - Medeu is one of the few places in the lie Alatau National Park which is easy to reach by public transport. Bus 6, which can be picked up along Dostyk Avenue at stops from the Hotel Kazakhstan southwards, will bring you here. At weekends, it changes its name to 6A, and charges extra for the same trip. Medeu is the end of the line. Taxis and minibuses wait here, ready to take you up to the Chimbulak ski resort.