I had planned to dip in to Kazakhstan, visit Astana in the north, near the Russian border and then nip back to Russia a couple of days later. But after telling people I was coming to Kazakshtan, the (very) few people who had ever been here said “u have to visit Almaty, it’s the real highlight in Kazakhstan”, so I had to change my plans to take in Almaty, which in turn meant I’d be having to take an 81 hour, 3rd class, train from Almaty to Moscow (which I’m currently sitting on, writing this).
Kazakhstan may be the 9th biggest country in the world but it doesn’t have too many major cities with the majority of the population dotted throughout their vast countryside. Although the President moved the Capital to Astana 15 years ago, the cultural and financial centre remains in Kazakhstan’s biggest and most important city, Almaty.
Almaty is right on the border with Kyrgzstan (and it’s killing me not being able to cross the border and check it out!) in the South Eastern corner of the country, a 20 hour train journey south of Astana.
The city itself is beautiful, with snow-capped mountains flanking the entire city to the south, wide tree-lined boulevards running past Christan Dior, Ralph Lauren and Versace stores. Skiiing, horse-riding and trekking are all easy day trips and it has a large (oil chasing) expat population, it’s very obvious that there is serious money kicking around Almaty; although that’s not to say that it’s crass, it’s an awesome city, with a banging nightlife and I fully expect it to feature more and more heavily in western press in the foreseeable future. I, for one, could definitely live here.
When I arrive in a new city I always wanna pound the pavements, feel the new atmosphere, check out the shape of the place. I found my accommodation (cheapest we could find was $50 a night, for 3 people sharing) and hit the roads. 2 days in the actual city is enough to tick off the major sites, although if possible I’d stay much, much longer. In your two days, make sure not to miss these things to see in Almaty:
Probably the highlight of any fleeting visit to Almaty, Panfilov park is a huge square of beautiful trees, clean cut grass and ice-cream vendors, the perfect way to wash away that $3 bottle of vodka from last night that some overly zealous Kazaks may or may not have forced you to drink with them.
In the centre of the park is the Zenkov Cathedral, made entirely from wood (nails included), it’s said to rival St Basil’s cathedral in the Red Square and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s still pretty cool.
Venture on deeper into he park and you check out the war memorials, commemorating the soldiers who died fighting off the Nazis when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union.
Kok-Tobe Cable Car:
I used the cable car hiking in Chimbulak the day before so I actually skipped this overpriced cable car although by all accounts it offers great views of Almaty city. It costs 2000 Tengge ($14) for the journey which I thought was extortion, so I vetoed it! Here’s a pic from my friends at the top. If money is no object, jump aboard, if you’re on a budget, skip it my friends.
St Nicholas Cathedral:
Straight from the Russian era, the cathedral is over 100 years old and looks every day of it. St Nicholas Cathedral is found in the west of city, near Dinamo Stadium (which is another place worth checking out if you’re a football fan!).
Mr Donner Kebab house:
Absolutely not likely to be found in any guide book but this place will be my first stop next time I visit Almaty! For 500 Tengge ($3.40) you can get a massive mixed donner kebab, and in a city which can be quite pricey, that’s a steal. I was (am) addicted to these things. And the baklava for dessert goes down pretty well too.
To get here, head to the huge Hotel Kazakhstan, near the cable car, and walk down Kurmanghazy street about 100 metres, you’ll see it on the right. Thank me later
Monument to Independence:
A huge stone column with the Golden man perched on top of two winged snow leopards provides the focal point on the Respublika Alanghy street. Opposite the monument is the city Government building.
Zelyony Bazaar and/or Barakholka market:
If you’ve still got time to spare, head over to one or both of these flea markets. Zelyony is right beside Panfilov park and is a great place to stock up on some organic local food and veg for the next leg of your train journey. Barakholka is a more ethnic, immigrant affair with Chinese, Russian, Kyrgyzstani and Uzbek vendors selling endless trinkets related to their cultures.
NOTE: beware of the dried kiwi which is fertilized by fresh sh*t, and the taste doesn’t hide it.
If you’re looking for cheap accommodation in Almaty, it’s tough to come by. The two best places are the university dorms, 400m from the Monument to Independence ($50, can fit 3 people) or the Hotel Saulet, around the corner in front of the fake Eiffel Tower, for around $10-$15 per person per night in a run-down dorm.
I’ve really fallen in love with this city, and it’s saddened me to leave, I know I’ll definitely be back. I hope you guys get to enjoy it sometime too. Happy travels!