I’ve been in Almaty nearly a week now, and I’ve enjoyed myself tremendously here. The city is beautifully located at the foot of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains (or the Tian-Shan Mountains, their better known Chinese name), it’s summer, the weather is lovely (even the occasional daily burst of rain), there’s lots to see and do, and people are very, very friendly. Most don’t speak English (or any other language I know), but they’re eager to help. The usual suspects – a few odd phrases in Russian, sign/body language, pointing, drawing – do the trick, as ever and as everywhere. It’s an easy place to be.
Here are my fave 11 Almaty things to do
1. Walking, walking everywhere
Almaty is a very walkable city. Green trees and bright, cheery flowers abound now in summer. Can you spot the ditches along here? They’re for drainage, and run the length of the streets. Some are rather wide (about half a metre) and deep (a metre or more), so best to watch your step. On a rainy day, they become fast-flowing creeks.
2. Green spaces
Green spaces abound in Almaty, ideal to amble about in, or sit on a bench and read, or lie in the grass and look at the sky through the leaves overhead. Or declare your undying love.
3. Panfilov Park
In this park, I especially liked the beautiful Cathedral of the Ascension (also known as the Zenkov Cathedral, after Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov, the architect). It’s the only structure in town left from Tsarist’s times, and made entirely of wood, even the nails. And good thing, too, as there is seismic activity here. Almaty has seen 6 devastating earthquakes, the last in 1911, which the Zenkov Cathedral survived. As for earthquakes, the last 100 years have only seen minor tremors. In fact, there was an earthquake at 3am this morning. Didn’t even wake me.
The park’s namesake is the somewhat brutal, but evocative war memorial known as Heroes of Panfilov, in memory of 28 soldiers from Almaty who died fighting the Nazis in Moscow in 1941. Behind the monument is a row of stones with the names of each.
The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments is at the east end of the park. (Entrance fee: 500 tenge, no photos allowed). It’s an interesting little exhibition. Apart from what you’d expect – accordions, Pan flutes, harps, a balalaika and other string instruments – there are some unusual ones, and also ones with interesting translations, like the Shartydawyq – percussion noisemaker (skin, metal)
Most of all, though, I’ve enjoyed people-watching in Panfilov Park: rain or shine, people are out and about enjoying themselves: young children driving around in little model cars, couples smooching on park benches, teens laughing and communicating with each other via mobile phones, a woman (apparently very confident in her musical abilities) singing karaoke at full throttle…
4. Kok-Tobe (Көк-төбе)
At 1100 metres, Kok-Tobe is the highest point in Almaty, with fabulous views of the city on one side and the Alatau mountains on the other.
The landmark TV-tower is on top of Kok-Tobe, as is an ‘Almaty Eye’, an amusement park with a climbing wall, a roller-coaster and those little bungee-jumping trampolines that make kids squeal with delight (or possibly fear) as they’re up tree-top height. There’s a playground, dodgems (bumper cars), restaurants and craft and souvenir sellers along the way. There’s also a Fab Four sculpture (you can sit next to John Lennon), and a little petting zoo, which I did my best to overlook – much too confined for the animals.
I forked up 1000 tenge (2.6 €/3 US$) and took the cable car up (despite a slight fear of heights I seem to have developed), and walked back down. Bad decision, as I got caught in a horrendous downpour, of the kind that hits you straight in the eye balls. A better option would have been to take one of the shuttle busses that I only discovered as they passed me on the way down, packed full.
5. The Metro
As is often the case in Eastern cities, Almaty’s metro is a work of art. It opened in 2011, so it’s quite new, extremely clean, and at 80 tenge (0.21 €/0.25 US$), dirt cheap. It’s also quite small – only 9 stops, for now. I hopped on and off to have a look at several stations, the most memorable ones being the elaborate Auezov Theatre station (МұхтарӘуезов атындағы театры), and the blue Baikonur station (Байқоңыр).
quite interesting: Does Baikonur sound familiar? The station is named after the world’s only operative space launching station, Cosmodrome Baikonur, located on the steppes here in Kazakhstan. This is where the first man in space took off from. In fact, this is where the first spaceflight of any kind took off from. And if you have aspirations to be a space tourist, this is where you go.
6. Getting around
Other than the metro, there’s an efficient bus system (also very cheap), but many locals favour a different, slightly unusual method of public transport: hitch-hiking! Not with the thumb lifted assertively, but rather by standing along the street and sort of limply extending their arm. Most cars seem to stop, they exchange a few words, then the hitcher gets in.
Is this a paid service? I’m not sure. I watched this ritual several times before trying it myself. Very practical in the rain, I can tell you. Flopping my arm out, I said where I was going, the driver signalled for me to get in, and that was that. One accepted 100 tenge, the four or five others didn’t want any money. Maybe the rule is there is no rule. Or maybe they felt sorry for the ridiculously unprepared foreigner caught in the rain.
Almaty’s pedestrian street is called Zhybek-Zholy (meaning Silk road), but nicknamed Arbat, after the famous street in Moscow. Along the street, local artists peddle their works, some of it deliciously kitschy.
There are a few restaurants and cafes here as well. I’ve tried two and can recommend both. I had coffee and a warm blueberry muffin at Cafe Kangnam my first morning while getting my bearings, and I tried vegetarian shish-kebab and honey cake at Barashek. They have an extensive (and unintentionally amusing) menu, with lots of vegetarian options.
When travelling, I frequently opt to be vegetarian as I dread the possibility of being served meat I either don’t like (mutton, goat) or couldn’t possibly eat because they’re simply too much like friends: dog, cat and horse (especially common here in Central Asia).
8. The Central State Museum
With an entrance fee of a measly 500 tenge (1.3 €/1.5 US$), the Central State Museum is the obvious choice on a rainy day. It smells wonderfully dusty, a bit like my Gran’s attic did.
Taking photos or videos inside is not allowed here either. Annoying, but it is their call. And there’s something liberating with putting the camera down for a few hours.
I have two favourite sections here. One is the “paleontological and archaeological exposition”, where I’m met with a wall of paintings depicting the struggle between humans and other apes in the earlier hours of time. As so often, I yearn to time travel. Not romanticising the past, you understand – just wanting to experience it, feel it, even if only for a few moments. I can hardly tear myself away from this pre-historic wall.
My other favourite section is the “Hall of Kazakh Ethnography”, where there’s a lovely, inviting yurt on display. In just a few days, I’ll learn to build my own… although I’m doubtful. I’m a bit of an oaf (not to mention impatient) with most tools, so it would have to be very simple and quick for me to actually learn how. But perhaps with a team effort…? I’ll let you know how I go.
Cafes are all over Almaty. In fact, I’m writing this at Coffeeroom on Satpayev street right now, with smooth Buddha Bar music in the background. Positively inspiring.
I usually sit outside here, snuggling under one of the blue plaid blankets with the rain pounding pleasantly on the awning. However, today I need to charge my devices, so I’m inside, next to the large panorama windows overlooking the outdoor area and the busy street. There are electrical outlets absolutely everywhere, and good wifi; a blogger’s dream!
10. Kök Bazaar: apples – and chocolate.
Can’t talk about Almaty and not mention apples. Apples originated in this region; the growing conditions are ideal at this altitude. Almaty means apple – or a version of it. According to a local I spoke with, apple is really Alma, or Almaly, whereas the old Soviet-era name of the city (and the one you probably remember if you’re over 30 and then some, and into winter sports), Alma-Ata, means ‘Father of apples.’
At the curious Kok Bazaar – Green Market, you’ll find all the apples your heart desires. And other fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. (Take a close look at the middle photo below – if you’re considering vegetarianism, this might be the final tip over the edge you need).
Leaving Kok Bazaar you might notice the scent of … chocolate. Follow your nose across the street to Rakhat’s Chocholate Factory. Rakhat, fittingly, means pleasure.
11. Water, water everywhere
I’ve mentioned drainage ditches and bucketloads of rain. Water is important in Almaty and there are 125 fountains scattered around the city. If you’re here between 25 May (Fountain Day) and late September, they’re switched on between 10am and 2pm every day. In Yerevan, I loved watching the dancing fountains every night. Don’t expect that here in Almaty, unless you’re here on Fountain Day.
Shopping hasn’t really been my cup of tea for quite a few years now, so I won’t claim to love it. But I thought it was worth a mention all the same.
Almaty is an affluent city. Mercedeses and shiny SUVs outnumber Ladas by a million to one. The shopping centres are reminiscent of those in Dubai, albeit on a smaller scale. I was drawn into the one below by the kitsch Eiffel Tower outside. The selection comprised high-end cosmetics, perfume and snazzy French clothes. That was about it.
A burst of rain drew me into Almaly (meaning apple, remember). In front of City Hall, this is another shiny shopping centre, also relatively small; full of young, well-dressed Kazakhs with equally well-dressed – and well-behaved – toddlers.
As I said initially, Almaty is an easy place to be. I’ve walked for miles and miles by myself, at all times of day and night – and even though street lights are few and far between, I’ve never felt the least bit unsafe (just have to remember to watch those drainage ditches).
This is quickly becoming one of my favourite cities. Tomorrow morning I’m headed for Charyn Valley and then into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, before finishing this journey in Bishkek. Will let you know all about it.