Almaty city guide

Almaty and Kazakhstan in general, exist outside of the modern world. If the earth was actually flat then Almaty would be on the dark side of the disk. Entire Central Asia is shrouded in mystery. No one was ever interested in this city or even the country. It was invisible to the pop culture. That’s until 2006 when Sascha Baron Cohen came up with Borat and it wasn’t pretty. Hilarious, but its controversial humour caused quite a shitstorm. The main issue was that people thought it was a real documentary. Cohen depicted Kazaks as simple, impoverished people who filled their spare time with incest and awkward dancing. It took a while for the audience to realize the true satire was aimed at the USA. Truth be told, Borat did this country and its people a disservice. Almaty, the former capital, is stunning! It’s like a haunted castle hidden in the mountains, people know it’s there but no one dares to visit. It looks and feels like what would happen if China and Russia had a baby. Think homemade noodles served alongside ice-cold vodka on a plastic tablecloth. People speak very little English. It’s not that bad with the younger generations, but don’t count on your taxi driver answering to anything but Russian. Better yet: take an Uber, it’s usually a 1/10th the price of a cab.

Almaty Central Mosque to the backdrop of mountains and skyscrapers

Almaty Central Mosque: one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in Kazakhstan

Almaty was under Soviet rules for almost 70 years. It shows in the characteristically intimidating buildings and metro stations. I wouldn’t be surprised if the local metro network was an extension of the one in Russia. They’re so similar, and you never know with all these Soviet conspiracy theories. All those frescos, murals, and statues: they look like a mirror image of the ones in the Moscow underground. Maybe they form part of a secret emergency escape plan for Russian government officials? We might be onto something here. There are many examples of similar architecture in Almaty. The old Presidential Palace, the Opera House or even the central train station has the distinct Eastern Block ugliness slapped all over them. Things are changing and the shy face of a new age is slowly peeking out. First President's Park is such a site, classical columns mixed with illuminated modern fountains. It quickly became the favourite spot for locals and visitors.

If I had to pick a second favourite, I’d go with Kok Tobe. It’s a mountain in Almaty, over 1000m above sea level. There’s a park on top and sort of a nightlife hub with an interesting street food area. You can take a bus shuttle bus to the summit, walking and cable cart are also available. Best time to go is the early evening so you can still visit the luna park and souvenir shops. There’s also the Beatles statue, for no particular reason. The real fun, however, starts after dusk when they crank up the music and fire off the light show. It’s also when you can catch the best view of Almaty, the city looks amazing at night. Having a nightlife area on a mountain 6 minutes away from the town is pure genius. Visit the Green Bazar if you’d like to dive deeper into the local food scene. First thing you’ll notice are those old-school soviet meat scales. I remember those from my childhood. Nomadic people from Central Asia have a long tradition of eating horse meat and there’s plenty of it in butcher shops in Almaty. They make some amazing sausage out of it; they also drink horse and camel milk. It might sound weird since Western people have the mind-set of a horse being a pet, not food. But at least it’s not a dog, right?

Big Almaty Lake surrounded by mountains

Big Almaty Lake: an hour drive from Almaty, you'll find a picturesque mountain lake, where the water changes color depending on the time of year

The entire region surrounding Almaty is a treat for nature lovers. Zailiyskiy Alatau is what the mountain range south of the city is called. Those peaks are relatively untouched by human hand, as Kazakhstan isn’t a popular travel destination. Chimbulak (Shymbulak) is their main ski resort and it’s awesome. Not as crowded or chic as the ones in Europe, so you can get your winter sports fill in peace. It used to be the Olympic Training Centre for the USSR; it sometimes feels like an open-air museum. Don’t be surprised if the song Katyusha roars from your hotel room alarm clock in the morning. Medeu is another remnant of those times, it’s huge skating ring built in the 1950s. The remarkably turquoise Big Almaty Lake is close by; it’s one of the main sources of water for the city. Armed guards patrol the area, often expecting bribes for the supposed “trespassing”. A real shame because the lake is wonderful and they just ruin that impression. Nature is the centrepiece here; this part of Kazakhstan is just a huge National Park. Drive about 200km east of Almaty and you’ll come across something very unique. Have you ever wanted to see the Grand Canyon but they just won’t grant you that goddamn US visa? They got their own Grand Canyon in Kazakhstan; it might not be as Grand but it’s impressive enough, being almost 100km long.

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