Why Should I Visit Almaty?

By Colin McFadden

You should visit Almaty because it’s a friendly, charming gateway to an entire part of the planet you probably haven’t considered.  Chances are pretty good you can’t point to Kazakhstan on a map.  And if you know anything about its history, you’re probably thinking “bleak, former Soviet petro-state” or “just one of the ‘stans”.  And yet, dig a little bit and you’ll find a sprawling country with an immense history as a hub on the Silk Road, a diverse society drawing from all across the region, and, in Almaty, a charming former capital with a logic-defying number of parks and cafes set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.  Almaty is a gentle step into the Russian-speaking world, with nature, food, and welcoming people. It’s a bit of a trek, especially from America, but it’s worth making the journey to this Vienna in Central Asia.

A brief history lesson is probably warranted.  Kazakhstan is as large as Western Europe, and borders Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea.  Quite a neighborhood.  Occupied since the Paleolithic era, its modern history includes Kahns, Russians, Soviets, and finally, independence.   There’s plenty of pain to go with that history, and even today Kazakhs have very little say in their political future.  The majority of the population is ethnic Kazakh, though there’s a large population of ethnic Russians, as well as large groups of Koreans, Germans, Poles, Uighurs, and many others.  It’s a melting pot in a very true sense, especially in the cities.

Almaty claims a 1500 year history, though the formal founding of the city dates to the mid-19th century.  It was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997, when the capital was moved to a purpose built showcase capital (Astana/Nursultan) in the north.  The bulk of the development happened during the Soviet era, so there’s plenty of poured-concrete brutalism scattered across the city.  The city itself isn’t particularly beautiful, but the setting sure is – the city comes right up to the foot of the Alatau mountains.  Have a 5 minute conversation with anyone from Almaty and chances are they’ll ask if you’ve been to the mountains yet.  It’s basically Denver, but more multicultural and much friendlier to pedestrians.

Wandering Almaty, you’ll be struck by a few things.  Even though the architecture is Soviet-Drab, the city itself is packed with parks and flowers.  A 21st century building boom has eaten up a lot of green space, but it still feels like there’s a park on every block.  And people use the parks!  Go for an evening stroll and you’ll find children playing, young couples snuggling, and elderly folks using the exercise equipment.  The other thing you’ll notice, while you’re out for your wander, is the shockingly amount of respect that drivers show to pedestrians.  Put one foot into a crosswalk and the traffic will come to a halt.

ESCAPING THE BUBBLE

If you’re visiting Almaty outside of ski season (or you’re not in the mountains) you may very well never run into another western tourist during your visit. That’s not to say there aren’t westerners – governments, NGOs, and oil companies all have people in the city – but aside from a relative trickle of skiers coming in from Europe, the West isn’t coming to Almaty.  Yet.

Almaty is hoping to become a tourist destination, both for Russians and Chinese, as well as Europeans and Americans.  There’s increased government encouragement to learn English, and there are new tourist offices throughout the city.  For the moment though, you’re just as likely to walk into a museum and be met with surprise that 1) anyone has come to that museum at all and 2) that you’re not a Russian.

Though many students are learning English, you probably won’t regularly encounter fluent speakers.  Learning a bit of Russian and (if you plan to visit any villages outside the city) a bit of Kazakh will go a long ways.  At a minimum, study the Cyrillic alphabet.  It won’t take more than a couple hours to get comfortable with it. Many words in Russian are English cognates, so if you can read the characters you can often figure out what a sign says.

A mix of limited tourism and an authoritarian state means there’s never a sense that people are out to scam tourists.  While a native speaker might be able to bargain for a bit better price at the market, you won’t feel like a walking dollar sign.

GETTING AROUND

Almaty deserves to be known as a world-class city for pedestrians.  Not only are the drivers incredibly respectful (thanks authoritarianism!), but the city is criss-crossed with walking paths and wide sidewalks.  Almost every intersection has pedestrian walk indicators, usually with helpful countdowns (which also count down until a red light turns back to green, so you know how long you need to wait).  There are long parks along rivers and streams throughout the city, allowing you to cover lots of ground without any exposure to cars.  There are some pedestrian-only streets as well.

While bikes aren’t a primary mode of transport for many residents, a network of bike paths is being built.  The city bike share program is available to visitors in addition to residents – you can either stop by the bike share office to get a membership, or do the whole thing a-la-carte using your phone.

Beyond bikes and walking, Almaty has an extensive and easy to use bus network, as well as a more limited (only one line at the moment) metro.  The busses are very affordable (less than 25 cents per ride) and will take you anywhere in the city, including up into the mountains.  The Almaty Bus app, along with Wikiroutes makes it easy to plan a trip and to get realtime information on bus locations.  The Onay card means you can hop on a bus, tap to pay, and be on your way.

Finally, there are cars.  Almaty residents like to moan about their traffic, though it seems roughly on par with any other big city.  What’s less normal is the amount of air pollution, caused by a mix of old vehicles, low quality fuel, and coal power plants.  If you need to grab a car to get around, Yandex is the way to go – don’t expect seatbelts, and make sure you’ve got roughly exact change.

SIGHTS

You might have already guessed, but the main sight is the mountains.  You can take a city bus (number 12) up to Medeo, the world’s highest skating rink (no artificial refrigeration).  From Medeo, you can take a series of cable cars up to the Shymbulak ski resort which quickly gets you into proper mountain environments.  Medeo is also a good base for numerous hikes throughout the region.  While the hikes themselves have good signage, there’s limited English documentation to get you started.  Caravanistan has the best English list.

Many of the museums in Almaty are best visited as experiences in Soviet-era museum design.  Expect display cases packed full of “stuff”, and lots of pictures of First President Nazarbayev.  There are some exceptions though.  The Museum of Folk Music Instruments is a thoughtfully put together museum documenting musical instruments of the region.  The highlight is getting to see a concert – often held at 5pm on Fridays.  The attendants speak English, so just stop in at some point and ask about upcoming concerts.

The Almaty City Museum is another must-see.  Recently renovated, it includes an honest look at the Soviet era, with helpful multimedia kiosks (in English) to let you dive deeper on any subject.

Beyond museums, it’s a city that encourages wandering.  You can easily cross the city in a day, and after a few days, you’ll have the whole area covered.  If you’re nerdy and pedantic, be sure to visit Walking Almaty, and exhaustive chronicle of the minutiae of the city.  Walking Almaty also offers guided tours.

EATING

Kazakh food has a reputation for being very meat-heavy.  That’s certainly true for the traditional dishes.  If you’re a nomad on the Central Asian Steppe, there aren’t a lot of convenient vegetables.  Beshbarmak, a dish served a big gatherings, is an example of the meat intensive nature of things – lots of meat (probably horse) on top of some noodles, with sausages and other sliced meats as accompaniments.  Drinks are likely to be fermented mare or camel milk, along with plenty of tea and fruit juices.  Much of the population is Muslim, so there’s no expectation that one drink excessively – this isn’t Russia.

Venture a little beyond the beshbarmak and you’ll find a dynamic and exciting food culture, owing to the crossroads nature of Kazakhstan.  It seems like every block has at least one bakery, turning out all manner of fresh loves, tandoor-baked flatbreads, croissants, cakes, and other delights.  The large Uighur population means hand-pulled noodles (lagman) with spicy sauces.  The Koreans have contributed a whole range of pickled dishes, which you’ll find as appetizers on most tables.  There’s ubiquitous Doner, really solid Chinese options, lots of quality burger shops, and plenty of western options.

While tea is the default hot beverage (green, black, with milk, without, with sugar and citrus, etc), Almaty seems to have a coffee shop on every block.  Most of them have nice outdoor seating, wifi, and enough cakes and sweets to keep you sugar-buzzed.  The city has a couple sprawling bazaars where you can load up on dried fruits, nuts, spices, plus all the produce and meat you could possibly need.

GET YOURSELF TO ALMATY

Almaty truly feels like an undiscovered gem.  It’s fun, easy, and full of new experiences.  It’s incredibly affordable, so you can be leisurely and lounge over a second coffee and a piece of cheesecake without feeling like you’re breaking the bank.  In the same way that Kuala Lumpur is a gentle introduction to the chaos of Southeast Asia, Almaty is a gentle introduction to the realities of the Russian sphere of influence and Central Asia.  It’s familiar enough that you can let down your defenses, but foreign enough to challenge your preconceptions.  Get yourself to Almaty.

 

  • Food
  • Getting Around
  • Escaping the Bubble
  • Sights
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Summary

Almaty truly feels like an undiscovered gem.  It’s fun, easy, and full of new experiences.  It’s incredibly affordable, so you can be leisurely and lounge over a second coffee and a piece of cheesecake without feeling like you’re breaking the bank.  In the same way that Kuala Lumpur is a gentle introduction to the chaos of Southeast Asia, Almaty is a gentle introduction to the realities of the Russian sphere of influence and Central Asia.  It’s familiar enough that you can let down your defenses, but foreign enough to challenge your preconceptions.  Get yourself to Almaty.

2 thoughts on “Why Should I Visit Almaty?

  • Susan April 15, 2019 at 1:50 am Reply

    Excellent. Will you be able to publish this somewhere?

  • Barb Luedtke April 15, 2019 at 4:48 am Reply

    What a wonderful experience! We enjoyed all your blogs. I expect to benefit from any of your upcoming adventures as they arise. You could be the next Rick Steeves but on roads less traveled and to more parts unknown. Keep a bag packed and happy traveling!

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