Almaty. The largest city of Kazakhstan. A sharp contrast to Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital city of Astana, decked with oil-profit super-projects. I spent 72 hours here after my time in Uzbekistan. Here is what I thought:
- Language barrier: Almaty is not on the tourist radar. During the winter months, some tourists from countries like Russia and China make their way into the area for the incredible winter sports scene, but you are unlikely to encounter many casual visitors here. That being said, I encountered very few people who spoke English. There really isn’t any real reason for most people to learn it. I’d advise picking up a little Russian to communicate some basics and if staying longer, trying to learn the Cryllic alphabet.
- Still, there are some signs in English here and there, with the subway being completely easy to navigate without knowing Russian/Kazakh. Some nicer cafes and restaurants will have an English menu on hand, and possibly a waitstaff member who speaks a little English. After all, this isn’t the most remote place on earth, either!
Things to see in the city
I love, love, love Russian Orthodox church design, and my heart sank when I realized Zenkov’s was under renovation for a long period of time. The inside isn’t quite so spell-binding, but scaffolded or not, it’s worth a visit while inside the park.
Besides the stand-out attraction of Zenkov’s Cathedral, this park has a host of historically and culturally interesting points. One beautiful building is the Museum of Musical Instruments, which I opted to skip over. Panfilov’s Park is named after the Panfilov Heroes, 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting Nazi German invaders outside of Moscow in World War II. The eternal flame honors soldiers from all over the former USSR. The different Soviet states are marked around the promenade, with soldiers from each being displayed in the memorial.
The golden domes of Almaty’s Central Mosque shimmer in the sky. Admittedly, this isn’t going to be named one of the finest forms of Islamic architecture in the world, it is quite simple. What was curious is that even on the holy day of Friday, the mosque was nearly empty. It reflected an interesting curiosity about Islam in Kazakhstan, practiced by 70% of the population, yet the state wishes to keep it heavily secular. Businesses do not shut down on Friday, and long beards and burqas are frowned upon by the government.
Republic Square – Across from the former Presidential palace, the most interesting aspect of the square surrounding the Independence Monument is a series of metallic art designs which take you on a journey through the history of Kazakhstan, from nomadic herds to the silk road all the way to the modern, post-Communist dictatorship it is today.
Green Bazaar – Just a hop and skip away from Panhilov’s Park is the Green Bazaar, a massive market. Like most travelers, the food part of the market was the most interesting part of it. I even found a section dedicated to horse meat! Take a walk around. The nut/fried fruit sellers were the only ones to try and whistle me over, assuming I was a visitor from the Middle East. I did manage to score some delicious traditional sweets. Watch out though, they don’t want photography inside the market (I have no idea why it’s a big deal in such a non-touristy city) but if you avoid the gaze of the roaming security guards, a few discreet snaps will be ok. Like any other market, there was huge sections of inexpensive clothing, shoes, cell phone cases and other randomness. After my backpack became unusable in Uzbekistan, I was able to snatch up a cheap one right here.
Kok-Tobe – This isn’t a city heavy on sightseeing, so one way or the other, every visitor probably ends up taking a gondola ride up to Kok-Tobe for some views of the city (hopefully on a clear day). There were all types of kitschy attractions like a zoo and ferris wheel, even a Beatles monument seen above. It’s probably the only place in Almaty you will find a souvenir shop!
St. Nicholas Cathedral
Well, I missed out on seeing Zenkov’s Cathedral, so I took a subway trip to the next best thing, the aqua-blue St. Nicholas Cathedral. Since it is gated tightly, it’s hard to get an impressive angle of it, but it satisfied by Russian Orthodox Church sweet tooth – for now.
Medeu – Inside the city limits, but further afield, is the winter sports mecca of Medeu, featuring a huge skating rink (Which was sadly not iced over when I visited), a dam, and some beautiful snow-capped mountains and trees. Mini-buses are waiting to take visitors up for the views.
There are a few popular day trips outside of Almaty. Two of them are the Big Almaty Lake and Charyn Canyon, and Charyn Canyon looked just a lot more interesting to me.
The drive takes around 3 hours from Almaty to reach the Canyon, and just like Almaty, you will find very few tourists. Most of the other people at the canyon were school trips and families coming to have a picnic on the weekend.
I have been to canyons like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and King’s Canyon in Northern Territory, Australia, but I was still impressed by the majestic beauty of Charyn Canyon and honestly, it was more interesting than spending more time in Almaty. It’s a chance to see some beautiful landscape on the drive and even some of the small towns that line the road. The road itself is pretty solid except for the off-roading that happens near the Canyon on the dirt roads.
Make sure to keep some time open to walk the route through the valley, before hitting the river and then making your way for an intense walk at the top rim of the canyon, with just amazing view after amazing view. Bring some proper hiking shoes, as the paths are rough and you won’t want to miss out on some of the jutting ledges along the way.
Facilities are pretty bare bones. There are a few yurt-style accommodations if you wish to stay here, but don’t expect any type of built-up amenities – I don’t even think there was a place to buy something to eat at the Canyon. Bring your water, snacks and camera – you’ll need them all!
I am a positive person but also a realist. Almaty is a fascinating city because it is not well-visited and there is just such an intense bridge between Russia and Asia in the city, with so many different faces in the crowds. The sightseeing is just ok, I can’t imagine spending more than a few days in the city unless you have friends there or really want to practice your Russian. Getting in is easy, as the city is super-modern compared to Tashkent (for example) and Americans no longer require a Visa to enter, and a number of airlines fly through Almaty, meaning inexpensive fares.
This is not a low-income country, so don’t expect any bargains, especially with hotels given the lack of competition.
I stayed at: WorldHotel Saltanat Almaty. Right off of the main thoroughfare of Abay Avenue as well as the subway station of the same name. A very modern business hotel with professional service. This might be the best-located and reviewed mid-range option in Almaty. As I wrote above, there are a bunch of “nice” cafes and eateries in central Almaty. Compared to neighboring Uzbekistan where I started, there was just a 1000% more finesse in the Almaty dining scene – more elegant places to eat, better quality food and and more variety. I found wonderful pastries, coffee, stews, meats and even fast food joints to satisfy my tastes in the city.
And depending which way you fly in, you might catch an extended view of these incredible snow-capped peaks along the way!