Kazakhstan doesn’t seem to have found a place on the invisible, unspoken “must visit” list for a lot of Americans. Our association with Kazakhstan is usually limited to what we learned from Borat, namely: nothing about the actual culture or people. My only additional knowledge of the country came from living in a Russian dorm with a few Kazakh hallmates for a brief period. I walked into the kitchen one cold, winter night, and as I was reaching to turn on the light, I noticed that one of the women was standing in front of the stove. She was frying a panful of sausages with the kitchen window thrown wide open. I did not assume, in that moment, that it was some sort of Kazakh custom to blindly fry sausages in the dark while an icy wind tore through the room. I did think to myself, however, “I would like to go to Kazakhstan one day.” My wish was granted five years later, when I was sent to Nur-Sultan and Almaty for work. Almaty is now one of my favorite places I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit, and I know it should be on your travel list as well.
Almaty served as the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997, when the government moved the capital city to Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan just last year). Despite the capital’s relocation, Almaty remains Kazakhstan’s most populous city with over two million people. There is a noticeable Russian influence throughout the city, though this comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers that Kazakhstan was actually part of the Russian Empire well before the foundation of the Soviet Union (I definitely knew that before and didn’t just Google it…probably). Street signs are posted in both Kazakh and Russian Cyrillic, so if you can read either of those, you’re all set! If not, any of your standard map apps will work just fine.
The city itself is very walkable, though hilly, so be prepared to get your step count up. I spent most of my limited downtime in Panfilov Park, which was just down the hill from my hotel. Named for the soldiers from an Almaty unit who were killed defending Moscow during World War II, the park has a large section set aside for memorials to fallen soldiers during the war, including an eternal flame. Zenkov Cathedral, also called Ascension Cathedral, sits in a clearing just a short walk from the war memorials. It was one of the only buildings to survive a massive earthquake that leveled most of the city in 1911, and is definitely worth checking out. For the musically inclined, Panfilov Park is also home to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments.
The much larger Central Park sits only a few blocks east of Panfilov. Food vendors and cafes, outdoor performance spaces, children’s rides and games, paddle boats on the pond, an aquapark, and a dinosaur park are just some of the surprises I encountered while wandering through on a sunny Sunday afternoon. By the way, Kazakh ice cream is awesome and they have a lot of flavors I don’t normally see in the States (like melon) so I recommend eating ice cream there at least two or three times per hour.
Kok Tobe, while touristy, is still a must visit if you’re going to Almaty. You can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain, where you’ll find a carnival-park of sorts. There is a Ferris wheel (along with several other rides), games, a petting zoo, a mountainside toboggan ride, and a smattering of small restaurants and shops. Even if the mountaintop carnival isn’t exactly your scene, Kok Tobe is the best place to come for a panoramic view of Almaty.
Tucked into the northern foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, Almaty has some truly breathtaking views. My pre-trip research included making a list of the best ten hikes in the Almaty area, then weeping at the knowledge that I would only have time for one, due to my full work schedule. My coworker and I ended up settling on Big Almaty Lake, a natural reservoir in the mountains above the city. This could easily be an all-day hiking trip, but for anyone in a hurry (or anyone who doesn’t want to walk up a mountain), it is also accessible by car. The lake is a major source of drinking water for the city, so swimming is prohibited. That being said, I was there in August and it was still pretty chilly up in the mountains, so the temptation wasn’t there. The lake is surrounded by trails, and there’s also an Astronomical Observatory that I never found, but was told exists!
Big Almaty Lake
Finally, Zelyoniy Bazaar (Green Bazaar). If you’re like me, you could spend an entire day wandering from vendor to vendor sampling different fruits, vegetables, juices, candies, spices, honey, and other goodies. Be prepared to haggle! After I successfully talked down the price on a half kilo of macadamia nuts, I was feeling bold and tried to help my coworker negotiate a better price on candied peanuts. Instead, I may or may not have cornered him into buying two kilos instead of whatever normal amount he had tried to ask for. Whatever, Russian numbers are hard! Anyway, I recommend bringing small bills and a tote bag for your treasures. Outside of the main food building, there is an extensive labyrinth of other vendors selling clothing, books, and household items.
As a city, Almaty has a lot to offer. Fun bars and pubs, a diverse selection of international restaurants and cafes (so much Georgian food – who can say no to khachapuri?), incredible Kazakh food (horse steak and plov!), and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever interacted with. Don’t let the language barrier stop you – even if you don’t speak Kazakh or Russian, everyone is patient and helpful. Once the world opens up for travel again, add Almaty to your list of must visit places!
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