Mention Kazakhstan and most people think of either Borat or nomadic people on horseback. Part of the five ‘stans’ of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is often misunderstood and definitely underrated. Most people may expect Almaty (its former capital until 1997) to be somewhat undeveloped but you will be surprised to discover that this city is modern, clean and excitingly exotic!
Fun fact: do you know that apples originated from Kazakhstan? That is why its largest city, Almaty, is thus named! Almaty, also known as Alma-ata in the Kazakh language, means ‘full of apples’.
This new country who gained independence merely 27 years ago has developed much in terms of economy and technology. But, a big part of the population still retains their nomadic culture and influences at the same time. Here is why Almaty should be next on your travel list!
People – an interesting mix of Asian and Caucasian roots
One of the most fascinating things to do is to observe the people as you walk around the streets. The people here look Asian (and are, in fact, Asians) but with somewhat European features, such as bluish eyes and high nose bridges. In case you are wondering, Kazakhs are mostly of Turkic, medieval Mongol and Caucasian descent. Throw the early Russian settlers into the unique ethnic mix and that explains the Kazakh people’s exotic features.
They speak mostly Russian besides the Kazakh language, which makes visiting this place even more exciting! You would almost feel that you are in Europe itself. The people here are friendly enough but only a small percentage can speak basic English. So, trying to have a meaningful conversation is probably out of the question.
Tip: Download an offline language translation app to help communicate better!
Delicious Food – a love for meat and bread
Due to their nomadic roots, Kazakhs love mutton, beef and horse! Besides meat, flour-based food items are their other main sustenance. Bread (locally called Nan) is sold everywhere, from the streets to the supermarket, and consumed almost every meal.
Kazakh food is delicious and hearty – plov (a must-try), manti dumplings, shashlik and other tantilising local favourites are some of the popular choices. Vegetables, on the other hand, are seldom seen in their cooked dishes except tomatoes and the occasional appearance of carrots.
Kazakh Plov, a rice dish cooked in broth.
Image source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BddKvdVl0YB/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
In vibrant Almaty, there are other cuisines available if you are sick of Kazakhstan food. You can find Georgian, Italian and even Korean restaurants scattered around the city area.
Coffee aficionados can rejoice thanks to the strong coffee culture in Almaty! Cafes are everywhere and most places serve a more-than-decent brew. In fact, the coffee culture only started a few year back in about 2014 but the strong reception resulted in a boom across the country.
Interestingly though, Kazakhs are traditionally tea drinkers and so they still appreciate having a few cups of hot black tea during meals.
Mesmerising old-meets-new-world architecture
For both avid history buffs and city-goers, Almaty will not disappoint. You can spot plenty of Soviet-era buildings in typical Stalinist-architecture styles that make for stunning photos for the ‘gram. At the same time, trendy shops and cafes with modern interiors line the streets, bringing about a buzzing metropolis vibe.
As the cultural and historical hub of Kazakhstan, Almaty is also home to numerous towering monuments in memory of their fight for independence and notable influential figures.
Most iconic of all would be the dazzling, super colourful Russian-Orthodox Zenkov Cathedral located in the middle of the famous Panfilov Park. Nearby stands the imposing black-granite memorial honouring the 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis.
This city is chock-full of history, culture and art. Take a day to wander through the picturesque streets and muse upon all the sights sprawled out within the grid-layout city centre.
A haven for nature-lovers
The first thing that will strike most first-time tourists is the abundance of trees! For those who have not experience the beauty of autumn, a good time to visit is during September to November. Autumn in Kazakhstan is one of the best times because the weather is comfortable and you will be blown away by the sight of picturesque streets enveloped by trees turning orange.
From the city centre, it is a mere 10-min cable car ride to the peak of Kok Tobe where you can see the majestic snow-capped mountain ranges of Ile Alatau. One side lies the dramatic, sprawling mountains and the other offers a panoramic view of Almaty city!
Another noteworthy place to visit is the Big Almaty Lake – the most famous lake in Kazakhstan.
Located about 32km south of the city centre, this turquoise-blue lake is a perfect reflection of the surroundings and is ringed by the impressive white-tipped Ile Alatau mountain ranges (you will never get sick of its beauty). Access to the lake is prohibited because it serves as a reservoir for the city’s water supply but the mountain scenery more than makes up for it.
Popular winter attractions such as the Shymbulak ski resort is just an hour’s drive away (13km from the city), if you are up for some skiing fun.
Otherwise, there are beautifully-designed parks to be found everywhere in Almaty! Get lost in time and take a leisure stroll through many of these peaceful parks. If you think Singapore is a green city, Almaty will surpass that notion.
What to be wary of
Generally, it is quite safe for tourists in Almaty despite its rather bad reputation online.
In the past, organised crime is quite rampant in Almaty because of its bustling economy. The government has since clamped down many of these illegal activities and there are legitimate tourist information counters set up that are very helpful.
But as we all know, “low crime doesn’t mean no crime”. It is not advisable to walk along quiet alleys when night falls because you are putting yourself as a prime target for theft. Pickpockets also tend to strike at tourist sites and crowded public transportation.
Taxi scams are still quite common here in Almaty even from the airport. The common operandi modus is stopping tourists at a quiet alley and extorting a much higher amount than agreed.
Tip: Download the Yandex taxi app. They operate like Grab and the price is fixed!
To sum it up, Almaty is a good introduction to Kazakhstan culture and to Central Asia.
Although it is a predominant Muslim population, the people here are more liberal in terms of mindsets and lifestyle. A contributing factor would be the century-long Russian influence. Of course, it is not encouraged to dress in skimpy outfits but do not worry about covering your head or limbs.
Almaty is an exotic melting pot of old and new, east and west. For travellers seeking a unique cultural experience but who are unable to give up urban comforts, Almaty is the place to visit!
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