From Shymkent I took another overnight train to Almaty. The 12 hour journey is considered a short one by Kazakh standards. This time my companions were two Kazakh ladies and a man whose wife and sister were in another cabin. On arrival in Almaty they told me to follow them to their car and didn’t accept my plan to get to my hostel by bus.
Even though they had a hard time finding it they kept looking and even accompanied me to the reception to make sure everything was alright. Kazakh hospitality and friendliness is what makes my trip to Kazakhstan so wonderful.
Almaty: love at first sight
Sky hostel is on the 11th floor with an amazing view on Almaty and the city was love on first sight for me. On a clear day you can see the snowcapped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains that reach well over 4000 meters. Almaty is a green city full of trees, parks, large squares, old Soviet style buildings and huge memorials.
Unlike Astana, Almaty is a city full of history with many traces left of its Soviet past. The large Kazakhstan hotel and the Abai Opera theatre are fine examples of the Soviet architectural legacy, but in the most unexpected places you will find details of Almaty’s intriguing history.
I was lucky to be in Almaty on the first of May. Labour day, an old socialist tradition, was still a big celebration in Almaty. Although the main performance on the main square was more about the glory of Kazakhstan than about labour rights.
There was also a small market with a random selection of wannabe countries such as Dagestan, Tatarstan, Chechnya, Ossetia and Kurdistan. The purpose of this remained unclear, but the Kazakh people seemed to enjoy it or was it the free food that was available?
Despite the Soviet traces Almaty is also a modern city. Luxurious appartment buildings, fancy shopping malls, hip cafes and coffeeshops cater for the new elite in the city. It would be the perfect city for expats if it wasn’t one of the most expensive as well. Living costs are high, but as a tourist you won’t notice this. Backpacker hostels, budget restaurants and public transport are still very cheap.
It is in Almaty where I find this interesting mix of its old Soviet past where life was harsh and the new modern lifestyle all comes together. A modern city that breathes history. Astana might be the new capital, but the heart of Kazakhstan is still in Almaty.
Travel guide on the best things to do in Almaty
1. Arasan Wellness center
My first day in Almaty it was raining and what better to do in a city when it rains then going to an old Soviet spa. In Soviet times most homes could not afford their own shower, instead people used to go to a communal bathhouse, the banja. Even tough most households now do have a shower, a visit to the banja is still a popular outing for families and friends.
Arasan is one of the largest bath houses in Asia. The womens section has 2 floors with different sauna cabins, showers, peeling rooms, massage rooms and a pool. At first I feel a bit lost in this huge complex among Kazakh and Russian woman. They were all wearing felt hats and I stood out for not having anything on my head. In the Russian sauna women also beat each other with leafy branches called veniks. Apparently this is very good for your health, although nobody could explain me why.
2. Almaty Metro
Almaty has an excellent metro network. Even tough construction already started during the Soviet times in 1988 it was never finished. When the Soviet Union broke down funds dried up and things were left the way they were.
But in 2005 Nazarbayev decided to finish the job. The metro is therefore a new addition that opened in 2011, but clearly built to resemble the Moscow metro stations built during Soviet times. The stations are built to impress. Elevators going deep under the ground bring you to huge hallways that look more like the entrance to a palace. Every station is different and has its own character with Kazakh patterns and symbols.
3. Kok Tobe Cable car
Kok tobe is very popular for families with kids. The cable car brings you on top of the Kok tobe hill where there is a small amusement park for children and a wonderful view over the city. Don’t miss the Beatles statue. If you don’t fancy taking the relatively expensive cable car you can also take bus number 95 or 99 to their terminus on Omarova and take the minivan from there to the top of the hill.
4. Panfilov Park & The War memorial
The Panfilov Park is named after the Panfilov heroes. 28 soldiers from Almaty who died fighting the Nazi’s outside of Moscow. General Panfilov managed to delay the advance of the enemy towards the capital, but his infantry did die in combat eventually. The huge memorial statue in the park shows the 28 soldiers, but is a memorial to all the Kazakh soldiers who died in the first and second world war. Nowadays the park is a popular green space in the city where couples stroll and children feed the pigeons.
5. Zenkov cathedral
In the center of the Panfilov Park is the Zenkov cathedral. One of the few Russian Orthodox churches that survived the Soviet Union. In that time it was a museum. But as soon as the Soviet Union broke down the church opened its doors again. The church also survived several earthquakes, because it is made of wood. Remarkably no nails were used in the construction.
6. Central mosque
The central mosque is the largest mosque in Almaty. The mosque is relatively new, but it was built on the site of an older mosque that burned down in 1987.
7. Green market
The green market is an excellent place to do some shopping and to experience a central asian bazaar. It is the best place to buy souvenirs, dried fruits, spices and fresh vegetables.
Another reason to come here is the cheap Kazakh food. Several Uigur restaurants serve excellent laghman (noodle soup with tomato and peppers) and beshbarmak (Kazakhs national dish of boiled noodles with horse meat). This is also the place to try Kymyz (fermented horse milk) and Shubat (fermented camel milk) or Kazakh’s apples. Almaty means father of apples and Kazakhstan is in fact the birthplace of the first eatable apple.
8. Rakhat Chocolate factory
Near the Green market you can already smell Rakhat’s chocolate factory. The factory store sells a huge variety of Kazakh chocolate. I am not a very big fan of chocolate myself, but apparently Kazakhstans chocolate is pretty good. The factory sometimes gives tours.
9. Central Gorki Park
Almaty is full of green spaces and Gorki Park is another pleasant green space in the city. In the spring it is full of flowers. There is also an entertainment park for children. The restaurants here serve excellent shaslyck.
10. Arbat – Zhibek Zholy
This treelined pedestrian shopping street is popular with locals. There are some nice cafe’s, street musicians and artists selling their paintings.
11. Central State Museum
The Central State museum is one of the largest museums in Central Asia and has extensive collections about Kazakhstan’s history. Even tough the museum already opened in Almaty’s cathedral in 1931, the current building was built in 1985. The architecture of the building is impressive. If you are near Republic square it is worth taking a look, even just to see the museum from the outside.
12. Republic Square
The main square in Almaty has been used for festivals, celebration, military parades and mass demonstrations. There are some interesting architectural landmarks around this square.
First of all there is the Independence monument with a statue of a golden warrior on top. Below the monument is a handprint of Nazarbayev in a bronze copy of the constitution. The bronze panels surrounding the monument show important events from Kazakhstans history. Across the monument is the former Presidential palace. Even tough it is closed for visitors, the architecture is impressive.
13. Nikolski Cathedral
The small Nikolski cathedral is another Russian Orthodox church in Almaty worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood.
13. Botanical garden
With so many well maintained parks full of flowers in spring, the botanical garden was a bit of a dissapointment. The large green space at the outskirts of the city is neglected and not what it could be. It felt more like a walk through a pine forest where squirrels were playing in the trees than a garden. That said, it is not all unpleasant to wander around here and smell the fresh mountain air.
14. President’s Park
This large park at the outskirts of Almaty is a popular picture spot for wedding couples. With the mountains in the back and flowers everywhere you do understand why. It opened in 2011 and it all feels very new and shiny. The observation deck offers nice views on the mountains.
15. Big Almaty Lake
Almaty is a heaven for those who love the outdoors. Less than an hour by taxi is the Big Almaty Lake. A turqouise blue lake in the middle of the mountains. Even tough it was already mid April the lake was still frozen and covered in snow when I was there. Still, it was amazing how quickly you are in the mountains.
The best way to get here is by finding other people and sharing a taxi. From President’s park bus number 28 drives every 30 minutes to the entrance of the park, but from there it is still a long walk on the road or along the pipeline towards the lake.
The border guards in this area take their job very serious. Bring your passport along and be careful with hiking here. Under no circumstances hike towards the lake, because you can get a fine.
16. Shymbulak & Medeu
Another place to visit Almaty’s mountains is the ice skate ring in Medeu and the ski resort of Shimbulak. Bus number 12 from accross the Kazakhstan Hotel goes every 30 minutes to the entrance of Medeu. From there you can take a cable car or a minivan (cheaper) to Shymbulak.
Places to eat on a budget
1. Kaganat (Dostyk 108)
Kaganat is probably the cheapest option in Almaty. It is a canteen style buffet restaurant with a mix of Russian and Kazakh food. Excellent for vegetarians as they have different salads as well.
2. Dastarkhan (Nauryzbai Batyr street 124)
Another canteen buffet style restaurant that is cheap and good is Dastarkhan. In my opinion slightly better than Kaganat with more choice and a better quality of food
3. Rumi (Dostyk Avenue 63)
This restaurant is making excellent central asian food such as plov and shaslyck. The interior of the restaurant looks beautiful and gives you the feeling you are in the middle east. Not the cheapest in this list, but prices are still reasonable.
4. Green Market
The green market is a very cheap place to try out some Kazakh and central asian specialities such as plov, laghman and Beshbarmak. Depending on where you go it will be a bit hit and miss, but I had my best laghman in the Green market. If a restaurant is busy that is a good sign.
5. Gorki Park
Gorki park is probably the best place to have shaslyck. You will already smell the scent of grilled meat and all you have to do is follow your nose.
Places to sleep
Staying in hostels has its advantages and disadvantages. Its cheap, social and you meet lots of interesting people at the expense of your privacy. Cleanliness and silence should also not be high on your priority list. Hostels come in different forms and varieties, but hostel culture is quite similar all around the world.
Kazakhstan is bringing the social aspect of hostel culture to a different level tough. Kazakhs hospitality lives on in Kazakhs hostels. Where in most countries hostels are solely used by foreign travellers, hostels in Kazakhstan are used by Kazakh people themselves as well. In fact, some people choose to live in hostels.
In the dormitory of sky hostel i was the only traveller with the other beds being occupied by kazakh girls who have made the dormitory their home. Another Kazakh guy lived in the hostel because it was 5 minutes from his work so that he did not need to drive an hour every day to get home.
1. Sky Hostel (Kurmangazy 107)
Sky hostel is an excellent hostel with a wonderful view. It is a 5 minutes walk from the Baikonur metro station.
2. Almaty Backpackers hostel (Elebekova 20/9)
Another excellent and very social hostel in Almaty is the Almaty Backpackers hostel. In this hostel it is very easy to meet other travellers and share the costs for tours to Big Almaty Lake, the Charyn canyon and the Kolsai Lakes. The tours the hostel offers are very good and the staff is very friendly.
The star in Almaty backpackers is the friendly Aya who cooks our breakfast, cooks us dinner, cleans the house and gives away free hugs to everyone. She will tell you whole stories in Kazakh even if you dont understand it. Aliya and Lana at the reception make sure you know how to get around Almaty and can translate Aya’s stories for you.
Almaty has an excellent bus system and a ticket costs 80 tenge. There are so many busses taking different routes that it might be tricky to find out which bus to take. One way is to tell the driver the name of your destination. They will either say yes or no. A better way is to check the websites Zaproezd or citybus.kz that will tell you exactly which numbers you should take. You can buy the tickets in the bus.
Another cheap way to explore Almaty is taking the metro. Most sights are within 10-20 minutes walking from a metro station.
Raymbek Batyr station – Almaty II Train station
Zhibek Zholy train station – Arasan baths, Panfilov Park & Green market
Almaly station – Abai opera & Ballet theatre
Abai station – Koktobe, Kazakhstan hotel, Central State Museum, Republic square
Baikonur station – Sky hostel, Nikolsky cathedral
Mukhtar Auezov Theatre – Kazakh Drama Theatre, Circus, Kasteev art museum, Almaty Towers