Astana, the Kazakh capital, has hit international headlines in recent years for colossal investment and outlandish buildings hastily constructed for the administrative centre. But it was only established in the 1800s and only designated capital in 1997. For 1,000 years prior to that, the major city in this territory was Almaty, which remains the historic and cultural capital of this former Soviet state. While Astana can feel clinical in its design, Almaty boasts tree-lined avenues, ornate historic buildings, and sensational views of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains. With a population of 1.8 million, it’s by far the largest city in the country, too.
Those imposing peaks aren’t just for gawking at, either – its excellent sporting facilities allowed Almaty to host the 2011 Asian Winter Games and in 2017 the Winter Universiade. Its ultimate aim is to host the full Winter Olympics, but the Kazakhs will have to bide their time for now – their bid for the 2022 edition lost out to the Chinese powerhouse that is Beijing.
Sightseeing and Culture
Your itinerary in Almaty will largely depend on what time of year you arrive. In winter, the world-class facilities outside of the city limits offer winter sports of almost every variety, including new ski runs and lifts. The infrastructure – improved for the 2011 Games – has a very modern feel, but there’s a folkloric quality to the Medeu ice rink (www.medeu.com.kz, +7 727 232 6848), which was opened at the height of the Soviet Union and saw almost 50 world records broken there.
If you fancy a hilltop a little closer to town, then rising up from Almaty like a green shoulder is the 1km-high Kok Tobe or “Green Height”. For those with sufficient calf muscles and willpower, the journey to the top is free, but for a small fee gondolas make the scenic journey. On clear days, views of the city are marvellous, but regardless of the weather, a series of cafés and restaurants are arrayed around chintzy tourist attraction at the summit.
Back at street level, you’d be unwise to miss out on Panfilov Park, which is ideal for an afternoon stroll, and is also home to an unforgettable war monument that depicts Soviet soldiers defending the nation during the Second World War. Nearby the spectacularly gaudy Ascension Cathedral (www.cathedral.kz, +7 727 273 0539) has been dazzling passers-by for the past 112 years.
Also in this part of town, if you want to get an idea of how Kazakh history differs from Russian, then it’s time to head to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments (www.dostoprim.almaty.kz, +7 727 291 6917). It’s unmissable in a building slightly older than the Cathedral, designed by the same bold architect, Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov.
Food and dining
There’s no mistaking Kazakh food for haute cuisine – in truth it doesn’t have the variety or flavours of neighbouring China, either.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t come here and sample some local delicacies, however. In the days of Genghis Khan, who rampaged through these lands en route to dominating the known world, it was said that “a fast horse was weaved by the wind”.
Presumably slow horses were revered a little less, and eaten a whole lot more. While there are a great many Russian and Chinese-inspired dishes around Almaty, if you want something properly indigenous and are okay with the idea of nibbling on Seabiscuit, then horsemeat is cooked in a variety of ways.
To sample it, try Zheti Kazyna (+7 727 273 2587), which has food from across Kazakhstan and wider Central Asia (as well as some pretty woeful Japanese offerings) or head to the ever-popular Venetsia (+7 727 293 8167), which like its nominal rival serves the national dish of beshbarmak. This hearty fare – pasta, broth, and a meat of your choosing – would be a perfect staple before you
head out across the plain to conquer the next kingdom.
The local drink, like some of the food, requires a little bravery to engage: kumis is fermented mare’s milk. The fermentation process removes all lactose and leaves it with a light fizz, so… yum? Kazakh Restaurant Gakku (www.gakku-restaurant.kz, +7 727 315 0967) serves it and other local specialities.
An almost single-handed declaration that Kazakhstan is a modern nation comes from Line Brew (www.line-brew.kz, +7 701 742 0686), a trendy microbrewery and restaurant in the heart of town. That theme of a multi-discipline venue is continued at the Soho (www.soho.kz, +7 727 323 1040), which describes itself as “bar-concert and meat”.
With those bases covered there might not seem much need to go anywhere else, but if you’re feeling adventurous, then you could always move on to the Club Underground (www.metro-club.kz, +7 727 392 2102), which isn’t subterranean in a figurative or literal sense, but which does have a karaoke battle.
Where to stay
What’s the most famous hotel you’ve ever stayed in? Was it one so famous that it’s on the nation’s banknotes? If the answer is no, then you’ve got a chance to change that at the wonderfully batty Hotel Kazakhstan (www.kazakhstanhotel.kz, +7 727 291 9600), which is depicted on the 5,000 tenge (Dh56) note.
If you don’t fancy staying in that Soviet relic, however, then Almaty’s growing prominence on the international scene means it now boasts a Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com, +7 727 332 8888) an InterContinental (www.intercontinental.com, +7 727 250 5000) and a Ramada (www.ramadaalmaty.com, +7 727 344 9999), none of which were there just a decade ago and all of which are reliable choices.
For years, public transport was a chaotic business in Almaty, with unlicensed taxis the only viable option. That all changed in 2011 with the much-needed addition of a shiny new metro system just in time for the Asian Winter Games. If you’d like to try a more local approach, there are crowded trams and trolley busses or, if you fancy a bit of an adventure, just stick out your hand – one of those unofficial taxis will stop in moments, just be sure to agree a price before the journey starts.
Etihad has unfortunately cancelled its direct flight to Almaty, but both Air Astana and flydubai offer flights from Dubai, while Air Arabia has a direct service from Sharjah. Prices start at around Dhs1,200 for a return trip.