I touched down at 4am and after a slow queue through passport control and baggage claim eventually arrived at my Soviet era hotel an hour later.
First thing that surprised me was just how humid it was, given that it was only 20c. After a patchy nights sleep I headed out to do some sightseeing.
Almaty, the former capital city of Kazakhstan promotes itself as ‘the city of a thousand colours’ but during a visit in mid-September, it can be more like a thousand shades of grey.
The name ‘Stan’, synonymous with all countries in the region literally means ‘land’ and Kazakh means ‘nomad’, making Kazakhstan the ‘land of nomads.’
Kazakh is the world’s largest landlocked country and 9th largest country in the land mass – made up of 70% desert and 20% forest. With a population of 80 million people it’s not densely populated, although Almaty is home to nearly 10% and serves as the cultural and finance centre.
Almaty had for centuries been the capital city before it transferred to Astana. The name Almaty means ‘apple’ in Kazakh and it’s believed that apples originated in this region.
I wasn’t due to meet up with my tour group until the evening so I set out trying to see some of the main sights. My first impressions focussed on the grey skies, grey buildings and huge clouds of dust from endless construction and infrastructure projects.
I finished my exploring at the nearby Green Market, famed for its fruit and produce. Whilst small and relatively unimpressive compared to markets in India or east Asia, the fruit on sale was ripe and delicious.
After an afternoon nap I met up with my new tour group – much like India, a mix of mainly Brits and Canadian with an average age in their mid 50s. As we made our introductions it was obvious this was a very educated and well travelled group – couples had been to 104, 107 and 120 countries before.
After a quick briefing we headed out to dinner. We exchanged travel stories and ordered local beer and a dish called Besmarmal – horse meat and pastry dish served in a light broth – I hoped I didn’t get the trots after that! Dinner and conversation were pleasant and after a short walk to the hotel it was back to my room to sleep.
I’d decided to set my alarm for 6am to get up early to see sunrise over the mosque. Luckily the cloud and smog had cleared and there was a hint of blue sky. Outside it was crisp and I regretted wearing shorts as I headed out. The streets were already getting busy so I sent up LARS – the sunlight hadn’t quite hit the mosque yet but I decided it was too busy to wait any longer.
The photos of the mosque looked good and from the height I could get panoramic views across the city and out to the mountains. With commuters streaming everywhere I ended the flight early and headed back for a few hours sleep before our city tour started at 9am.
Our Russian speaking guide Galina met us at the hotel with our G Adventures CEO then translating everything into English. Our first stop was opposite the hotel in the Paniflov Park.
In the centre is an Orthodox Cathedral whose spires are covered in bright mosaic tiles. Inside a service was underway and we stopped briefly for photos and to watch the congregation chanting and praying.
A short walk further into the Park was a large overpowering Soviet era WWII memorial commemorating the 1,000,000 citizens of Almaty who went to fight in the war – a staggering 600,000 of whom never returned. The aggressive depiction of the Soviet Union protecting the territories behind her – very ‘Mother Russia’. Opposite burned an eternal flame set between smaller sculptures celebrating battles and wars.
From the park we caught a bus a short distance to a former administrative building turned university. Outside a stage was being erected for celebration to mark the 1,001st anniversary of the first settlement at Almaty.
A short walk opposite is ‘lovers walk’ – a Parisian style fountain and pond whose railings are adorned with padlocks placed there by newlyweds as a sign of their unbreakable bond.
Next stop was the grand National Theatre building and several smaller ones dedicated to the sciences and arts. From there we headed to what is supposedly the Independence Square, beneath the Parliament – however with massive construction hoardings up it didn’t feel like much of an attraction.
Whilst others ventured of to the museum and hiking, I opted to head back to the Green Market and pick up food and water for the coming days.
With the whole city undergoing a massive beautification it’s easy to see it becoming a future tourist hot spot.