Here is one totally off the beaten track. Literally, because the tracks that lead to the largest city of Kazakhstan are long and virtually unknown to tourists. Cramped in the south-east corner of this immense country, at the spot where the flatlands meet the outskirts of the Tian Shan Mountains, this is not your average weekend city destination by any standards. Nevertheless, it is a city well-known to many Dutch sports enthusiasts. Usually the bell starts to ring when using the old Soviet name of the city: Alma-Ata. Alma-Ata was one of the first destinations in the world offering a high altitude speed skating rink, where European top skaters broke their early world records. Today’s tourism still mostly focuses on winter sports. The ski resorts are within easy reach of city center. Almaty lost its status as the capital of Kazakhstan to the smaller, but more central and hyper modern city of Astana in 1997.
Being in Kazakhstan for business, I took the opportunity to spend a weekend in Almaty in December, just a few days before Christmas. A cold and grey weekend, where the temperature did not exceed -10C. Almaty is not an old city. It was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1887. Being an important city in the Soviet Union, it boasts a clear grid of wide avenues with endless rows of grey, concrete apartment blocks and massive office buildings. In between you spot grandesque monuments of socialist heroes. Nowadays, the Kazakh people add a lot of color to their country. Sometimes too much so, but at least it breaks the monotony. So join me on a virtual tour, where grey and bright colors fight for your attention.
Arriving in Almaty from Astana. The Caspian Sea to the left, China to the right and the smaller Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the south.
Kazakh president Nazarbajev will greet you from many streetcorners. In 2011 Kazakhstan celebrated its 20th anniversary. It became independent from Russia in 1991. The bright yellow and blue national colors are abundant. By the way: All buildings in this picture can be found in Astana.
A short stroll from the main shopping streets is Panfilov Park. This park is home to the beautiful 1907-built Cathedral of The Holy Ascension. This wooden church stands 53 meters high, making it one of the tallest wooden structures in the world.
In Soviet times, when churches were not allowed, this building housed a museum. After Kazakh independence it was re-converted into an orthodox christian church.
This same Panfilov Park is home to this Soviet-Kazakh war memorial. During the second world war over 600,000 Kazakhstanis were killed. The ‘Panfilov Soldiers’ form the heart of the massive monument. An eternal flame burns a few meters away.
The State Museum of National Musical Instruments is housed in a beautiful wooden building, dwarfed by the Museum of Military History right behind it.
Most tourists come to Almaty for wintersports or to enjoy the mountains. Not wanting to go skiing during a citytrip, we visited the nearest panorama of the mountains to the city: Kok-Tobe Mountain. The cable car departs from the huge Kazakhstan Republic Palace. In 10 minutes you ‘fly’ from city center into a pristine mountain park.
On top of Kok-Tobe you are met by… John, Paul and Ringo. This bronze statue of the Beatles was erected by a group of local businessmen, for whom the music of the Beatles represented an exciting alternative to the Soviet-sanctioned cultural offering of their youths.
During clear days you have a great view on the Zailysky Alatau Mountain Range. Kok-Tobe Mountain itself is 1,100 meters high, while the surrounding peaks easily reach up to 4,000 meters. Apart from the view, Kok-Tobe doesn’t offer a lot. There are amusement park rides, a few bars and restaurants and a souvenir shop. We spend an hour here before heading back to the city.
From Kok-Tobe we walk to the Independence Monument on Republic Square. This monument is one big history lesson of Kazakhstan, emphasizing its medieval warrior heroes, up to the heroism of current president Nazarbajev. The white and blue screens celebrate 20 years of independence.
One of the bronze panels in the history-lesson display of the monument, featuring the current president. Also note the Soyuz rocket in the right top corner!
The Independence Monument overlooks the large Republic Square and the massive, Soviet-built former presidential palace.
A much more intimate and emotional monument sits a few steps away from Republic Square. It is the 2006-built “Dawn of Freedom” monument, honoring the victims of a 1986 local uprising against the Soviet Union, killing several “freedom fighters”.
Not too far from the Dawn of Freedom is this friendly Irish Pub ‘Dublin’. The not-so Irish menu today features jellied chicken, egg and meat broth, duck kebab and horsemeat stew. Slightly more expensive than other restaurants, but a nice and relaxing atmosphere. Good to be away from the culture shock for an hour.
This large square in a small park is Old Square, home to the former Kazakh Parliament Building. This classic Soviet-style building is now home to the Kazakh-British Technical University. In the foreground is a statue for two female Kazakh heroines of the second world war.
The entrance to one of many not-so-stylish modern shopping arcades. Not sure what type of customers this will attract, but Almaty has many of these weird surprises.
If you look well you can find some great Soviet-era art on many buildings in Almaty. I love this colorful mosaic of the great socialist cosmonaut heroes, on the side of a grey apartment block close to my hotel. This is one of the reasons why I love to wander around these presumingly boring former Soviet cities.
There are not many fastfood restaurants (yet) in Almaty, but it is getting close. I didn’t try this one (and it’s only funny in Dutch ;-).
It is convenient if you can read Cyrillic characters. Most signs are in Kazakh and Russian only, like this sign to my hotel. Hotel Kazzhol is a very nice 4-star hotel, just off the main shopping street in the heart of Almaty.