Almaty, City of Apples
The beautiful city of Almaty occupies land in the south of the country for many millennia given to acre upon acre of apple orchards, a fruit which gives the city not only much of its historical identity but also its name, Almaty meaning literally, ‘Father of Apples’. For over a century has the city claimed the honour of being the birthplace of this most nourishing fruit.
Life in Almaty
Situated in the foothills of the Tien Shan, Almaty is now a city of modern architecture, orderly streets lined with trees and adorned with flowers. It has attention-grabbing fountains, interesting parks and spectacular mountain views. It is also possible to witness the legacy of Soviet times by walking the many streets which encapsulate the spirit of days gone by.
The city brings together people of different cultures and faiths and Almaty is a comforting example of how easily people from such diverse backgrounds can live together without the scarcest hint of racial or religious tension. Its traditions are as varied as its people, with Eastern and European traditions closely interwoven here leading to an openness and tolerance felt by locals and visitors alike.
Expatriates feel particularly at home here, many choosing to stay permanently in spite of coming from some of the most prosperous countries in the world. The city has managed to create a well-developed infrastructure which has led to high standards of living, this in part to thank for the political and social stability the people are so proud of. In turn, the city planners have had the resources to devote to introducing popular attractions and recreational facilities of international standards, and Almaty is without doubt the scientific, financial, commercial and tourist centre of Kazakhstan, in spite of the capital having been changed to Astana in 1997.
Attractions include Panfilov Park, a popular destination for families and couples. This surrounds the stunning Zenkov Cathedral which is an entirely wooden structure, famous for being erected at the beginning of the 20th century without the use of a single nail. A few short paces away, the Green Bazaar, a huge market in Almaty is another place very much worth visiting, not only to pick up a bargain but to witness first hand the colour and buzz of shopping in Almaty. Other sights include New Square, which is the venue of choice for many national ceremonies and festivals, these being very important features on the Kazakh calendar.
No city break would be complete without taking in a bit of culture and heritage, and coming to Almaty affords the tourist numerous possibilities of doing this. Within easy reach of each other are, art-galleries, theatres, including the Museum of Kazakh National Instruments, the Central State Museum and the State Art Museum which has amongst its exhibits traditional Kazakh rugs, jewellery and clothing. The Arasan Baths, right next to Panfilov Park, have Turkish, Finnish and Russian saunas, popular all year round.
Almaty is known as the City of Apples but to many who live here it is a city of fun, home to countless modern entertainment facilities and places to simply chill out and let your worries fade away. In abundance are Western-style coffee lounges crowded with both locals and expatriates, fine restaurants serving top quality and diverse cuisine, lavish bars, luxurious nightclubs not to mention well-stocked supermarkets and glamorous international shops lining the streets, including some very prestigious recent arrivals such as Zara and Lacoste.
It would be safe to say that there is something in Almaty to suit all tastes, although for those inclined to a wager, the famous Almaty casinos of recent times can now be found in the lakeside resort of Kapchagai, but an hour away and accessible by regular shuttle buses from the city. The summer months see this town full to the brim as people spend the warmer months relaxing on the beach or chancing their luck on the cards or roulette wheel.
Mountains and Outdoor Activities
Towering over the southern reaches of the city are some of the highest and most amazing mountains in the Central Asian region. Yet the Zaili Alatau Mountains just outside Almaty are not just a view, however stunning. Instead, they offer numerous opportunities all year round for sports and recreation at world-class ski resorts with state-of-the-art facilities. There is also the famous Medeu ice skating rink, not only one of the world’s biggest but also its highest, the proud host of many world and national speed-skating records, for most of the year given to recreation and visited by thousands. There are large areas of unspoilt nature among the vast stretches of mountains which attract many tourists both in summer and in winter, not only the intrepid mountain walkers but also families with children.
Medeu itself, and its twin ski resort Shymbulak are known as popular winter attractions not only in Kazakhstan, but also probably in the entire former Soviet Union. The rink, located at 1700m and about 15km from central Almaty, and Shymbulak at 2300m, were the main venues for the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
A short hop from the city is an amazing deep gorge on the Charyn River, the Charyn Canyon, one of the natural wonders of Central Asia. It stretches further than the eye can see and despite the amazement it holds for those who see it, few chance to walk its entire distance. Other southern waterways add yet more choice to the intrepid traveller’s itinerary. The Kulsay lakes, great for fishing and the Ily River and its valley, equally good for rafting, trekking, hunting, or simply spending time surrounded by unspoilt nature.
Another picturesque destination is the Almarasan Gorge, which has become a place of choice for residents of Almaty during the warmer months. Here, visitors can find the Pearl of the City, the Big Almaty Lake whose beauty is enough in itself to attract many guests. Once here, at a height of 1750m, locals spend their weekends eating in one of the many dining places offering Uighur, Dungan, Caucasian, Uzbek and European cuisine.
Even more impressive, according to many, and not too far further, is Issyk-Kul, a lake in our neighbouring country, Kyrgyzstan, particularly popular among Kazakhs, many of whom turn their backs on European holidays to spend their well-earned breaks on the beaches of this relatively undiscovered gem.