Of all the things I anticipated discovering in Almaty, a ski resort mere 20 minutes from the city center was certainly not on my list. To be honest, I hadn’t envisioned encountering horse acrobats, exploring vineyards, marveling at a canyon, or witnessing the surreal sight of upside-down trees in a sunken forest either. Naturally I didn’t anticipate to hold a Steppe eagle on my hand by a canyon. This would naturally make you question: What then did I expect from Almaty? Very little, is the candid answer. But, in real, Almaty has many unexpected wonders to offer.
It would be prudent to acknowledge that my decision to book tickets to Kazakhstan was impulsive. I had not planned or read enough before getting my tickets booked. But as you might have surmised by now, Almaty turned out to be a splendid stroke of serendipity.
Kazakhstan is huge – huge to a scale that may be difficult to grasp. But it’s also full of flavors, and had been a melting pot of many cultures and thoughts. And no where you get to feel this melange of cultures and thoughts better, than in Almaty.
As you land in Almaty, you get a feeling that the journey is going to be one to be cherished in postcard memories. Nestled at the foothills of the Trans-ili-Alatau mountains, Almaty has a cityscape to fall in love with. Almaty greets you with views of the Tian Shan Mountain range. Take your day slow here, and pencil in time to breathe in every moment. Almaty is a city where glittering new skyscrapers and centuries’ old markets, and Soviet era monuments and candy-colored cathedrals share spaces. Every stretch here seems to have something to offer, and more than anything, it offers a feeling of abandonment and rejuvenation.
I started my day with probably the most famous and touristy part of Almaty – the Panfilov park. It’s at the center of the city, an attractive square of lush green, perfect for relaxed strolling. In the middle of the park stands the picture-perfect, candy-colored Zenkov Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension. Built in the early 20th century it is one of the only wooden cathedrals in the world. Astonishingly, it was built without a single nail.
The entire park has a unique rizz to it. As you move from the Zenkov Cathedral, you come to the Freedom square with large statues of warriors of the liberation war with the Eternal Flame Monument, an impressive classic example of Soviet-style post-war propagandist architecture. In a discreet corner is a cute crafts museum. And while you are there, pencil in some time to refuel yourself at Coffedelia, a sleek cafe with Parisian-style patisseries, delicious eggs benedict and free fast Wi-Fi to upload your adventures onto Instagram!
Medeu, a strange place of Alpine oddities
Head east of the city, and in less than 30 minutes you will find yourself in the midst of the unexpected. Medeu is a strange place of oddities. Far down, one can lose oneself in the sight of the mighty skyscrapers of Almaty, and the city dimming in a cloud of dust and fog, and above lies the world’s highest ski resort glimmering in snow. Come winters, and Medeu teems up with skating enthusiasts, and what old or young, even toddlers can be found with their skates on to test their skills. But the real pleasure lies beyond the skating ring.
Take the cable car (5000 tenge or INR 1000) all the way to the shymbulak ski resort. Shymbulak ski resort is always alive with day trippers. In winters this becomes a ‘go-to’ place for skiing enthusiasts and veterans from around the world, and else otherwise there are always others to enjoy the ice-biting breeze and the views of snow laden mountains. From its gondolas, you can spot skiers and boarders carefully making their way down the sun-blushed slush. But the entire area goes beyond this mood and view. This makes a perfect hiking place for intrepid travelers, heading all the way to the boundless mountain range, colossal, keen edged, and a playground for hikers and wildlife alike.
And back in the city, take a day out to visit the umpteen museums and art galleries. The Almaty Museum is quite recommended as it takes you through the unique cultural history of the city. The Soviet era architecture of most of these buildings does leave you in a camera frenzy mode. Even the contemporary architecture mirrors the forgone style. If you are an art lover, you will be left delighted with the magnificent collection in the Kazakh museum of art. The museum houses the most comprehensive and diverse collection of art in Kazakhstan, including works from Russian and Western European artists and an entire floor dedicated to traditional and modern handicrafts made in Kazakhstan.
Another quick detour could be to Koktobe, the highest point of the city, and a recreational center with a mini zoo, and a Ferris wheel. But go there to capture the best views of the city. One can take a cable car from a stop next to another iconic building in the city – Hotel Kazakhstan, to Koktobe mountain.
The unending culinary delights
Once back to the urban environment, discover the many urban delights Almaty has on offer. A little stroll on the many boulevards of Almaty, and you can get why Almaty is touted the foodie destination of Central Asia. The boulevards are adorned with comfortable cafes and lavish restaurants dishing out local and international cuisines. Head out to Afisha, a lovely restaurant that brings the traditional and the contemporary together, and can rival many foodies’ favorite hops from world over. The restaurant is known for preparing many cuisines in a wood burning oven. Try their caviars and the cakes.
Wish to try something more authentic – head to the Zelenyi (Green) Bazar, the city’s ultimate food temple. This centrally located market place has been running for over 150 years now, and is quite a place to try some authentic kazaki delights. Be here early in the day to try some local delicacies (also if you wish to try camel milk and horse meat). Or you may just be here to fill your bags with herbal teas or dry fruits. You can also go to the Rakhat candy factory and pick some of the candies as souvenirs. They have been making these for over 70 years now, and have perfected the art of candy making. Or just stop at any of the pretty cafés on those tree lined streets.
To do good to your pocket while relishing the local flavors, you can head to the many canteens in the district center. The food is pocket friendly and savory. As I strolled through the city, I realized how far Almaty is anything but the stereotype Borat, the fictitious, mustachioed, manikin-wearing media personality played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the eponymous cult film, had us believe. Almaty is quintessentially hospitable. And the fact that the city and so the country has remained off the travel lists, has helped it attract the new breed of travelers, who are in eternal search of cities no one can locate on a map, unfamiliar cuisines and the latest next thing to be shared online with eager followers. And unconventional travelers are quite flocking the city.