As much as we would have probably liked to sleep till midday, we had lots of things to do in Almaty (AKA Alma – Ata) before we could start to enjoy ourselves.
After our somewhat traumatic 23 hour crossing from China, I was totally amazed what a decent sleep, a hot shower, and a stunning view can do to improve your outlook. The sun streamed through our window at about 7 am and I crawled out of bed for a loo visit. Bleary-eyed I peeked out our window to see a bustling market overlooked by the tall snowy peaks of Kazakhstan mountains surrounding the city. Brilliant blue sky topped it all off. As cheap as it was, the Turkestan Hotel (in Russian – Гостиница Туркестан) met all our criteria…clean, comfortable, and well located. The view and friendly staff were an added bonus.
We finally hauled ourselves out of bed by 10 and ticked off the first priority – organizing money for a couple of days.
The next task was to get ourselves to Stantours (the then experts at helping travelers get visas to the rest of Central Asia). We had to pay for our Uzbek letters of invitation and our Iranian Permit applications and then get back to town to try and get “Registered” within the allotted time. (Many of you may not need a visa these days and registration may no longer be required either. But best to check!)
The first bit was easy once we found David’s office up 3 flights of stairs at the back of a panel beater in the suburbs. He then pointed us in the direction of the correct trolley bus to get us close to the police building where we needed to “Register” our presence in Kazakhstan within 5 days. With the weekend coming up we were keen to get this all done before closing time just in case we wanted to head elsewhere first thing Monday.
The registration process was an interesting exercise in getting through bureaucratic hurdles in a completely foreign language where the process was not straightforward in the least. First we had to find the building we wanted and the relevant entrance. The Lonely Planet served us well here (despite the fact they use the new names for streets and all the locals still use the old Soviet ones) and with a determined effort by the Policeman on duty to join in our game of charades we found out we needed to come back at 3pm. No probs and we went and had a late breakfast at a delightful café near by. Yum…..Our first real meal of kebabs, pide and salad since our last visit to Turkey in 1999!
The next part was not so straight forward. First we lined up at window three with a heap of other people, none of which spoke English. About 10 minutes in and I realized they were all ducking out the door and coming back with forms….enquiries sent me out the door into another building with translation services (NOT to English!!), photocopies and above said forms…which…were all in Russian and Kazakh. Hmmmm….maybe all the papers lining the walls had examples in English….Nup.
So what to do? Solution….Tim charmed one office worker who spoke a few words of English to fill them out for us from info in our passports and a business card from our hotel…Sweet!
We then went off to another window where someone seemed to be “administering”. Here they took our paperwork and told us to come back at 5. Excellent…time for a walk around, buy SIM cards and sweeter…..find an icy cold Efes (excellent Turkish Beer) in a brand new street café. 5 O’clock on the dot we returned and were rewarded with our “Registration” papers for free. (We had been told it may cost up to $10 each.)
With the administrivia dealt with we were free to enjoy the city for the next few days and enjoy we did. Almaty is quite European with an interesting mix of Soviet and Islamic heritage. There is alledgedly 130 different ethnic groups here in this famous Silk Road city..
The weather for the 4 days we were there was brilliant, treating us to sunny blue skies with minimal humidity. The streets are wide and clean and lined with trees. The parks are shady and green well used by the locals which gives them a nice friendly atmosphere. There are street cafes everywhere and a doner kebab stores every half block or more. Ice cream sellers are even more ubiquitous and every second person is slurping on a cone. At less than 30c US, there’s no better way to cool down on a hot day, although swimming in one of the many fully-functioning fountains works just as well. There were modern shops and shopping centers interspersed with small corner shops, all of which were booming. The fashion scene is well-established and gorgeous guys and girls strutted their stuff in some of the latest summer styles.
Traffic rules are obeyed…meaning pedestrian crossings are actually functional…very disconcerting after coming from Vietnam and China. The first few times a large expensive car screeched to a halt beside us, we thought they were just trying to tempt us onto the road to get a better shot. 🤣🤣🤣 But nope. We really were free to cross.
As told by the lass we met when crossing into the country, every car really is a taxi if you can just work out how to communicate your destination and negotiate a price in Kazakh or Russian. This means you could get a ride almost anywhere in town in a new model BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus for less than $5. In hindsight this could have been the inspiration behind UBER!
Almaty has quite a few excellent, cheap beers that can be bought almost anywhere. In comparison to the pale and tasteless liquid with bubbles, they call beer in China it’s absolutely fabulous. In fact, it’s hard to tell the difference between a café, restaurant, or bar. All of them appear to let you sit down and have a beer without eating and women are free to drink in public too. The girls do, however, have a habit of drinking their pints through straws. I guess this is more feminine but it’s not a style I’m about to adopt. I did get some strange looks though as I politely removed the straw, wiped it on a napkin, and placed it on the table beside my glass.
Meat is plentiful, cheap and usually served on large metal skewers on the BBQ or in a kebab. The smell of BBQ lamb or chicken permeates the air as the sun sets getting the gastric juices flowing. For far less than $10 per head, you can enjoy a belly full of meat, salad, and bread plus a couple of icy cold beers in a garden café. With Doner Kebabs at less than $1, you can easily get by on $10 per day on food, much less if you don’t drink alcohol.
One of the more noticeable things about Almaty at that time was that people appeared to be quite relaxed and there was very little loud shouting as we experienced in most parts of China. A four or five hour walking tour around the main sites of interest is a relaxing experience and you’ll be lucky to run into another tourist. Maybe it was our timing but we didn’t see one tour group at all. In fact, the most common sight at that time of the year (summer) is wedding parties, travelling around the city in massive stretch Hummers having their pictures taken at all the important civic buildings. A couple of them must have thought we were stalking them as we arrived at the same time at three or four different places. All of these photo sites are very impressive. We can’t admit to having visited the insides of any, but the large imposing structures were, on the whole, well-maintained examples of Post War Soviet era grandeur.
Despite the fact that we spoke no Russian or Kazakh and there is very little English spoken, people were exceptionally helpful. We actually got the feeling we were very welcome there. The ladies at The Turkistan were especially wonderful. It sometimes took a little time but they persevered with us until all of our queries were sorted. I know it’s their job but our extensive experience in cheap accommodation tells us this is not always so and it was very much appreciated.
All in all, our first impressions of our first “Stan” country were very good. With more of Kazakhstan to visit, and then 4 more “Stans” to go, our expectations of having a great time in Central Asia were high.
Things to Do in Almaty
Almaty is the type of place you can either visit the main sites in a day or two or spend a week and really explore what the city has to offer. Most of the following sites and things to do in Almaty are free or cost very little. I’ve added a few day trips further afield at the bottom, in case you have more time to spend and want to get out of the city.
If you want to know the best way to get around the main sites in the most logical order, then grab one of the done-for-you, self-guided walking tours around Almaty on GPS My City. There are a few to choose from depending on your preference of what to see.
- Visit the Tourist Information Centre – “Visit Almaty” to check out what’s on while you’re in town.
- Take a few hours and wander through Gorky Park
- Wander around Panfilov park where you can find a heap of monuments (including and the beautiful Zenkov (Ascension) Cathedral
- Visit one of the many museums – the Arts Museum, Museum of Folk Music and Instruments, the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan
- Take the cable car up to Kok-Tobe Hill – where you can find fast food, carnival rides, great views….And – wait for it – A Beatles monument.
- If you head out on a walking tour, make sure you wander by the Central Mosque (you can go in if you are suitably attired), First President’s Park (fantastic for people watching), St Nicholas Cathedral, the Kazakh State Theatre, Government House, and Kazan Cathedral for some excellent photo opportunities.
- Relax at the Arasan baths near Panfilov park.
- Hang out in a cafe in Zhibek Zholy pedestrian street and watch the world go by.
- Head to Medeu (about 30 minutes outside the city). In the winter you can ice-skate, in summer just enjoy the views and being away from the busy city. You can reach it on a local bus from the city center. (It used to be #12 but check that.)
- Enjoy the hustle and bustle of one of the local bazaars. Green Market (Zelyony Bazaar), right near the Turkestan Hotel is a good one to start with.