Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan and was the capital until 1997. The former government headquarters is still used even though the main residence is now in the new capital of Astana. While walking through Almaty I happened to come across the government headquarters photographed above. I had already been stopped by the police several times on this trip, so I took this left hand photo without getting too close to the fence to avoid unwanted attention. On the right is one of the beautifully designed presidential palaces.
Surrounded by snow covered peaks all year around, Almaty is a beautiful city. With a population of about 1.3 million, the city never felt overcrowded and traffic never seemed to be too bad. Surprisingly when you cross the street, all cars immediately come to a stop. This even includes cars that are several lanes over and could have easily passed by. I’ve never been in a country where you put a foot into a busy major street and everything stops for you. Whether this is because the population is just that nice or if it’s more about fear from the local police I’ll never know! Below are some are some other random photos from the city. I believe the lower left hand photo is an office building, but while the building in the lower right looks much more important I wasn’t able to find out its purpose.
Even though it had been a while since the movie Borat came out, it often came up when I talked to my friends back home or even with other travelers I met in Kazakhstan. Of course I’d never bring it up with a local. They see the movie as extremely disrespectful to their country, and I didn’t want to get knocked out. I did talk to locals in surrounding countries in Central Asia, and all of them seemed to think the movie was hilarious though. In any case, the movie is obviously not close in any way when it comes to showing Kazakh people or their culture. As you can see above, Kazakhs are a Turkic Asian race, descendants of those from the Mongolian wars that took place in the region centuries ago.
The far majority of Kazakhs are Muslim, but this isn’t obvious from walking around most parts of the city. This guy singing on the left was one of the few people I saw wearing any type of Islamic clothing. Those who do usually only have a hat like this man, or cover their hair if they are a woman. The Central Mosque above is the second largest in the country, and around here I saw more people wearing Islamic clothing. I thought the Central Mosque was a few hundred years but it was actually completed in 1999!
A popular thing to do for both locals and tourists is to ride a cable car up the Kok Tobe mountain. Kok Tobe is the highest point in the city and from here you can get some excellent views of Almaty and its surrounding. The mountain is located in a wealthy suburb of the city which is photographed above. On the way up the cable car I saw some unnecessarily big houses here and several with swimming pools!
After taking the Kok Tobe cable car up, the first thing I came across was this yurt. For some reason I had only expected an observation deck at the top and nothing more. There’s actually a whole family day worth of activities up here. A small amusement park includes a roller coaster, race tracks, and other rides and games. There are also several restaurants and small souvenirs stands as well.
The nicest restaurant seemed to be at the very end of the park and surprisingly wasn’t overpriced. I didn’t eat there, but they had outdoor seating on a nice deck that overlooked the city that I took advantage of. On the way back to the cable car I walked a different way and came across a little zoo. For a price, you can feed some of the animals like these goats.
These buildings above are the most prominent in Almaty and can be seen from most parts of the city. Of course they were visible from Kok Tobe as well, but they looked almost small from up there. They seem to be relatively new, as the one on the right is still under construction. They were mostly offices with a few shops and restaurants at the bottom. I actually had lunch in a very expensive cafe here, the food was good but it came at European prices! When I was traveling in Kazakhstan I was often asked who I was working for, since most assume I’m a gas or oil worker. One of these buildings must be a big employer in that industry. I saw lots of well-dressed business people and several expats going in and out.
Almaty has an excellent national museum if you can show up when it’s open. I came here twice during normal business hours and was told it by hand motions and by pointing at a calendar that it was closed for the rest of the week. Later I happened to meet up with a traveler from Hong Kong who was going to the museum, so I tagged along. I expected to be turned away again, but something was lost in translation because when we arrived we were let in. Above is the museum from the outside and then its main lobby on the right. The museum covers a little bit of everything about Kazakhstan’s history. Photography isn’t allowed in most areas, but these two photos below were an exception.
The largest city park in Almaty is called Panfilov Park. Sadly I somehow missed the famous World War II memorial that is also a symbol of the city. The park is a popular place to visit for young couples and families. For the kids, there are plenty of activities to do like renting these cars or riding a horse.
Also within Panfilov park is the beautiful Russian Zenkov Cathedral. The cathedral was completed in 1907 and is completely made out of wood without the use of nails. It’s actually the second tallest wooden building in the world! The cathedral survived a major earthquake in 1911 and even the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union was at its prime, the cathedral was used as a museum and later a propaganda post. The first radio transmitters in the city were installed in the cathedral’s belfry. It wasn’t until 1997 that the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church.
While I missed the main World War II memorial in Panfilov park, I stumbled across this war memorial dedicated to two local women in another park. The two war heroes are Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulov. Manshuk Mametova was the first Asian woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union medal after bravely fighting the Nazis and dying in a major battle. Aliya Moldagulova was a sniper during World War II and took leadership over her fellow soldiers after their commanding officer was killed. She eventually was killed by the Nazis during intense fighting but was also awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.
Something I was surprised to see in Kazakhstan was all the hammers and sickles left over from the Soviet Union. I saw even more when I later visited Kyrgyzstan to the south. It seems that Russia and all the former communist countries in Europe were in a rush to remove all signs of the Soviet Union. In Central Asia I get the notion that people see the remnants of Soviet symbols over their city and just shrug their shoulders. I’ve seen this slogan on the right many times in other post-Soviet countries. I thought this was some communist recruitment office because of the banner at first, but a local later told me the banner simply remembers the Soviet victory in World War II, and the office is just a cleaning business!
Some more random facts about Almaty that you wouldn’t guess, the city is famous for its fountains! The large fountain on the left is part of Republic square in the city center. This fountain on the right was turned off when I visited but it got my attention from its animal statues. I thought it was zodiac based, but this proved wrong after I found a large snail and other random animals. Almaty is home to over 100 water fountains. I wish I did a better job of photographing them to share on my website!
Many cities in lesser known parts of the world put all their resources to make a nice central district, while other parts of the city are in desperate need of attention. Since I walked around all parts of the city, I can say that this definitely isn’t the case with Almaty! Almost every area of the city I went to was nice and well maintained. You can find high quality restaurants and cafes everywhere you go. I’m not sure the name of this district above, but it was in the eastern parts of the city where I was staying at.
I did go to what I thought was the city’s main bazaar, and found nothing too impressive. The bazaar from the outside looked nothing more than regular store, but once inside it had several hallways and floors of shops. Most of these holds sold things like jewelry, alcohol, and other small items. Basically to me it was just a small shopping mall. After I left Almaty I found some pictures online that looked like a much more open area so I think I just didn’t spend enough time here.
My favorite part of the city is the small pedestrian street in the north. The street is locally known as Arbat, but the real name is Zhibek Zholy, which means Silk Road. Along Zhibek Zholy you’ll find some of the best restaurants and shopping the in the city. Most of the streets are lined with artists selling paintings for very reasonable prices. I picked up one as a gift for someone and regret not getting one for myself!