Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city and its financial hub
Almaty, historically known as Alma-Ata is the largest city in Kazakhstan with a population of over 2 million. It was the country’s capital after independence in 1991 till 1997 when the capital relocated to Akmola which was renamed Astana in 1998 and then Nur-Sultan in 2019. Almaty is a vibrant city and it’s the cultural and commercial center of Kazakhstan and a major business and cultural hub in the entire region of Central Asia. Almaty is a beautiful lively city with a strong character and with interesting nicknames such as the city of apples and big apple.
In May 2022, I started a magnificent trip across the countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. On this trip, I visited 6 cities in about 15 days. Almaty was the first stop of this trip and I spent 6 nights there. However, during the stay, I worked remotely for 2.5 days and I was recovering from a brutal jet lag (10 hours of the time difference between Almaty and Toronto). It was my 2nd time in Almaty as I visited it before during my trip across Ukraine, Russia (including Siberia), and Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) in 2018. I didn’t see much of Almaty during my 2018 trip as I got sick during my stay there and that’s why I wanted Almaty to be the starting point of my trip this time (it was the last stop of my 2018 trip).
The flight and landing in Almaty
I flew out of Toronto on Friday, the 20th of May with Lufthansa. Pearson airport in Toronto was incredibly crowded and it took me about an hour to pass security control. The airport was so busy that I couldn’t even enter the plaza premium lounge which I have free access to as it was full and there was a very long line outside the lounge. After about an hour of walking around in a busy terminal, I could finally sit inside one of the restaurants before boarding the Lufthansa’s B747. The flight from Toronto to Frankfurt was uneventful except that I had the opportunity to see the sunrise. Besides, service on Lufthansa dropped significantly; they only provided 1 meal and there weren’t options to choose from; just one vegetarian pasta and sadly, it didn’t taste great. The airline is leaning more and more towards becoming a low-cost carrier with premium prices. It’s sad because this airline, not a long time ago, used to be one of my favourites.
After arriving in Frankfurt, I had about 4 hours to kill so I was able to access the lounge this time; I had the opportunity to relax there for more than 2 hours with a cup of delicious cappuccino and some snacks. Frankfurt airport must be the airport I transited at the most number of times that I seriously lost count of how many times I’ve been there, definitely more than 20 times. I used to like it more in the past though. I still like it only because of old memories and because every time I’m there it’s either I’m about to start a great trip or I’m at the end of a magnificent trip.
I boarded the flight from Frankfurt to Almaty which had a re-fueling stop in Nur-Sultan (Astana) and which had to take a different route as Lufthansa still can’t fly over the Russian airspace so that added about an hour to the flight time. The service on board this flight wasn’t much better than the Lufthansa flight I boarded earlier that day as they also served plain vegetarian pasta. However, I believe that I managed to get at least 3 hours of sleep, especially after many passengers left the plane in Nur-Sultan where we stopped to refuel. I had a lot of space to myself in the last 2 hours or so. During the flight, I saw the beautiful Caucasus mountains and the iconic mount Ararat.
I landed in Almaty at around 2.30 am local time; I got myself a local sim card and then met a hotel driver who picked me up for free. It’s a hotel that is next to the airport and I decided to stay there for 1 night only because I knew I would land in the middle of the night so I would spend 1 night before heading to my Airbnb apartment in the city center the next day. The hotel is called Royal Park Hotel and I would say that it was very nice and clean. However, when I arrived there, I walked to the reception with a big smile on my face and a relatively loud “Hello” with some excitement. I forgot that I’m not in Canada anymore so a second later I realized that I did a big mistake and I shouldn’t smile like that to strangers in Kazakhstan or in any former USSR country. I was right as my smile freaked her out (the receptionist) so I later showed a serious face hoping that this would be enough to change the terrible first impression. I arrived at my room, had a long shower, wore the fluffy bathrobe, and slept for about 7 hours. The next day, I checked out to head to my Airbnb apartment in the center.
Horse Meat Feast (Beshbarmak)
There is no better way to start a journey in Central Asia or in Kazakhstan in particular than having Kazakhstan’s number 1 national dish that is called “Beshbarmak” which means “five fingers” because nomads traditionally eat this dish with their hands (Sounds like a famous meal in Jordan called Mansaf). This meal was such a warm welcome to Almaty. The restaurant where we had this delicious meal at is called “Navat”, I highly recommend it if you want to try local dishes and it’s definitely one of the best restaurants I’ve been to during this trip.
Before heading to Navat restaurant, I arrived at my Airbnb apartment which was in a very good location in Almaty, the apartment looked really nice in photos but it was tiny in reality. This was a concern as I had to work remotely while being in this apartment for 2.5 days. The building was also very old and it was on the 2nd floor (1 level above the ground floor) so I was able to hear all conversations of people in the street. It wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t bad either. It wasn’t easy to secure an apartment there as apartments were in high demand as there were many Russian citizens temporarily staying in Kazakhstan and remotely working from there to avoid being in Russia which is under sanctions at the moment.
Later in the evening, I wanted to watch the last game of the English Premier League so we headed to a famous venue called Arena Pub but it was completely full and there wasn’t even 1 spot left (Football is incredibly popular in Kazakhstan). We had to find another place that is not as famous as Arena Pub to find a table where we could watch the game freely. Sadly, Manchester City scored 3 goals in 5 minutes to win against Aston Villa after being 0:2 behind and that destroyed Liverpool’s dreams to win the league as Liverpool needed Manchester City to drop points against Aston Villa. This Hitchcock scenario ruined my evening but at least, there was delicious food on the table. By the way, I ate a lot of meat in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Most of the dishes have meat in them and the meat there tasted incredibly delicious.
The next day was a bit uneventful as I was struggling with jet lag and the weather didn’t help me to go out and explore the city so I just had a visit to a cafe. The following day, I woke up early in the morning to explore the city, I had a few hours to do that before I return back to the apartment to take a nap and start working (I had to work from 6.30 pm till 3 am local time).
While walking to a nice cafe to have breakfast there, I stopped to make the photo below. It’s so great that you can see the mountains from the center of the city. Speaking of the city, Almaty reminded me of many cities I visited in other former Soviet Union countries such as Minsk, Yekaterinburg, and Kharkiv. The infrastructure is very similar to the ones in other former USSR countries but the unique thing about Almaty, in a clear day, you can see mountains from almost anywhere in the center.
I arrived at the cafe, it’s called Malina mix cafe and it’s probably the nicest cafe I visited on this trip. There were green plants everywhere and right outside the cafe, there are many green trees (Almaty is incredibly green by the way) and the service in the cafe was extremely friendly. I ordered pancakes (блины) which is my favourite breakfast when I’m in former USSR countries (these people know how to make the best pancakes). I also ordered Americano (I needed it for my jet lag) and a delicious berries juice. When I got the bill, I got a nice pack of jam as a complimentary, it was such a nice and friendly gesture. I highly recommend this charming place.
After this tasty breakfast, it was time to explore the city so I started with the metro. I have a habit of checking out the metro when I visit these former USSR cities. I also have a habit of eating a burger, visiting a barber, and looking for Ferris wheels and Soviet mosaics in every city in that region so let’s start with the metro first as there will be more info about Soviet mosaics and burgers in the next blogs.
I bought a token and I went inside a deep metro station, which reminded me of the metro in Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Minsk. I thought at first that this metro was built during the Soviet time but I was wrong; even though it was designed before the fall of the Soviet Union but it wasn’t built before 2011. It looked so Soviet that I immediately assumed that it was Soviet-built until someone corrected me and told me that even though it was designed by the Soviets, it wasn’t built by them. I took a ride and I was wearing a mask and then I realized that I was the only one in the entire metro who is wearing a mask and then I noticed that some people were looking at me. In the next stop, I took the mask off and didn’t wear it again until June 8th when I was on the plane flying back to Canada as it was mandatory to do so.
I kept wandering around while admiring the beauty of the city. I saw a university building so I went inside to explore a world war 2 monument there. There’s something I admire about these countries which is loyalty to those who gave their lives defending the motherland. There are always war monuments wherever you go in the former USSR. I then found a beautiful path where I had a peaceful afternoon walk between the trees. This city is so green, the greenest I’ve ever seen.
Before starting my working day, I had about an hour to have dinner so I found a place with good reviews that is close to my apartment and I had a delicious шашлык (Shashlik) and I had it with a famous Soviet soda drink called тархун (Tarkhun). You can clearly tell that I admire Soviet stuff, correct? Well, some friends make jokes about that and say that in a previous life, I used to live in the Soviet Union, my name was Vasily and I was fighting at Stalingrad front but no one knows what happened after 🙂
Later, I returned back to the apartment to start my working day (or working night). The following morning, even though I was tired after a long working night and I was still jet lagged but I managed to force myself to get out of bed and visit a coffee shop called “Varka” where I had a cappuccino and a very tasty Syrniki. Actually, I asked the waitress to get me the thin Russian-style pancakes (блины) but instead, she got me Syrniki, which was not too bad if you ask me as it tasted really good. Later that day, I practised one of my favourite hobbies while being in these charming former USSR countries which is, I visited a barber shop to trim my beard and as usual, I received amazing treatment. These countries have excellent barbers! Oh and I paid 25% of what I would pay in Toronto and of course, the service I had there in Almaty was 10 times better and I felt 10 years younger 🙂
My vacation officially started on Thursday the 26th of May. Prior to that, I was working remotely so I had no full control of my time. The day my vacation officially started, I decided to move to a hotel to spend 2 nights there before I leave Almaty for Nur-Sultan (Astana) on the 28th. I chose Kazakhstan Hotel as it’s an iconic hotel built during the Soviet era in 1979. This hotel is a famous landmark and a symbol of the city of Almaty and the 3rd tallest building in the city most importantly, the hotel had very good reviews. Even though it is old but it’s renovated and the rooms are in good shape. I got a good deal there as I booked a room about 2 months in advance. The room was nice and clean and luckily, I managed to get a room with a beautiful mountain view. I also had some meals in the hotel in addition to breakfast, and everything tasted alright. Service was very professional and I would say that I was extremely satisfied. If you have an interest in Soviet history, you must stay in this hotel while visiting Almaty.
In the hunt for red poppies
It was the end of poppy blossoms season when I was there but we decided to take a taxi somewhere out of the city to try our luck and luckily, there were some of them left. They would have looked much better if I was there two weeks earlier but at least, the hunt for red poppies wasn’t a complete waste of time and money…
Kok Tobe is located right next to Kazakhstan Hotel where I stayed for my final 2 nights in Almaty; it’s a mountain with a height of 1100 meters above sea level and you can reach it by cable car. The ride takes about 10 minutes each way. It’s one of the landmarks of the city and one of the most pleasant places I visited in Almaty. On top of the mountains, there’s the TV tower and a popular recreation area with a nice Ferris Wheel. There are many games to play too such as shooting games and bumper cars and even a small zoo. There’s a nice cafe with a view but the waiters didn’t bother to take our order so we ended up leaving after sitting there for over 20 minutes without getting noticed. There are magnificent views of mountains and of the city from there. I visited it back in 2018 so it wasn’t my first time there. However, this time the visibility was great so I was able to enjoy some breathtaking views.
The trip to Almaty is never complete without visiting the mountains nearby and I must say that the visit to the mountains was a real highlight of this trip to Kazakhstan’s largest city. The day started with a very heavy breakfast at the hotel and with another look at the beautiful view from the room.
The ride to the mountains took around 25 minutes. The taxi stopped right outside the Medeu ice skating rink, which is another Soviet structure built in 1951; it’s the highest ice skating rink in the world as it sits at 1,691 meters above sea level.
The plan was to take the cable car from Medeu to Shymbulak resort but unfortunately, cable cars were not operating that day. On top of that, no taxis or normal cars were allowed to take people from Medeu to Shymbulak. However, there were some shuttle buses but the wait was for longer than 2 hours so decided to hike in the area for about 2.5 hours and then hike again up towards Shymbulak and which took 2 hours more. I reached a point where I was unable to keep going and I’m so glad I did that as I didn’t have any hiking gear with me and I wasn’t wearing a hat. Later in the day when I returned back to the hotel, I felt that my head was boiling as I hiked for many hours under a very strong sun so the headache lasted for hours, despite putting loads of sunscreen over my head but it seemed that it didn’t help. Anyhow, the hike was great and the views were spectacular.
After hiking up towards Shymbulak, I had to make a stop at a certain point as I wasn’t ready for hiking longer than that and higher than that. My friends continued hiking up though but not for much longer. Anyhow, as I stated before, I was so happy that I stopped at the right time. The view of the mountains at the spot where I stopped was nothing but incredible.
On the way down, I spotted the Medeu rink from up and I took photos of the highest steps I’ve ever seen, it looked infinite from where I saw it!
After returning to the hotel, and after taking a long rest, it was time to reward myself after such a long hike with a delicious Turkish-style Shish Tavuk meal from a restaurant next to the hotel (I forgot the name of the restaurant) but I must admit that the chicken was tasty and juicy and tasted exactly how Shish Tavuk should taste!
Almaty is a beautiful lively city with beautiful nature and nice and polite inhabitants. It’s a cultural and commercial hub in Central Asia and must be added to any Central Asian itinerary. The city has this beautiful mix of local nomadic culture, Muslim traditions, Soviet/Russian influence, and modernity. Almaty today is a modern city with charming identity and character and is definitely a livable city. If I had to choose a place in Central Asia to live for a year or so, that place would be Almaty.
Almaty is affordable and it’s definitely much cheaper than Toronto but it isn’t cheap, not everywhere and not all the time. Some places there have international prices similar to prices in Western Europe but generally, it is affordable. I used the Yandex taxi for transportation and it was both convenient and affordable for me.
There is a growing number of people who speak English in the city but don’t expect to meet many English speakers there. Therefore, learn some Russian before heading there or at least learn how to read the Cyrillic alphabet. Everybody in Almaty is fully bilingual (Kazakh and Russian) and many people speak English as well but to have a great experience, you need to learn some Russian, which will help, especially with Taxi drivers.
After spending an unforgettable time in Almaty, it was time to head to Almaty airport to fly to Nur-Sultan (Astana) which is my 2nd stop on this magnificent trip in Central Asia. In the next blog, I will be writing about my impressions of the Air Astana flight from Almaty to Nur-Sultan so stay tuned.
3 thoughts on “Almaty, the beating heart of Kazakhstan and the greenest city I’ve ever seen 🇰🇿”
There is an expression: only mountains can be better than mountains, which I have not been to yet. Thank you for story and photos. Years ago Kazakhstan was an affordable place to spend a vacation, for Russians I mean. But I still couldn’t make it. Thanks again.
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Thanks for sharing this nice comment. Yes, I believe that Kazakhstan used to be more affordable than Russia in the past but I’m not sure if it’s the case now. It’s a very nice country with great, kind, and hospitable people.