Flying over the barren wilderness of Western China and Eastern Kazakhstan, I thought Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, would be a bit of a culture shock. This was a completely new part of the world for me and one that is only just limping onto somewhat of a tourist trail (supported, seemingly, by the entire population of France). As the plane touched down, I readied myself for the biggest shock to the system since landing in India for the first time. I did get a shock, it’s true, but for completely different reasons.
What greeted me was a city that was incredibly European in nature, despite its closest neighbours being undoubtedly Asian. There was a comfortable bus from the airport to the city from right outside the terminal doors (bus 92 goes through the centre for 80 tenge, no need for expensive taxis!); there were wide open pavements, tree-lined streets, pedestrianised areas with coffee shops, and the traffic was pretty calm. And then, not too far in the distance were green rolling hills and jagged mountain peaks laced with snow. The few preconceptions I had about Kazakhstan (I’m looking at you Borat) immediately evaporated.
What struck me about Almaty was how easy it was. Sure, nobody speaks a word of English. Ordering food is a combination of pointing, guessing and hoping whilst checking into my hostel was only possible through Google Translate. But beyond that it’s remarkably easy to get around. The buses are well marked, cheap and easy to use and cover the entirety of the city and beyond. It’s also a city that is inundated with huge parks and shaded areas to relax, people watch and escape the summer sun.
In and of itself, the city is fantastic with a host of attractions dotted round it including the stunning Ascension Cathedral in Panfilov Park; the quirky Soviet style metro which is just a few years old but gives the impression it is a Cold War relic, and Central Park, a giant space which isn’t central and is more like a gigantic kids’ play area – a fantastic spot to watch the quirks of everyday Kazakh life.
There’s enough in the city itself to keep you happy for days but Almaty doesn’t stop there, boasting an array of stunning nature on its doorstep, most of which is accessible by bus for less than 20p.
On my first full day in Almaty, I had intended to take it easy but a hike mentioned in a guidebook in my hostel caught my eye and I decided to give it a go. It was such a good decision and took me on one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. It was easy to get to, taking bus 12 towards Medeu but alighting the stop before (there’s a wooden bus stop which says Medeu Park). From here, I followed a dirt road and made my way towards Kok Zhailau on a fairly easy 2 hour hike. It starts off with a few steep climbs and then flattens out for the last 45 minutes or so.
Throughout the hike, the gorgeous mountains sit in the background and I was surrounded by greenery, pine trees and blue skies. At the end of the hike, it opens up into a huge valley which was jaw-dropping your beautiful and made a perfect lunch spot. From here, you can continue onto more difficult hikes or just loop back the way you came (as I did). Getting back down was a bit of a scramble at times but nothing too difficult and the view more than made up for it. Less than 24 hours into my time in Central Asia, I’d already been blown away by its beauty.
When I returned to Almaty a couple of weeks later, I ventured out of the city again to Kok-Tobe Hill which gives you a great panoramic view of the city, though is marred by the fact they’re turned the whole thing into a bit of an amusement park so you can only really soak up the view with a load of annoying fairground tunes being blared out behind you. Still, the view is worth it. From the city you can take bus 99 or 95 to the foot of the hill and then you can either walk up (free), take the cable car (2000 tenge) or take the shuttle bus (500 tenge return) up.
Similarly I also took bus 12 back up to Medeu on my last day in Almaty. This time I remained on the bus past the Kok Zhailau stop to the very end, alighting at Medeu’s famous ice rink. There’s a cable car up to the Chimbulak ski resort here and you can also do tours of the ice rink. Alternatively you can, as I did, just wander round the area and breathe in the fresh air. There are a few roads and trails which go off in various directions and I just had a bit of a wander, ate a picnic lunch and then headed back down.
Many people who arrive in Almaty don’t want to leave and I can see the appeal. It’s the most liveable and the most European of all the Central Asian cities I visited. Despite that, the stunning landscapes, gruff but friendly people and yummy food remind you that you couldn’t be anywhere other than Kazakhstan.
My absolute crutch in Central Asia was the free 2Gis app. If you’re visiting the region I’d really recommend getting it. You can download offline maps for many major cities including Almaty, Astana and Bishkek. It’s particularly invaluable for working out bus routes to various places in the cities. Travelling round this region would have been so much more stressful and infuriating without the help of 2Gis.