Almaty – although sadly no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, it is however the largest city and a cultural heartland of the world’s ninth biggest country. Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell you where Kazakhstan is on a map, nor could they tell you what it’s famous for (don’t mention Borat)!
Thankfully the country is finally beginning to open up and see the advantages of attracting tourists. This started in 2015 when they relaxed the visa entry requirements for several countries including the U.K and U.S.
Why should you visit? What is there to see? Well, there’s a surprising amount given that most Western tourists haven’t discovered it…yet!
Where to stay?
When booking a trip somewhere I find that one of the most exciting parts is deciding where to stay (I know, I’m a geek)! I opted for the 4* Worldhotel Saltanat Hotel located in the old part of the city, a perfect location for me to go and explore all that Almaty has to offer. I highly recommend a visit, to book your stay go to Booking.com and search for Worldhotel Saltanat Hotel using this link!
They always say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, usually I skip it but I couldn’t resist the lavish spread. Who can resist chocolate pancakes, beautiful fresh fruit or even mini lemon meringue tarts! YUM.
I often find that with hotel beds you either get one that’s really hard or really soft, well thankfully for me the Saltanat was definitely a happy medium and I was so comfortable that I even overslept one day making me late for my tour. The only way I can describe them is like sleeping on a cloud, that’s when you know you’re truly in a home-from-home and I’ll definitely stay here again when I come back to visit Almaty.
I’m always looking for a bargain and with the Kazakh currency being devalued by 100%, now is the perfect time to visit if you are looking for good value for money.
What to see in Almaty
As the largest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty is focussed on becoming a financial, educational, cultural, sports and transport centre. The city itself is surrounded by picturesque scenery from the Tien Shan Mountains with plentiful opportunities to climb to the top of snow-capped peaks, ski slopes and even desert safaris. Almaty offers everything!
I was lucky enough to spend four days in the city, it’s easy enough to put your walking boots on and wander, people are friendly and will help you if you get lost (if they can speak English).
Make sure you take a walk around Panfilov Park, you’ll find 28 Panfilov Park memorial in honour of the 28 soldiers who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow and also the eternal flame to commemorate those who died during 1917-20 Civil War and World War 2. Within the same vicinity is Ascension (Zenkov’s) Cathedral, claimed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world.
One of my favourite things about travelling is trying new and exotic foods, well in Kazakhstan you’ll certainly get the opportunity as the national dish is horse. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, however to me it tasted similar to beef and was actually really tasty so I was pleasantly surprised. If you’re wandering around Almaty make sure you head to the Green Market, this is close to Panfilov Park, as you’ll get the chance to sample lots of fresh fruit, cheese, chocolate and many other local specialities.
Often described as a tourist-trap, Kok-Tobe (Green Hill) is a cable car ride that takes you from downtown Almaty up to the TV tower for fantastic panoramic views overlooking the city. It costs 2,000 Tenge (just over £4) for a return ticket so I thought it was affordable and when you get to the top you’ll discover the most random statue ever…of the Beatles?!
In 2017 Kazakhstan will host the 2017 Winter Universiade for the first time. It’s an exciting time for the country after sadly unsuccessfully trying to win the 2022 Winter Olympics, the city lost out to Beijing. Medeu is a high-mountain complex that’s easy to visit using bus number 12 from downtown Almaty, just make sure you don’t get stuck by the ever-changing weather.
Sadly for me the cable cars weren’t working when I visited and also the ice rink was closed too, a recurring theme on my trip here. This meant that my exercise for the day was to walk up the steps that are the equivalent of a 15 story building to see the view of Shymbulak.
Although not strictly in Almaty, the Charyn Canyon is a must-see place if visiting the city. It’s located 200km to the east, very close to the Chinese border and can be reached within 3 hours but you’ll need to join an organised tour or drive yourself as there’s no public transport to this area. Sadly for me I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon in the United States, but I’ve heard this place is often rated a close second in terms of vastness and natural beauty.
Unfortunately for me I can only speak a few words in Russian, my driver/guide for the day couldn’t speak any English so I spent the day trying to figure out what the hell was going on. As I booked quite last-minute I booked a private tour which cost 32,000 Tenge (£70) but you according to local people you can easily pick up a group tour for around 7,000 Tenge.
I had intended to visit Almaty Lake but due to the hideous weather conditions that occurred during May 2016 the road was washed away and I was unable to visit. Ah well, thankfully it gives me an excuse to return!
Getting around the city:
When you arrive in Almaty, don’t do what I did and take a taxi offer from inside the airport, simply step outside and you’ll see the official taxis. Unfortunately for me I got ripped off big time by an unofficial rogue driver who decided to try to charge me 40,000 Tenge (Approx. £90) for a 15km journey. Thankfully I’d already heard that it should cost 4,000 Tenge, sadly for me he wasn’t going to go any lower than 10,000. Lesson learned!
Almaty surely must win the prize for the easiest city to get around in Central Asia, especially now the metro has been completed. With only 9 stations, each one is individually designed and I highly recommend that you check out each one. It took a massive 23 years to build but was finally completed in 2011. I found it really easy to use with signs in both Russian and English, it’s modern and clean, I just hope they’ll be able to afford to expand it to take in other parts of the city.
Oh and it’ll only cost you 80 Tenge for each journey (approximately £0.15p)!
Travel to Almaty:
I arrived by flying from Kiev, however there are direct flights from many European, Asian and Middle Eastern destinations.
One thing I would say is don’t be afraid to visit Kazakhstan, you’ll find hospitable, friendly locals who will be more than happy to help you if they can. Just be aware that not many people speak English and you’ll need to learn some Russian phrases, here’s some basics:
- Hello – Zdravstvuyte
- Hi – Pri’viet
- Bye – Pa’ka
- Please – Pozhaluysta
- Thank you – Spa’siba
- Yes – Da
- No – Niet
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions.
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