By Kelly Raftery
So you are living or traveling in Central Asia. You have had your fill of historic sites like Bukhara, Samarkand, Merv or Osh You have experienced nature at its finest at Lake Issyk-Kul and in the mountains outside of Bishkek. But, you find yourself longing for something less meaningful and more decadent. Time to head off to Almaty, Kazakhstan for a long weekend!
The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs consider themselves “brothers” and rightly so. The languages are mutually understandable and the two peoples share a common history and culture. The Kyrgyz were mountain people whereas the Kazakhs lived on the steppe. The difference between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan today boils down to two key words: natural resources. Kyrgyzstan has a bit of gold buried deep in its mountains, whereas Kazakhstan is awash in oil and gas as well as considerable quantities of minerals including: uranium, chromium, lead, zinc, manganese, copper, coal, iron, and gold. Kazakhstan also exports diamonds. When the Soviet Union fell apart, western nations and multinational corporations were tripping over each other to invest in Kazakhstan, which left Kyrgyzstan far behind in terms of investment and economic development.
|Esentai Tower, part of the Esentai Mall Complex.|
Almaty is a modern, glittering city, the most cosmopolitan in Central Asia. While there is some evidence pointing to nomadic settlements on the site of Almaty, the city really only began to take shape when the Russian Empire fortified Fort Verniy in 1854. A few decades later, the entire city was destroyed by an earthquake. Under the Soviets, Almaty was rebuilt and became the capital of the Kazakh Republic. After independence was declared in 1991, it remained Kazakhstan’s capital until 1997, when the central government was shifted north to Astana. So, there is not much by way of history to distract you from shopping, theater or just relaxing. The city is less than 100 years old.
Almaty remains the financial and cultural center of Kazakhstan and a wonderful city to explore. There is luxury shopping at the Esentai Mall, where you can catch a movie on the IMAX or grab necessities from Gucci, Fendi or Louis Vitton. If your shopping needs are simpler, Almaty’s main market is called “Zelenyi Bazaar” or the “Green Bazaar.” You can stock up on snacks there or simply people watch, a few hours in a bustling bazaar is never a waste of time. Right across the street is the Rakhat Chocolate factory and just a short walk away is Zenkov Cathedral, situated in Panfilov Park. The cathedral, built in 1907, is the second tallest wooden building the world. After seeing the cathedral, take a walk around the rest of Panfilov Park, which was named for a World War II infantry unit that defended Moscow. You’ll take in a visually startling memorial to fighting men and if you think ahead, you can pick up some flowers at the bazaar to leave at the eternal flame, which commemorates the fallen of both the Civil War (1917-20) and WW II. As you walk further, you will see other statues to other Almaty notables and a memorial to Kazakhstan’s Afghan War veterans.
|Memorial to the men who defended |
Moscow during World War II.
Once you are done exploring the park, Almaty has museums to visit, an opera house and theaters. If you prefer outdoor sports, a world-class ski resort and the highest-elevation outdoor ice rink in the world are just a short drive away from the center of the city.
|Holiday Inn, Almaty.|
To make your stay comfortable, visitors can chose hotels such as the Holiday Inn Almaty, Hotel InterContinental or my favorite for original name, the Best Eastern Hotel Dostyk. All these hotels are lovely, with swimming pools, tennis courts, spas and sumptuous restaurants. If you feel more daring, you could rent a fully-stocked apartment instead and live as the locals do. Depending on how long you have been in Central Asia, you might want to try some of the international cuisines that Almaty has to offer at Mad Murphy’s Irish Pub, The American Bar or Cooshy Sushi. If you feel particularly extravagant, you could visit Bellagio, where Presidents Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev have all dined. If you are new to Central Asia, I recommend you try some authentic Kazakh food, at Gakku Kazakh or Zheruik, where you can sample manty, beshbarmak or shasklyk.
Almaty, Kazakhstan offers more than just a weekend getaway, if you can visit, you are in for a bit of modern adventure!