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krisek Almaty - A travel report by Krys
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Almaty,  Kazakhstan - flag Kazakhstan -  Gorod Almaty
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krisek's travel reports

Almaty. A faded former capital of Kazakhstan.

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It is slowly on the rise. Almaty has been desperately trying not to fade completely since it has been stripped from its capital status. It doesn't have major sights but its building modern financial centre. Its major quality is, however the mountains.

Aerial view of Almaty
Aerial view of Almaty
My Air Astana plane was over an hour late! Instead of 10:55am I landed at 12:35pm. The airline was really good, though. The hot sandwhich was rather edible.

The taxi drivers at the airport were probably the lowest form of life that somehow shifted its shape to become the greediest taxi drivers on this planet. They attacked me as soon as I left the baggage reclaim. I ignored them, although they kept insisting like leeches. I eventually went upstairs to the departure hall, changed my remaining rubles and enquired at the Information desk about the taxi fares. She knew nothing. It should be called the Lack of Information Desk. But a lady selling some kind of loyalty cards to Kazakh citizens told me that I should not pay more than 500 tenge to the Green Market. The evil taxi drivers wanted six times more!! I laughed at them and called them cheaters. I explained that they were responsible for the awful first impression of Kazakhstan that visitors got, and asked how they could sleep at night.

It looked almost very pleasant but I could not find anything of interest in Almaty, or even a decent pizza restaurant. I eventually sat down at a semi-provisional restaurant Demalys serving set lunches for 550 tenge + 10% service charge. The set included cold national soup, cucumber and tomato salad, baked chicken roll with rice and tea. Everything was good, yet, except soup, the portions were tiny.

Favourite spots:
Almaty travelogue picture
The wooden church in the park made a great impression among the rather uninspiring drab and gray buildings of the centre. First of all, the city itself was not very old. It was founded in the late 19th century, only to be in 75% destroyed by the earthquake of 1911. But the church survived. Its several domes and roofs were colourfully decorated by square and diamond size wooden panels painted in various shades. It contrasted dramatically against the greenery of the park, the second largest one in Almaty. The groups of roses planted around the church composed a pretty sight. Having survived not only the earthquake, the Soviet Revolution, the WWII, and the test of time, the building had become a true gem.

The church was surrounded by roses, which shined mainly with various shades of red and ... red. The park was vast and it was really well kept. It had alleys to walk around or rollerskate, and benches to catch a breath.

What's really great:
Almaty travelogue picture
The greenery everywhere and the parks, makes the city harder to navigate than an average city. Also, the lack of distinctive landmarks in the centre, and trees planted along both sides of the streets hiding the buildings, made the avenues and alleys look alike. That is what I liked. It felt like I was walking in a grand park with no end. On a sunny weather, the great mountains in the SSE gave away my position, but on a cloudy day (the afternoon of my second day), they disappeared, taking away my only orientation point. It was like being on discovery all the time, and I as tried several different way to get where I wanted to get, or come back...

Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake
Well, in Almaty, there was virtually nothing to admire, apart from one or two old buildingd from the late 19th century and I guess the new flamboyant structures erected when Almaty was the capital for the most of the 20th century. So, I fished out a travel office in one of the 5* hotels (normally not recommended) and paid for a trip to the Big Almaty Lake in the mountains. It cost me dear ($260) but I did not expect a taxi to cost much less, plus the road climbing the mountains was in a very bad condition. I could see that regular 2WD cars struggled, and on wet weather would not make it. The lake was not that great, but the snow-capped mountains were spectacular. On the way, many yurt-based cafes operated serving fermented horse and camel milk, and also fresh one, too. Tea was a standard drink there. Many local families came to the Big Almaty River Gorge for camping and splashing in the ice-cold river.

Big Almaty River Valley - yurts to rent for accommodation
Big Almaty River Valley - yurts to rent for accommodation
I checked into the Turkistan Hotel as recommended by a couple of Swiss travellers I met in Samarkand (Uzbekistan). My single room without air-con or shower but with large windows and ensuite toilet bowl and washing basin was 4,500 tenges ($37.50). Payment had to be done in advance, so I only paid the first night. I really wasn't sure how long I wanted to stay in the former capital. I had not heard about any specific sights in the city. But I did know about the mountains looming in the background and the lakes there.

I originally wanted to stay at Allya Hotel ($40) but could not locate it and the Turkistan Hotel was supposed to be in the centre. It was indeed.

Keruen Cafe
Keruen Cafe
It surely looked like the Almatans liked pool. I spotted many billiard saloons around the city. Basically, they were bars with pool tables. Some played loud music like the Loud Billiard saloon just before the Silk Way shopping mall. Music from this venue was heard already one and a half blocks away.

Looking for some action, I popped into the Georgian cafe Keruen in the pedestrianised zone to tribute the Georgian civilians bombed by Russia at the time as I was holidaying in Central Asia and Olympic Games were going on in China. For the duration of Olympic games all wars were supposed to be suspended, that was the whole purpose of having the games! The cafe was not cheap and it was popular. It served promising food, too. The KZT 900 - 1,300 fish shashlik looked really yummy. The place was perfect for people watching. They had three types of wheat hefe-weizen beer, and tables out in the pavement.

Zhibek Zholy Street
Zhibek Zholy Street
From the Green Bazaar in the westerly direction there was a Silk Way Shopping Centre and a pedestrianised alley, part of Zhibek Zholy street lined with little open-air cafes and restaurants and several shopping centres absolutely all of which, with no exception, specialised in mobile phones. It also seemed to me that each type of handset had its own dedicated salesperson. I could swear there were more salespeople in the stores than there were customers. The cafes and restaurants were the best for people watching as the locals liked to stroll along the alley.

Bambolo Cafe & Restaurant
Bambolo Cafe & Restaurant
I sat down at the cafe-cum-restaurant Bambolo, which had 11 types of draft beer, including Hoegaarden (970 KZT, 0.5l). It was located at the pedestrianised alley, opposite a large German restaurant called Tirol. Its menu was comprehensive but the dishes were not cheap. An average main dish without sides was about KZT 1,000 while steaks cost KZT 1,300 - 1,900. The quality of the place was demonstrated by the number of customers and the expensiveness by the number of those leaving having just looked at the menu. I just ordered my Hoegaarden but peeked over others' shoulders and the dishes were large and looked delicious. Waiters picked up mainly very empty plates afterward. And then, a miracle happened. I saw someone eating pizza! I could not believe I missed that on the menu. I asked my waiter Andrey if I could pay by credit card and when he said yes, I ordered an Italian style (as opposed to the Pizza Hut style also available) Formula-1 for KZT 850 ($7).

Other recommendations:
Big Almaty River Valley
Big Almaty River Valley
If one stays in Kazakhstan longer than 5 full days, a registration at the Immigration Police is required. Certain hotels do it, but not all and if asked, they would charge even KZT 5,000. Independently, one can register directly in Almaty for KZT 745 at the office on Tole Bi Kosmonavtov Street. The officer's name is Konstantin Dostavalov.

Private minibuses to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan were leaving from the suburbian terminal Sayran (tel 2762644). Prices were negotiable. Tram #4 (KZT 50) from the centre would have taken 40 minutes to get there if it was still running there. It was not. Taxi set me back KZT 1,000, as much as the minibus to Kyrgyz capital. One really has to be firm with the drivers. They would try anything to charge you through the nose, and Kazakhstan is an expensive country (€1 ~ 165 tenge), so you have to be really careful. They are experts in spotting a foreigner! I was in a few interesting conversations when they tried to charge me five times over the true price.

Published on Sunday October 12th, 2008

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Thu, Nov 06 2008 - 04:28 AM rating by rangutan

Not the standard tourist's kind of place so very informative, thanks!

Mon, Oct 13 2008 - 06:57 AM rating by wojtekd

Not many changesduring last 2 years, I see. Thanks for the update and current prices. Excellent report...

Mon, Oct 13 2008 - 04:35 AM rating by fieryfox

Very informative, I have only ever heard of the beautiful sights and landscape of Almaty and now I know so much more about this place. Love the pictures! I look forward to see a slideshow. Cheers.

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