Kazakhstan is big. Very big! In fact, it is the world’s largest landlocked country by land area and the ninth largest country in the world. It is even larger than all of Western Europe. A country this big should be approached one step at a time. Start off with Kazakhstan’s former capital, and largest city, Almaty. Before the nation’s capital was moved in 1997 from Almaty in the south to Astana in the north, this is where the nation’s political power was concentrated.
Nowadays Almaty is the commercial and cultural capital of Kazakhstan and is also the city with by far the largest population (1.5 million which is almost double that of Astana). Almaty’s population is about 64% Kazakh and 23% Russian while minority groups include the Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uyghur, Tatars and Germans. .
In early days the city was known as Zailiyskoye and later as Verniy (meaning “loyal” in Russian) since the foundation of the “modern city” in 1855 until 1921. When the Soviet rule was established in 1918, the region became part of the Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and not long after (1921) the name was changed back to one of the ancient names of the area – Alma-Ata that in Kazakh means “Father of Apples.” Quite a fitting name of this city as the area is well known as a possible ancestral home of the apple.
Two years after the fall of the USSR, Alma Ata was renamed Almaty. The apple remained in the name! In Kazahk, Alma means apple and with the suffix “Apple City.
Almaty has several interesting attractions such as the Presidential Palace, National Museum, The 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park, Republic Square and a tree-lined pedestrian street referred to as “Arbat.” There are several impressive religious buildings, including the Zenkov Cathedral (Ascension Cathedral) inside Panfilov Park, St Nicholas Cathedral, and the Central Mosque. The bustling “Green Market” is packed with fresh fruits, all kinds of meats, nuts, clothing and household items. For stunning views of the city, particularly at night, take the bus or cable car to the top of Kok-Tobe (Green Hill). At 1,100m (3,600 ft) above sea-level the views are breathtaking.
If you are into classic performances, opera or ballet, Almaty is the right place to be. Check out the local listings at the Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet House, referred to as the Abay Opera House.
An interesting excursion into the true Kazakh culture is the traditional Arasan Baths. While ancient in tradition, these bathing facilities were completed in 1982 and are modern and quite elaborate. Public baths are a common feature across Central Asian cities where it serves as the meeting point with a communal atmosphere. Known as Central Asia’s most elaborate bathing spot, the Arasan Baths beautifully blends in late-Soviet architectural detail with more traditional features.
Fine marble is in abundance and the facilities are top class. Don’t forget the finest ritual inside the very hot banya in the Bukhara (Uzbekistan) bazaar.
The Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains
Almaty lies at an elevation of 700 m to 900 m (2,300 ft to 3,000 ft) located in a beautiful setting at the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountainous area of southern Kazakhstan which is part of the northern Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The highest peak in the area (Talgar Peak) towers at 4,973 m (16,300 ft) above sea level and is just to the southeast of the city. This is a tectonically active area so there is always a possibility of earthquakes and mud slides.
A massive earthquake in 1911, known as the “Kebin earthquake” destroyed more than 770 buildings, which was almost all of the city at that time.
A 25 km (15 mi) drive, or public bus ride, outside Almaty on the road to Chimbulak is the massive Medeu Ice-skating stadium. In winter this is a very popular attraction and don’t be surprised to come across Olympians practicing for the next Games. Just up the hill above the skating stadium is the mudflows.
After several catastrophic mudflow of July 15, 1973. As you board the cable car near the ice stadium, you will travel high over the dam as you head higher and higher into the Shymbulak Ski Resort area. At the mid station (2,850m / 9,350 ft) change to another cable car and again another car until you reach Talgar pass, the highest point of the ski resort at 3,180 m (10,430 ft) above sea level.
The total length of the lifts is 4.5 km (2.8 mi), which ranks as one of the world’s longest cable car rides. The vertical rise from the bottom station to the top station is 920 m (3,020 ft). From here the majestic mountains with either snowy slopes or evergreen Tien Shan fir trees are spectacular and must be experienced. A short but difficult hike further up from the top station takes you past an impressive glacier which is only visible in the summer.
If you continue climbing you should be able to see the large endorheic Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan in the southerly direction. It is a huge lake and by volume of water it is the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Enjoy the panoramas and fresh mountain air.