Almaty, Kazakhstan

The primary city in Kazakhstan is not Astana, the relatively new capital, but Almaty, in the south east. Almaty, the former capital is the largest city in Kazakhstan (with over ten percent of the population) and is still the major cultural and commercial centre of the country. This, is where I've landed. This is my second visit to Kazakhstan. Last time, in 2014, we drove on a main highway in  Kyrgyzstan  that cut through 200 metres of Kazakhstan. There was a lot of barbed wire and a small sign. They've redirected the road now. I'm not sure that visit counts.

Facts and Factoids

  • Kazakhstan is huge. It's the world's largest landlocked country, and the ninth largest country in the world. It has a population of 18.8 million, and so has one of the lowest population densities in the world, - six people per square mile.
  • There are more than 131 different ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan, in part because Stalin deported many different ethnicities here during his rule. Kazakhs are about 65% of the population. Ethnic Russians form a significant minority. Officially secular, Kazakhstan is a non-practicing Muslim-majority country.
  • Kazakhstan might not have many people, but it has a great deal of oil and gas and vast mineral resources. It accounts for 60 percent of the GDP of Central Asia.
  • The capital of Kazakhstan is Astana, which was first called Akmola and then Astana, until 2018, then Nur-Sultan and now Astana again.
  • Kazakhstan is home to the Baikonur Cosmodome, the world’s first and largest space launch facility. It is leased by the Russians until 2050.
  • Apples are reputedly to originate from Kazakhstan and there are still wild apple forests in the country.
  • Most of Kazakhstan is extremely flat and barren steppe

Touring Almaty

Driver Igor, meets Farida and I at the airport as we arrive from Tajikistan. (Shane has abandoned the tour totally now and gone on to Bishkek to collect another country). Igor is very Russian indeed, pretends he doesn’t speak English and is only interested in taking us back to our hotel. Nichego else. So, a hasty phone call to the tour organiser and Boris is Your Uncle, we are on a city tour.

After the competitively goliath construction in the other Central Asian countries Almaty is struggling to hold our attention. It’s dull and hazy, which doesn’t help and we can only just discern the mountains that surround it, already frosted with snow. (The BBC weather forecast says ‘smoke’). Virtually nothing is written in English and very few people speak the language. When approached people ask, ’Do you speak Russian? ‘Niet’ I reply mournfully.

Central Mosque

The Central Mosque is relatively new, completed in 1999, It has a huge gold dome decorated with verses from the Quran rendered by Turkish calligraphers and was designed for 7000 worshippers. The carpets are frayed. The country is nominally Muslim, but there are few outward signs of this and mosques are not commonly seen or heard.

Nearby, the Green Market is open, but it is surrounded by metal hoardings, as it’s being renovated; there are huge signs saying No Photos and everyone looks grumpy. We beat a hasty retreat. Also in the area, a few older wooden style Russian houses with painted shutters and some old brutalist architecture, no longer utilised.

A Brief History of Kazakhstan

  • The Kazakh Khanate was established over an area roughly corresponding with modern Kazakhstan after the Mongol Empire disintegrated, in the fifteenth century. The Khanate fragmented and had been totally gradually absorbed and conquered by the Russian Empire; by the mid-nineteenth century.
  • In 1936, its modern borders were established, with the formation of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
  • Kazakhstan has been independent since 1991, with the same dictator style president at the helm since that time

Panfilov Park

The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen surrounds the Ascension Cathedral. It's named after the 28 soldiers of an Alma-Ata Infantry unit who died while defending Moscow, from the German invasion, during the Second World War. Ivan Panfilov, was the General commanding the division, which managed to significantly delay the Germans advance to Moscow. There's an eternal flame and numerous other soviet monuments of different sizes.

The musical instrument museum in the park is open, and the wooden building housing it, with its spire, is interesting, compared to most of the others. It's history is also fascinating - it was used for government receptions before it became a museum. but the contents are not exactly riveting. We probably achieve the record for taking the quickest tour.

Ascension Cathedral

The highly recommended timber built Ascension (or Zenkov after its architect) Cathedral is famous for being constructed entirely without nails. It was built at the same time as the Music Museum building, in 1907. But, it's swathed entirely in scaffolding. I've found a poster that helpfully shows what it looks like in its full glory. After trudging right round it we find a way in, but it is so dark that we can’t see what it looks like inside without taking flashlight pictures. Then we notice the sign that says Don’t Take Photos Without Permission.

The Affluent Side of Almaty

Some business centres designed for skyline impact. Several blocks of very flash shops. Kazakhstan is a relatively wealthy country. It’s just not very clear where the money is going. Much of the important stuff, ATMs, phones, transport, seems to be run by Qazcom, now spelled Kazcom, in the spirit of the new Latin alphabet. Igor is scathing about the grandiose plans made for renovation in Almaty. ''Nothing ever gets implemented", he says.

There are plenty of up market cars creating some awful traffic, so we inch past some more statues, and Independence Square. This is where annual celebrations and marches are held. The largest, Soviet era building (1979), atop a small hill, houses the akimat, home to the akim, the Kazakh equivalent of a mayor. This was the largest building in the Kazakh SSR at that time, when it was home to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR. Back to our hotel. It seems we’ve seen the best that Almaty has to offer. The guide books say that the tourist industry is very much in its infancy in Kazakhstan.

I'm told that Farida and I are the only people ever who have left the Golden Eagle train tour and then returned. A farewell dinner in the restaurant at the top of the Ritz Carlton hotel with the rest of the tour group. The night time views over the city and mountains show Almaty off to the best possible advantage. You can see the bank towers - mock glass covered Soviet monoliths- and the mall.

Shymbulak, Kazakhstan

The forecast for today is fog. I suppose that’s an improvement. Having exhausted the splendours of Almaty, Farida and I are venturing out of town to Shymbulak. This mountainous area was home to the first downhill ski route in the Soviet Union. Skiers originally needed to climb up the mountain tops on foot (which took roughly 3 hours).

The new ski resort was created for the Asian Olympics, as they insist on calling it. Today there’s a gondola to the small village affording views of a few swish chalets and the Medeu speed skating rink designed, at the president’s behest, to hothouse local talent. There’s a very light dusting of snow on some of the runs, but it’s mostly shale and rows of snow cannons, at the ready. Despite the snow, it’s warm; up here the fog has burned off and the peaks are bathed in sunshine.

Farida gives the driver hard time - he can’t speak English - as she is determined not to miss any of the scheduled stops made on the commercial tour she was considering. We’ve taken a hotel car instead. The driver is bemused. It takes a fifteen minute phone call and two physical demonstrations before she is convinced that the road up the mountain really is closed. We get to see everything from the cable car anyway.

Back to the hotel, and I’m setting off for the airport - Moldova, via Moscow. I leave Farida with the weary driver. She is visiting Almaty Lake this afternoon and she has decided that she must see the Beatles Monument, below the TV Tower, on the way.

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