We walked out of Almaty 2 train station off a 20+ hour train from Turkestan at about 9 pm on a Saturday night and it was instantly and abundantly clear that Almaty is a world away from Tashkent or Turkestan or any other place we’d yet visited on our central asian tour. With sharp dressed youth and scantily-clad women cramming into stylish eateries and popular clubs, this place may as well be another continent.
The city of Almaty, still locally referred to by its officially former name of Alma-ata, is comfortably set at the foot of the snowy Zailiysky Alatau mountains. With modern appeal, international restaurants, abundant parks and green space and malls and designer stores targetting residents who are eager to flaunt their successful conversion of Kazakhstan’s mineral wealth into personal wealth, you would be forgiven for thinking yourself in a chic european city. But a Russified central asia still resides here too.
In addition to all this western influence, there are plenty of signs of Almaty’s past as a early 20th century pre-Soviet Russian-created adminstrative city and its more recent role as the original capital for independant Kazakhstan. There is the 1990s built central mosque, a symbol of Kazakhs reclaiming their religion in a post-Soviet world. There are also old Russian Orthodox churches with all their festive colors and onion domes, now reopened and functioning freely after various levels of persecution under Soviet rule. There is a large green market, which pales in comparison to other central asian bazaars but still shows all the local flavors. And just next to those flashy intertaional restaurants and stylishly overpriced coffeehouses, the cheap central asian, turkish and western inspired street foods still prosper.
Still, after some twenty days without coffee we must admit that our first stop the morning after our arrival was one of those overpriced coffee houses, where we paid more for one latte ($3) than we would for dinner the next three nights (doner kebab at $2 each).
The city has some places of interest, but it is more interesting for its character than any of its individual attractions. It would be a very nice place to hang out for a while if not for its shameful dearth of accomodation options for travelers not wishing to spend freely.
St. Nicholas Cathedral – Nikolsky Sobor
This pale turquoise cathedral with bright gold onion domes built in 1909 periodically was shutdown or not allowed to function freely during the Soviet era. For instance, during part of WW2 the cathedral was used a stable for the Russian military – how they coaxed the horses up the front steps is a mystery.
This was our first introduction to Russian orthodox cathedral and the interior is filled with golden icons, golden candle stands, golden chandeliers and a beautifully carved wooden alter. The walls are plastered with images of saints, heads turned down and backed in solid halos of gold leaf. The cathedral interior had a certain somber, even oppressive beauty to it, much different from the inspiring and more welcoming beauty of the large open mosques in Uzbekistan. A service started while we were here, lead by heavily bearded robed priests singning in deep bass voices with a consistent vibrato that echoed through the cathedral, perfectly complimenting the somber and beautiful walls.
Visiting places of worship around the world – from the Buddhist temples of Bhutan, Japan and Nepal to the Islamic mosques of Uzbekistan, Uigher China and Kazakhstan, the interior beauty that the exterior of Hindu temples in Nepal indicate (for non-believers are not alowed inside) to this Russian Orthodox style – one can’t help but notice the value of art in worship. This is something often lost in the new style warehouse-like churches in the US and Australia and I can’t help but wonder if this lack of valuation of art in religion has an effect on the products of these churches. Certainly people can find their own spirituality without any assistance, but art in churches also show worshippers what dedication to faith means – for what can more easily speak to effort, dedication and giving of oneself than beautiful art with to sole purpose of glorifying one’s gods? This is an idea all too often lost in a world where financial charity can sometimes be confused with dedication, because no matter what one’s financial situation is it is always time and effort which are more difficult to give. The giving of oneself in time and effort is more indicative of a person’s dedication to a religion or a cause than any fiduciary or material donation. And this in no place better illustrated than in churches – how can it not be more inspiring to see art painstakingly installed throughout a church than to see a small inscription or note reading “This ____ made possible by the generosity of Jim Smith”?
We had attempted to find a play to stay in Almaty via couchsurfing as this is not the easiest place to find reasonably priced accommodation. We failed in that regard, but did manage to meet a local man who teaches English lessons. Ganibek invited us to his classroom to meet the students and as his office was in the building across the street from our hotel, we dropped by once for a beginners class and once for an intermediate class.
The beginers class was only in their second week of classes, and so were mostly capable only of very basic English phrases and questions (ie ‘what is your name?’, ‘how old are you?’, ‘where are you from?’) Th class included a 15 year old girl15 and an ambitious woman of 68. There was also a cheeky 19 year old boy of another type of ambiton, as he practiced his phrases on angie: ‘you are very beautiful’, ‘you look much younger than your age’, ‘please may i pay you a compliment’..
The intermediate group had a decent grasp on the language and vocabulary and was overall much more interesting to interact with as they peppered us with questions about America and Australia. It was an enjoyable experience.
Kazakhstan State Museum
Prior to visiting this museum we had read that not much in the way of English language information was available and that was completely accurate if you overlooked a few signs readig “Do Not Touch”. The museum would likely have been very interesting had we been able to better understand the exhibits, but the artifacts on display were still interesting. One of the more interesting sections displayed the different ethnicities that live in Kazakhstan. We knew Kazakhstan was a very diverse place, but we had not fully grasped the breadth of its multiculturalism. In addition to the Kazakhs, Russians, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Koreans which we knew to compose significant parts of the Kazakh society the museum also presented information on Tartar, Chechen, Polish, Jewish, and other peoples present in Kazakhstan.
Also as per usual in the Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the museum also housed an entire room displaying propaganda for the current President. This room celebrated the now 22 year term of Kazakhstan’s beloved leader and god among men Nazarbaev. It did inadvertently give away his method for getting all these photos of himself with significant world leaders in a display about Kazakhstan’s natural wealth: Kazakhstan has 99 of the 105 elements of the periodic table, 60+ of which are already being mined and 20 of which are in tye exploratory stage. That kind of mineral wealth would probably get Kim Jong Un in the door with the leaders of China and the US.
Panfilov Park and Zenkov Cathedral
Panfilov Park is a main green space within the city and is home to Almaty’s most prominent Russian Orthodox cathedral, war memorial and museums.
The Zenkov Cathedral is built entirely of wood, even the nails, and its Willy Wonka style rainbow candy-colored exterior was our first exposure to this style we expect to find in much of Russia. The exterior of the Cathedral is covered in bright yellows, reds, and greens and the interior is decorated with gold leaf-laden frescos and filled with golden icons. There were many similarities with the St. Nicholas Cathedral interior as the Zhenkov Cathedral also contained a carved wooden alter and golden candelabras.
The war memorial is located just east of the Zhenkov Cathedral and is a massive stone sculpture of soldiers bursting out of a map. An eternal flame burns in front of the sculpture for the Civil War and WWII soldiers.
The Musical Instrument Museum was under construction so were unable to view it.
The Monument to Independence is a most intriguing peice and consists of the Golden Man, a Kazakh symbol, holding a bow and a hawk while standing atop a winged snow leopard. All of this sits atop a stone spire perhaps 60m tall, a splendid introduction to the comic book type government gallantry that awaits in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.
The area also houses some government buildings and Presidential Residence.
The first hotel we stayed at was directly across the street from the market. The market vendors sold everything from foods to toiletries to clothing, although this place lacked the atmosphere of the bazaars we’d grown accustomed to and also didn’t seem to have quite the extent of food items available. The steet food vendors just by the market became our regular dinner spot, good cheap eats.
Built in 1999, there wasn’t any history behind the mosque like others we had been viewing. However, it is difficult to find fault in this buildig considering its importance to an at-the-time newly independant Kazakhstan reclaiming its faith after years of Soviet oppression. The building itself is a large, beautiful blue domed and white marble building.
During our first stay in Almaty in late March we stayed at an old Soviet hotel, the Turkestan Hotel. It was listed as a budget hotel, and as there isn’t much cheap available in terms of accomodation in Almaty, we decided to give it a try. We stayed in a double room with attached bath for 6500T ($40). The great part was that it looked directly out to the mountains. The not so great part was that it was only clear one day and the building had thin walls. On good nights we heard kids running down tue halls, apparently a birthday party or something. On one not-so-good night we heard our neighbors loud and clear, a few times, all the while regretting having seen them in the hallway and being unable to escape the resulting not-so-pleasant but all-to-accurate visual image of the goings-on. You get what you pay for I guess.
Our second time throughAlmaty we opted for the Apple Hostel on the west side of town. It was a decent hostel, but still pricey ($18/p). This hostel that is effectively a flat in a large block consists of one room with 6 beds, one with 4, one twin room, a kitchen and 2 bathrooms. It seemed more like a couchsurfing experience than a hostel since it was just in a flat. There was no significant attempt by the individuals running it to make you feel welcome, but they were friendly enough. The other travels were what made it a good place.