Almaty might be in the middle of nowhere on the northern steppe, but with a couple of flight options from Bahrain, Kazakhstan’s boom city is fast becoming a tourist force to be reckoned with. Gareth Clarke headed there this summer
Peering out of the window as you fly into Almaty, Khazakhstan, is like sampling a delicious appetiser. From above, a lush, green, ridged baize of hills and fields surrounds the city. To the west, the forbidding, snow-topped Tian Shan mountain range rises up and peers down upon it like a family of disapproving aunts. It is a remarkable canvas, but how does the city compare?
Little may have changed in rural Khazakhstan since the days of Ghengis Khan driving his Mongol hoards across its borders, but following the fall of communism in 1991, Almaty has blossomed. Oil money is the driving force, and around its edges, huge metallic boards hide the dirtier sides of progress: the building sites.
There isn’t really a city centre, just a maze of streets bursting with foliage. The hotels are well developed, with the InterContinental Almaty amongst the plushest and most modern. The bars, cafés and shops are all sunken into the sidewalks. Yes, there are malls, but to sample the real Kazakh spirit check out the markets. The Zelyoni Bazaar (or Green Market) is a typically bustling example, lying just down the road from Panfilov Park, but for the truly hardcore, there’s the enormous Barakholka. ‘Watch your pockets,’ our taxi driver mimed in his Chaplin-esque best; but any good flea market has a hint of danger, and a chance to sample a glass of shubat (fermented camel’s milk) should not be passed up.
Panfilov Park is a must, with its colourful, wooden Zenkov Cathedral and fearsome war memorial commemorating the Panfilov heroes, 28 soldiers from an Almaty infantry who died in Moscow fighting off Nazi tanks. And if you’re excited by the thought of the Museum of Kazakh Instruments (surely only second to the Museum of Repression), then that is nearby too. However, museum hounds should bear in mind that most of the exhibits in the city’s cultural centres are explained in Russian, with little English translation.
But the best way to appreciate Almaty is to get above it. Cable cars run from Dostik Street up into the heights of Kök-Töbe, where there are some incredible views to be had. But the tourist germ has spread here, and as we peer out across the city, a DJ begins spinning some head-thumping house, and our only escape is to duck into the tourist tat shops.
A far better bet is Chimbaluk. At 2,300 ft, it formed the springboard for the city’s winning bid to host the Asian Games in 2011 and, when in season (October-April), its snowy peaks are a popular haunt for skiers. However, on sunnier days, a taxi ride to the top followed by the walk back down to the Medeu ice skating stadium (currently being refurbished for the games) is a good second best.
Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to go ‘off-piste’, and picnic spots abound amid the streams, the cows and the curious locals. The best of these is a sprawling valley half-way up, where visitors have engaged in the most eco-friendly of vandalism: spelling out hundreds of messages in stones across its barren canvas.
Away from the city, the surrounding area proves its worth. Companies like Eco Tourism (www.eco-tourism.kz) offer day trips into the Kazakhstan countryside, where it might as well be 1809 for all the locals care. But in essence, Almaty is a tourist destination still finding its feet. It has few compromises for the non-Russian speaker, but that’s what makes it exciting. Rarely have we seen such a green city, but our advice is to head into the wild – you won’t regret it.
Flights between Bahrain and Almaty take around ten hours with Etihad (including waiting time in Abu Dhabi), from BD250 (economy) and BD640 (business class). Visas must be obtained before travel from the Kazakhstan consulate in Abu Dhabi (+971 2447 6623).
Don’t leave without…
Riding the Kök-Töbe cable car At KZT800 (around BD2), it’s not particularly cheap, nor does it last long, but the views are incredible from this vantage point.
Visit the market
Seemingly endless, the Zelyoni Bazaar and Barrakholka stretch on forever and contain enough fakes and tat to put even Bahrain to shame. Just watch your wallet.
Leave the city behind
Whether walking the roads encircling Mount Chimbaluk (watch out for cars), or exploring Lake Almaty and Charyn Canyon, get away from the urban sprawl.
The best of of Central Asia
Central Asia’s massive, sparsely populated and speaks a variety of languages that most people have never heard of. Get past that, and you’ll find an historically rich region that practically ran the world for 2,000 years. Murray Garrard runs down five destinations not to miss.
The Pamirs, Tajikistan Tajikistan is not most people’s first choice when it comes to an exotic holiday. But it should be. This until recently disharmonious mass of self-sufficient remote valley communities and dusty cities is home to some of the best trekking in the region. Those looking for a reasonably gentle hike can nip over the border at Samarkand and head to the Fan Mountains, which is renowned in the region for its austere beauty. But for a once-in-a-lifetime, head into The Pamirs, one of the world’s most isolated regions and home to spectacular lakes, deserts, mountains, and snow leopards. Only for the experienced. Get there:Turkish Airlines fly to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, via Istanbul. www.thy.com
Bamiyan, Afghanistan Afghanistan might not be on most travel itineraries at the moment, but for the brave it remains a land of adventure. The city of Bamiyan in the Hindu Kush mountain range is the most alluring of the country’s many attractions. Once a place of Buddhist pilgrimage, Bamiyan is best known for its pair of enormous 5th century rock hewn Buddhas, which were blown up by the Taliban in 2001 amid international outrage. That said, the niches where they once stood are a poignant reminder of the horrors of religious intolerance and a desperately sad reminder of the need to preserve Afghanistan’s rich but fragile history. Get there: Fly Dubai flies to Kabul via Dubai www.flydubai.com Bamiyan is a good 10-hour car journey.
Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan Sure, in terms of height, it is 1,000 or so metres off Everest. But in terms of beauty, it is far superior. Khan Tengi and the Inylchek Glacier rises up in the south eastern corner of the country and marks the borders of China and Kyrgyzstan. Although mountaineers need to have Everest training to scale the peak, being much further north, the climbing season is much shorter, and the conditions that much more treacherous. In 2004, an avalanche killed 14 climbers. For those that don’t want to risk it, get a helicopter ride to catch the awesome views from the top. Get there:Air Arabia and Etihad both fly to Almaty via Sharjah and Abu Dhabi respectively www.airarabia.com, www.etihad.com. Khan Tenri is a rather gruelling eight hour drive from the city.
Astana, Kazakhstan If you are looking for the Kazakhstan of Borat, don’t head to the country’s brand-spanking new capital, Astana, built on the former Soviet outpost of Akmolinsk in the northern steppe and in the middle of nowhere. Aided by the country’s vast oil wealth, Dubai-style architectural ambition has transformed the city in the last ten years, leaving a legacy of out-of-this-world futuristic projects and a city that is firmly facing the future. Get there:Etihad flies to Astana via Abu Dhabi www.etihad.com
Samarkand, Uzbekistan Thanks to the fact that modern Uzbekistan was the birthplace of one of the medieval world’s greatest dictators, Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane), along with the fact that strands of the Silk Route passed through the very heart of the country, Uzbekistan is a treasure trove of historical wonders and world heritage sites. Although the ancient cities of Bukhara, Khiva and Shakhrisyabz, are all crucially important stops on any Uzbek tourist itinerary, Samarkand rules the roost. Home to the renowned Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Tamerlane’s tomb the Gur-e Amir, and the ancient city centre square, the Registan, Tamerlane’s 2,750-year-old capital is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring cities. Get there:Turkish Airlines fly to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, via Istanbul. www.thy.com