Surrounded by snow-covered peaks of the Tien Shan mountains, the former capital of Kazakhstan is awash with its chequered history. I am in Almaty, the second-largest city in Central Asia and the largest in Kazakhstan. The city’s name is derived from apples. The first wild apples apparently grew here before they spread around the world.
Straddling the crossroads between Europe and Asia, this city of wide avenues, fountains, stately Stalinist buildings, mansions and palaces in yellow and white, parks and swish malls, had to surrender its capital status to Astana in 1997. People, however, still consider this melting pot of diverse nationalities as the soul of the country.
One of the first places I visited was the leafy Panfilov Park, an oasis in the centre of the city named in honour of 28 fighters of Panfilov who died fighting the Nazis outside of Moscow. The huge statue has the names of these soldiers but is a memorial to all Kazakhi soldiers who died in the two World Wars. Today, it’s a favoured place for newly weds to take selfies. Inside the park are towering Tien Shan fir and spruce trees, wooden benches, horse-driven carriages for tourists and a pigeon square where locals feed pigeons and children drive battery-operated cars.
Most people head to Almaty for seeing the showstopper of the town, the wooden art nouveau orthodox Zenkov Cathedral built in 1907. It has pastel-hued gables, brightly painted tiles and gilded domes. The interiors are opulent with coloured glass, icons and gilt; many art works have been made in Moscow and Kiev. Women in headscarves light candles in hushed silence. Our guide Viktoriya tells that the church has survived several earthquakes and wars.
Just across the park is the Soviet-style Arasan Baths under a tiled dome. Built in the 1980s, it has Turkish hammams, Finnish saunas, a Russian steam bath called banya and pools; a memorable experience for sybarites.
We then walk to the Green Bazaar, evocative of Silk Road, where under high ceilings aisles of fresh produce tempt with their sight and smell.
I taste my way through the market from dried fruits to salted cheeses, washing everything down with local drinks called kumis (fermented horse’s milk) and shubat (fermented camel’s milk). Friendly shopkeepers from all across Central Asia call out to taste their wares — from Tajik merchants selling dried fruits and nuts to matronly women with headscarves selling salted cheeses.
Close to the bazaar, we follow our noses to the Rakhat Chocolate Factory that moved here in Soviet times, some 70 years back. Today, it is part of the Korean confectionary company Lotte. Wrapped in shiny paper, a huge variety of chocolates lines the shelves, some in boxes that look like Kazakh stamps, others with the colours of its flag.
In the evening, we head to a pedestrian street, called Arbat after a famous street in Moscow. It has buskers playing lively music, colourful arches that are lit at night, boys skateboarding and open air cafes. This was the golden district in the past where artists, poets and musicians lived. There’s a building that looks like a wedding cake. During the Soviet period, it housed the consumers’ union office.
The city’s Soviet legacy can be seen in the nearby ornate, neo-classical Abay opera and ballet theatre that hosts shows and operas. Its interiors tell the story of an ancient warrior who was buried in an elaborate golden costume and whose grave was discovered in the Almaty region. The golden man is one of the country’s most iconic symbols.
Not far from here is the 1970s’ style Almaty Hotel with brilliant murals outside, fashioned out of Murano glass, depicting a classic Kazakh love story of star-crossed lovers. On the other side is a modern mural that depicts the Silk Route with camels in the foreground.
I also explored the country’s musical heritage at the Museum of Musical Instruments housed in a beautiful wooden building that once used to be a club for army officers. As nomadic people, the Kazakhs loved singing and playing instruments as it was their only form of entertainment, living on the move. The most famous is the stringed instrument called dombra. Most of the instruments were made using what they could lay their hands on, from horse hair to wood. For the outdoor enthusiasts, Almaty provides close access to the mountains, forests and lakes. Just 30 minutes from the city is Central Asia’s largest ski resort Shymbulak and the Medeu ice rink. Built in Soviet times, it used to be the place of practice for Olympic skaters. A modern cable car and chair-lift, filled with hikers and families, takes us past beautiful views of the Tien Shan mountains, alpine meadows, wildflowers and hiking trails, right to the very top of the 3,180m Talgar Pass.
I use Almaty as my base as I make trips to nearby lakes, canyons and other natural attractions. But I still fondly remember my time spent in this multifaceted city fondly as it offers the best of modern Kazakhstan, along with a rich dose of history and culture.
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