Imagine a new, modern city mixed with fresh, green forests and lush plant life, all the while surrounded by towering mountains with clean white snow all year round. Now throw in a variety of culture (east, west, Europe, Asia, Russia, China, and something unique in and of itself) and mix it all together. Finally, top that off with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere and what you get is Almaty. The city served as the center point of my visit, and although I wish I got to travel around a bit more, I couldn't have enjoyed it more.
It's hard to describe without sounding like a cheesy tourism add, but Almaty truly is something unique in unto itself. It is significantly more developed than its surrounding Central-Asian counterparts but still has (thankfully) resisted the influx of obnoxious western advertisements and seizure-inducing neon lights that plague so many other cities. With that said, I will use the rest of this post, to do my best by outlining some of the highlights that stood out to me and impressions I got while staying there.
Almaty is alive. Anytime and anywhere you go, you'll come across people out and about, doing something. This could be in the form of a family out to lunch, friends at a bar, an elderly couple at the park, or a mountain climber heading off to one of the peaks. Even when I walked 16km (10 miles) across the entire length of the city with a friend at night (see Lera in 'Awesome People' page) there was still a people presence wherever I went. There was always something happening, but not that type-A workaholic sense. It was kind of a relaxed, laid back, 'let's go outside and see what we see' atmosphere, which made me feel right at home.
Having been along the route of the ancient Silk Road, capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic during the Soviet era, and with close proximity to China, it's no surprise that Almaty has a pretty distinct mix of culture. While most of the population of the city is either Kazakh or Russian, there are significant Uzbek, German, and Chinese populations among others, which are all reflected in day to day life. For example, just on the street where I stayed, there was a Georgian restaurant, a Belarussian bakery, Chinese visa center, Russian Orthodox church and a mosque. It was something I had never expected to find prior to arrival, but came as a pleasant surprise. Best of all was how harmoniously it all coexisted. It never seemed like one particular tradition was trying to grab the spotlight from the others, and it all seemed to flourish together.
I later found out that, unlike most of its neighbors, there are extensive laws in Kazakhstan preventing any type of discrimination, whether it be ethnic or religious, which include full protection to atheists and those who are non-religious. The population is just about split down the middle between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which was pretty interesting to see from my point of view. mosques and churches would often be side by side and no sign of tension or conflict seemed visible.
In Almaty, nature was ever-present throughout the whole city. Down every street and along every highway, trees and plant life sprouted up to complement man-made infrastructure with the natural world. Everywhere I went, things just seemed so picturesque and clean. It gave off a certain calming and relaxing effect that is pretty rare for a city of its size (2 million). Because of that, everything just felt so fresh. I never once came across that particular rancid city smell nor did I get that sticky feeling on my skin that that would come after spending a day in a place like Manhattan.
It doesn't matter which direction you look. North, south, east, and west, the Almaty skyline is lined with towering mountains, making it the perfect destination if you're looking to enjoy the great outdoors. (Again, I apologies if I sound like a commercial. I just think this place is awesome.) One of the easiest way to reach them is by taking bus #12 to its final stop, Medeu. From there, you're already at the foot of four different peaks that rise up to 4000m. And even if you're not quite the most active traveler, the views from within the city are pretty awesome too, so either way, the mountains enhance the trip as a whole.
With its location in southern Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyz and Chinese border, Almaty is in a great spot if you're planning a bigger trip. It takes less that half an hour to get to the mountains, meanwhile ancient Silk Road cities like Taraz are just a couple hours away. And since transportation in Kazakhstan is really cheap, you don't have to worry about breaking the bank to get from place to place. For example, I was able to take a 4 hour van ride for just 2500 tenge ($7) to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.
Kazakhstan is in the middle of a pretty interesting phase. It is by no means a poor country, it's cities are very modern, and infrastructure is pretty well developed. However, everything is pretty much dirt cheap. Even in Almaty, you can stay at a really nice hostel for $6, eat a gigantic dinner for $5 and ride the metro for about 25 cents. This seems largely because the country came into a huge influx of wealth within the past two decades, so all this affluence is very, very new. As a result, prices have yet to catch up to quality. Therefore, I definitely recommend going there sooner rather than later because it is unclear whether this affordability will last much longer.