The Middle Asian experience

Almaty Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan

Visited August 2022

Helpful Tips

What to Bring

Prepare for hot summer weather above 100 in August. Cool spring and fall and cold winter with snow.
Bring Cash and credit. Local currency is the Tenge. There are some street shops for making the conversion, but you'll need to find them. Plan for Russian language 90% of the time

Almaty, Kazakhstan
Almaty, Kazakhstan: ,


Alma-Ata means the father of apples and this location is a real adventure.  After 23 hours of flights through Doha, Quatar to the Almaty Airport you get off to the feeling from the mountains.  I once traveled to Almaty via Istanbul, so it depends where you make your connecting flights.  The flights from Frankfort or in the past from Ekaterinberg made the connections.  Typical flights arrive very early hours of the morning.  Plan for Russian language 90% of the time.  Get your cash converted to local currency for daily activities and be familiar with the denominations of Tenge.

You can find taxis that are private or from the local uber style companies , the major one being Yandex.  There are apps for ordering a ride, and cash or credit work.  Private taxis may be more challenging to negotiate.  Right now the apps are in English and Russian, but the banking rejected my cards due the Russia situation. 

Buses are also available, but will take longer due to the number of stops and mostly you won't find an English speaker.  You need a bus card with credit added.  They used to be all change until upgrades in the past few years.  Downtown offers Rail cars and has bike and e-scooter rentals, similar to metro areas in the states or Europe.  Also they are based on apps the require credit cards and I was blocked due to the Russia banking situation.  The food delivery companies often just grab a rental to make their delivery then drop off their transportation at the nearest corner, taking their delivery bag with them.

The downtown is surrounded by the Altai. Alatau and Tian Shan ranges. Almaty reminds me of my homes in Idaho, and travel to places like Wyoming and Colorado.   Their are layers upon layers of mountain ranges.  I counted nine staggering layers rising from the lowest hills above the valley of the city.  This is the backdrop of a city as ancient as the northern silk road and its home to travelers from the orient lands.

The fruit stands on the sides of the highways indicate the abundance from the local and imported melons and produce.  The city is supplied by its local farmland and the rail and highways that converge.  From the East is the borders of China XinJiang province and from the South is the borders of Kyrgystan and the great lake Issyk Kul.  The highway to the lake was never completed because the Kazahk side decided it would draw travelers away from the local resorts nearby.  That's how close they are.  

To the north is a short distance to the Kapchagay resort and lake.  It is the premier destination for many seniors on their yearly paid health retreats.  Its also a family destination for picnics and lake activities.  This route is also the train route to the north through the hundreds of miles of steppe lands through flat grass ranges.  The train will take a couple days, going at 50 miles per hour and stopping at each town as a major commuting path for travelers.  In the north the train reaches Ust Kamenogorsk as one of the major cities before arriving at the Southern Russia border.  You'll appreciate the mountains of Almaty after that long ride.

A drive or bus up Gornaya street from the city of Almaty will bring you Medeu Ski resort and the stadium.  From there you can reach Shymbulak by 3 gondola rides.  The glacier is a spectacle a day hike there leads to an alpine delight with seasonal wildflowers and springs.  There are cafe's and diners along each stop of the ride.   We also saw horse rides going up the trails and a ropes course.

Be prepared for lines, because this is a hot destination for locals from the surrounding country side and a sacred site like most high peaks.  It has  year round cold temperatures at the high altitude and mists cover the peaks from time to time even from hour to hour.  A good jacket in your backpack is recommended.

Shymbulak has seasonal events displaying the local culture.  We tried camel and horse milk - kumis and shot arrows after a display from local horse riders shooting blindly over their shoulders.  They are building a film industry locally and many rural talents come to the city with locals bringing their skills in for cinema, tv and movies.   The city is the mecca for young people coming for university study and opportunity in work and dating.

You can follow the Bolshaya river up to the mountains to the Kok Tebe fun park with rides, a zoo, gift shops and upscale dining.  The latrines are in the very basement of the parking lots so prepare ahead and like most of Almaty street-life, bring a supply of tissue.  Its also a hot destination for rural areas coming to the city for adventure and holiday with family.  The views from the restaurants survey over Almaty and the architecture of the city and suburbs.  A key attraction is the alpine slide.

The city also has an amusement park with coasters and a real circus in a big tent with bears, high wire acts, clowns and dancers.  It feels like the movies.  The Green Bazaar hosts a maze of shops, which may be closed on Mondays.  You can find most items you would expect from department stores and plenty of Chinese made products, as well.  Some of the shops have some local goods as well with cultural pattern on bags and souvenirs.  The latrines are outside of the bazaar and you pay in Tenge, the local currency with change for sheets of tissue to use the squatters.  You may need to condition yourself if not used to the process.  Hotels obviously have modern latrines, but a hostel might be more rustic.

There is a very large botanical garden that has received a great deal of upgrades over the past 10 years from its former soviet period appearance.  There is a fee to enter, but worth seeing all the long walk of trees, flowers, ponds and vegetation that was marvelously persevered amid a huge city sprawl.  You could spend half a day on the promenades there.

There is a large history museum to fill your curiosity about the roots of the peoples of this area.  Also there is the ballet and theatre that are top notch during their local seasons.  You'll find no lack of culture as you search for things to do.  The downtown diners vary from bars to diners, but its best to book ahead, like most cities space fills up quick.  There is all kinds of foods to choose from.

You must visit the Rakhat chocolate factory downtown.  The whole area of the city smells like chocolate in the steam from the complex.  There is a store where you can select gift packs of chocolate or choose by the kilo to bag your own choices.  You can't get better chocolate anywhere outside of Belgium in my opinion.  The fillings are supreme and filling with nuts and fruits like you can't find anywhere in the US.

The city has the mix of street food and modern dining.  Malls are available for higher end shopping and access to American fast food chains.   If you see turkish delight shops, you have to try one of the many kinds.  If you get the chance to travel through any of the suburbs you'll find all mixes of shops and every neighborhood has places for burgers, fried chicken or skewers - Shashlik.  Every couple of intersections has a drug store - "apteka",   small grocers - "magazines", and even some real cool cafeteria style restaurants with ala-carte.  The salads, fry breads, kimche are great.  The influence of cultures is everywhere from Korean, Russian, Kazakh, German, Turkish and European.  Don't forget there are many tribal Kazakh groups and Tatar, Uigar and Kyrgh just to add a few.  The small shops are the best with local cookies, sodas, chocolates and snacks. 

I stayed in the Turkish suburb and walked less than a block to get snacks, drinks and chocolate all the time.   Some of the roads in the suburbs are less maintained on on rainy days are quite muddy until you get to the main roads.  Dogs and cats roam freely, most are unconcerned.   Almost every home is bordered by metal walls and closing gates and have watchdogs that may bark.

There is a national forest on the road out of town through some of the newly incorporated city areas.   It is cultural land and prefered for camping and picnics for local Kazakhs that have been convening for hundreds of years on the land.  The government allowed a private banya - steam houses to be persevered in the park to keep  an experience for the culture of hot houses.  I had seven consecutive heat sessions, each getting hotter followed rapid plunges in a glacial river.  Top this off with  dinner of lamb, potatoes and salad.

The city is alive with new road construction, architecture of new mosques, cathedrals, businesses and athletic centers for sports and entertainment.  The economy looks strong, coming just after some civil unrest witch resulted in some political changes for heads of state and government.   The city has urban and rural housing to meet its diverse needs.  Traffic is organized chaos and driving down the center lane is expected when making a pass.  Some small scooters make their way through traffic without getting squashed and large trucks are not typically permitted in city limits.  I saw no semi-trucks or pick-up trucks, but plenty of SUV's and Euro style vans of Asian make.

The people are the highlight.  If you get to make conversation, they are diverse and dynamic.  The community is work in progress, cleaning up city parks with new ordinances and adding modern amenities.  Most people have cell phones and use the internet.   Cars are plentiful, but so is public transportation giving access to most anyone. 

Politics was not a huge matter of conversation. People like the common comforts of city living in a large population.  They are busy with work and life.  They watch movies and television serials over the air.  They shop conveniently in town or near their residence.   Street life is active and never stale. 

There is good public safety for the most part, but common sense will go a long way in preventing losing your belongings, the same as any city.  Most public posts are held by local Kazakh people going along with their ongoing cultural identification focus in the country.   I needed an official letter from the city offices in lieu of a visa, once I arrived for my stay of 2 weeks.   The officers were polite, but the lines were long and slow, with only short staff.

Their is ambition by the young, trying new ways of dress and testing their youthful freedom.  They have trends of music and activities that go in hand with most city youth lifestyles.  Education is accessible and English is studied at the parochial level, though most not fluent.  They will try to talk with you.  Culture is evident and people identify with it amid a divers blend of daily living.  The Kazakh identity is growing with great efforts since the end of the soviet rule to strengthen the heritage history and roots of the indigenous peoples.  Every cultural group here holds to culture as a source of pride.  Its reflected in the rush pace through the city and it's a unique to experience from the the view of a guest in their homeland.

I hardly touched on what a single traveler can do with some time and preparations.  There is another ski resort Ahk Bulak out of town with its mountain resort and olympic class amenities.  Almaty hosted Asia area winter Olympics and bid for winter Olympics won by China.   They are ready for opening up and prepare for it.   There is much more to do in the outdoors with mountain biking, hiking etc.   I just did not get to do it all.  

Shymbulak Culture



About Forrest
Hometown: Helena, Montana, United States
Languages: English, Cantonese
Profile Photo

Helpful Tips

What to Bring

Prepare for hot summer weather above 100 in August. Cool spring and fall and cold winter with snow.
Bring Cash and credit. Local currency is the Tenge. There are some street shops for making the conversion, but you'll need to find them. Plan for Russian language 90% of the time


Almaty Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan
Almaty Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan

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