An August 2005 trip
to Almaty by helenl
Quote: My work in Almaty (look at www.ecotourism.kz for more info) takes me around the country. There is much to do in the city and nearby. These brief diaries aim to give a flavour of what is on offer.
48 hours in Almaty
What does this fine leafy city have to offer the visitor? It depends on your interests, and on the time of year. If your visit is between June and September, you will find that most of the population has moved outside. The many parks are full of families taking gentle exercise, strolling among the trees or feeding the very tame squirrels. Many of the park benches will be occupied by men playing chess. Serious tournaments seem to go on for days.
If you want to briefly lose your children, they can take a spin in a pedal car or mini motor bike, which can be hired for short periods. There are many photographers ready to make a memento of your visit. Relax and enjoy. The numerous fountains in the city are a welcome relief from what can sometimes be exhausting heat. Children happily strip to their underwear and jump in, turning them into open air swimming pools.
While the outdoor attractions of the parks are enough to keep you busy, there is one that has within it a special attraction. In the centre of the city can be found Panfilov Park, and at its heart lies St Ascension Cathedral. After many years as a museum, it is now once again an active place of worship. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the atmosphere at any time throughout the day, or to attend either the morning or evening service. Constructed entirely of wood, and without nails, it was able to withstand an earthquake which many other buildings did not survive.
Almaty has a great range of eating places, offering both Kazakh and international Cuisine. Just stroll around until you find somewhere those appeals. On a warm summer evening it is very pleasant to watch the world go by from your outside table. In summer visits to theatres or concerts are not a possibility because it is just too hot to be enjoyable for either participants or audience. From October to May, high-quality music, drama, opera, and ballet are available at bargain prices. Your hotel or tour operators should be able to advise you on what is on offer. There is plenty to choose from.
Almaty has several good museums, most notably the Central State museum which gives a fine overview of the development of the country, the Museum of Folk Instruments, housed in an interesting wooden building near to the Cathedral, and the Art museum which has the largest selection of art in the country. There are also many small galleries showing contemporary work. Your hotel should be able to advice on these too.
But Almaty has more than this. Look up and enjoy the mountains. Few cities are blessed with such a compelling backdrop. To make things even better, they can be visited by public transport or, if you prefer, tour operators can arrange an individual trip for you. It is a pleasant escape from the heat of the city in summer time. From October to March, skating is possible at Medeo, surely one of the finest settings for an ice rink. Go a little bit higher, and there is skiing too. All in all, Almaty has much of interest. Come and discover this fine city. You will be warmly welcomed. www.ecotourism.kz, www.expat.kz, Ugam
You’ve enjoyed your time in Almaty, and now you are ready to explore a little further. The vast size of the country means that getting around takes time, but, as well as day trips from the city, some destinations are not too difficult to reach. One possibility is to visit a village in the beautiful Ugam mountain range in the South of the country. Villagers have recently opened their homes to visitors. If you are looking for luxury then this isn’t for you, but if you are happy with simple but clean facilities, possibly including an outside toilet and bathing in a traditional banya, then this should suit you well. You will be welcomed with home cooked food, and be offered the hospitality for which people in this region are renowned.
If you prefer, stay in a yurt, still the summer home of shepherds and traditionally the way of life for much of the population as they practiced a nomadic lifestyle in the past. Wrap up warm for a night in a yurt, but it is a memorable experience. The villages here offer tranquility and quiet, with a pleasantly slow pace of life and very little traffic. There is the opportunity to be energetic, and hikes can be arranged into the mountains. There is opportunity for activities for people of all ages and abilities. Be as lazy or energetic as you choose.
If you prefer, let a horse take the strain. This region is well known for its craftsmanship, and it might be possible to watch people at work. Certainly you will be able to buy a souvenir. In autumn the sport of playing polo with a goat or sheep carcass can be witnessed. As well as the great outdoors, this region is rich in fascinating buildings- mausoleums and churches can easily be visited. Most notably, the great buildings of Turkistan are a 2-hour drive from here. Ugam can be reached from Almaty by overnight train, leaving in the evening at 5pm and arriving at Shymkent at 8:30 the next morning. From there transport can be arranged to your homestay.
After relaxing for a few days in this lovely area, there are several possibilities for your next step. Either return to Almaty on a convenient overnight train, or from Shymkent take a train to the west of Kazakhstan. Or, if the great buildings of Turkistan have excited you, why not carry on to Uzbekistan. There are plenty of taxis to take you to the border, which is then only about half an hour from the capital, Tashkent. (This needs advanced planning, as a visa is needed and cannot be obtained at the border). A visit to Ugam will leave you feeling refreshed, and you will have been offered an entry into the homes and hearts of the people who are fortunate enough to live in this beautiful place.