While cities such as Istanbul, Moscow and Tokyo can overawe visitors with their sheer size, Almaty is just a small and cosy Babylon. Not so long ago it was all green hills and apple gardens; residents will, with sincere delight and out of a deep sense of nostalgia, tell stories of the good old days when they used to catch mountain trout in the city irrigation canals that run down from the snow-covered peaks, and of apples that grew to the size of a grapefruit.
Nowadays, highways run where the city apple gardens used to be and residents pay to fish for trout at the nearby hatchery, although there is still a touch of the former, more bucolic times left among the modern arrivals. On the same street you may come across a stall selling hot, home-made samosas alongside a luxury restaurant where they serve Château Lafite Rothschild at Dhs50,000 a bottle. You can still get lost in Turkish and Chinese clothing markets so big they’re like a city within a city. A Soviet-era Moskvich, a Porsche and a Lamborghini can often be spotted in the same parking lot.
To escape, everyone – rich and poor – heads for the Zailijsky Alatau mountains. Visible from the city streets, they are an integral part of Almaty. Within 20 minutes you can leave the traffic jams and smog behind to find yourself nearly 1,800 metres above sea level, surrounded by nature. When spring comes, hundreds of babushkas in blue tights and bright headscarves start a pilgrimage to their piedmont dachas, where they cultivate 600sq m plots of land – a legacy of the Soviet era, when smallholdings were given to every family to grow fresh food. Each street is a potted history of the city. There, on the left, are a couple of three-storey houses with bas-reliefs and turrets – witnesses to the Stalin era. To the right are a couple of faceless multi-storey blocks, a remnant of the 1970s. A little further and you may find the towering glass and metal of a 21st-century business centre. Just by turning into a side street, with its rickety old private houses, you’ll feel like you’re in a Brazilian favela.
Food comes from the Dungan and Uighur cuisines, with lots of shashlyk and pilaf. A discerning gourmand can bite into a mutton head or feast on horse meat, both Kazakh specialities, and the city markets are full of fresh fruit and veg that look, smell and taste like real home-grown food should.
In Almaty, the motley local colour and chaos of the East lives side by side with the more usual European orderliness. The main thing about the city, though, isn’t the avalanche of impressions you experience every day: it is the warm welcome offered to visitors. This is why residents believe that anyone who comes here must surely feel immediately at home.
Air Astana flies to Almaty from Dubai daily; prices start from Dhs2,315 return (including tax).
Where to stay
Hotel Kazakhstan (+7 327 291 91 01, www.hotel-kazakhstan.kz).
Where is it?
At the bottom of the Zailijsky Alatau mountains of the northern Tien Shan range, in the south-east of Kazakhstan
Extreme continental, with temperatures ranging from about 27°C to -14°C. April and May are rainiest, and smog can make summers humid
The city boasts 103 ethnicities, including Kazakhs, Russians, Uighurs, Turks, Azeri, Koreans, Tatars, Germans, Ukrainians, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Greeks, Dungans, Kurds and Poles
Sakas (Sacae) tribal hills; 1st City Firefighting Station; Kok Bazaar, or ‘Green Market’, one of the first local food markets; the house of merchant Golovizin; Holy Ascension Cathedral
Alma-Arasan gorge, where everyone goes for a shashlyk; Shymbulak Mountain Resort; clothing and flea market; Arasan city sauna
Independence from Soviet Union
Almaty gained its independence in 1991. It lost its capital status 1998, when the new capital Astana was created. It remains, however, the commercial hub of the country and its largest city
There are 270 religious associations and 40 confessions in the city
Esentai Tower (39 storeys)
Whole baked lamb (the head of which is a special delicacy), as served in Zheruyik Restaurant
Leon Trotsky was exiled here in the late 1920s, and it was the temporary home of Mosfilm, the Soviet national movie production company, which was evacuated from Moscow during World War II. It was also the birthplace of Olzhas Sulejmenov, poet and founder of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement, the first anti-nuclear NGO in the Soviet Union
Almaty means ‘father of the apple’ in the Kazakh language, and the area is famed for its fruit. The local variety is the Aport, a monstrous-sized fruit that can weigh up to 1kg – that’s as much as a pineapple
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