Nestling at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains, the tree-lined avenues of Almaty give it a very different feel from Nur-Sultan, its successor as capital of Kazakkstan. Even the municipal flower beds are different: petunias and marigolds in the dry heat of Nur-Sultan, whilst roses and busy lizzies (impatiens) thrive in Almaty.
The city might be older, but Almaty’s architecture is not particularly historic. An earthquake in 1887 destroyed much of the old city: only one brick building was left standing. Wooden buildings fared slightly better and for a while, wood was the favoured construction material for the rebuilding of the city. The Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, designed by Zenkov entirely of wood, and completed in 1907 survived a further earthquake in 1910.
We started our exploration at Republic Square with a visit to the Independence monument. Our guide Sveta explained the history of Kazakhstan as depicted in reliefs around the monument, including Kazakhstan’s own Boudicca: Queen Tomyris.
Then we went up into the mountains to the Medeu ice rink. It was allegedly built because Stalin wanted some Soviet winter sports champions, and investigations found that the quality of ice was particularly good. However, the stadium only opened in 1972.
After lunch at an excellent Italian restaurant, we walked along Arbat, past a former merchant’s house from the old days (pre-earthquake) to the Green Bazaar where stallholders encouraged us to try their wares. Nearby is the famous chocolate factory shop, where customers were queueing to stock up.
Our next stop was Panfilov Park, named in honour of the soldiers of the 316th Rifle Division, formed by General Ivan Panfilov in the region, and in particular the 28 soldiers of the division who became icons of the Soviet Union for their heroic defence of Moscow in November 1941. There is a huge war memorial in their honour. Close by was a monument to soldiers killed in the Afghan war, funded by grieving mothers. An attractive wooden building nearby, also by Zenkov, was originally accommodation for army officers. It is far more attractive than the Soviet-era barracks next door, but nowadays is the home of the Museum of National Folk Instruments of Kazakhstan. Music plays as you wander around the displays of dombra, kobyz and other instruments.
Later, we had the chance to explore Almaty’s new metro. With only one line and 9 stops, there is no risk of getting lost. Passengers need to pass through an airport-style scanner to enter a station. Tickets are cheap and it’s worth taking a trip just to see the décor. Baikonur station has video screens showing cosmonauts and rocket launches; to Zhurek Zholy has reliefs of the Silk Road and world monuments.
All in all, whilst I enjoyed Nur-Sultan, the former capital is my favourite. Almaty was also the scene of the best moment of my Kazakh trip: sitting on a roof terrace watching the moon rise over the Tian Shan mountains whilst eating a delicious plate of duck with apples.
I visited Almaty in September 2019