The first day in Almaty had been somewhat gloomy and overcast. Contrary to this Monday weather, which seemed to be trying to dampen our travelling spirits, we had a terrific Tuesday and a wonderful Wednesday full of glorious sunshine. Consequently, we used these days to visit Almaty’s premier outdoor attractions – from the cable cars of the Kok Tobe to the stunning tranquillity of the Big Almaty Lake. This was the real Almaty.
I’ll start with the things we saw in the city itself. I previously mentioned that Almaty is situated in the shadow of some rolling hills and mountain ranges. It is possible to reach the summit of one of these hills, the one with the 372-metre-high Almaty TV tower, by taking a short cable car ride up to the top. The views are great, albeit there isn’t too much to see at the bottom, and the top is also blessed with amusement rides that wouldn’t seem out of place on a run-down British beach resort. As well as a mini-zoo, a fountain in the shape of an apple, and life-size Beatles statues. All very strange. Must be the thinner air.
It also had a ride called the Fast Coaster. This was a toboggan ride that went down the hill and, at one point, seemed as if it was going to propel you off the track and all the way down to Almaty. Exhilarating fun for 1000T, and a much more interesting way to see the city at the bottom than from your standard viewing point.
Aside from the Kok Tobe and visiting the Central Mosque, we didn’t spend much time within Almaty’s city limits. We didn’t even really see the mosque, as the call to prayer roared from the minarets just as we were stepping inside. The subsequent need for the toilet quickly evaporated from my brain when I walked into a washroom only to receive fifty pairs of piercing eyes glaring at me as I joined the queue. I could wait.
What couldn’t wait was the desire to explore the mountain ranges surrounding the city. Whereas Astana is plonked in the middle of the barren steppe, Almaty possesses some areas of stunning beauty. The first place we went to is called Medeu, which is situated a few kilometres south of one of Central Asia’s premier skiing resorts called Chimbulak.
Medeu is a nice area, but probably looks a lot more spectacular when there are leaves on the trees. Many of the trees fell after a nasty storm earlier this year, which gave it a haunting, eerie atmosphere. The ambience of the place, being outside of either tourism season, only heightened the strange mood. Though as we had hiked up well in excess of five hundred steps to get over the dam, we were a bit tired to notice anything out of the ordinary.
After descending and catching a bus back to town, we met my friend Alisher and he drove us up…and up…and up…
Over 2500m above ground level, actually. Our target was the Big Almaty Lake, a lagoon situated within the mountains that soars to over 4500m above sea level. It is an incredible sight. The water was a pure, royal blue, almost haunting to gaze upon such was its beauty. The mountains surrounding it tower over the lake. The colours were just so true, so pure. Nature at its finest.
Kazakh fun fact: The Big Almaty Lake is less than 30km from the Kyrgyzstan border, and freezes over in winter.
We spent a reasonable amount of time circling part of the lake and scaling the smaller snow-kissed hills around it. This was the first snow I had seen in Kazakhstan – I’m sure the appeal will evaporate as it falls constantly for the next few months, but as of today it was a pleasant and joyous thing to see.
I’m a big admirer of Almaty. A comparison between here and Astana is difficult to comprehend, let alone articulate. The way I’ve described it to people up north is this: I love living in Astana, but after visiting Almaty for a short trip I had the impression I could live there and be just as happy. If the roles were reversed and I had just seen Astana for a couple of days before flying to a home of Almaty, I’m not sure if I could say the same thing.
Almaty has a natural aspect that, however money is thrown at the place, cannot be replicated in Astana. Simply because it has been a major city for much, much longer, it has a history and a community spirit that cannot be bought. Astana will develop one, and I will be part of it, but it has been really nice to see a different, more original side to Kazakhstan during my time in the ‘City of Apples’.
Love you all