Kyle got his passport back, complete with visa, just in time for a last minute trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan for the Eid break. Anyone ever heard of Borat? How about that time when the spoof Borat anthem was played for a gold metal winner from Kazakhstan instead of their actual anthem? This happened at the Arab Shooting Championship in none other than Kuwait, oddly enough. Borat had absolutely no bearing on our trip and I actually forgot about that little relationship between Sasha Baron Cohen and the county until we got back.
Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan and former capitol city, up until 1997. In ’97 the capitol city was moved to Astana in the north of the county. Almaty is an unbelievably diverse city. Lots of Asian influence tied into the Soviet and Russian influences. Almaty lies in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau Mountain range. These mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop to the city.
The region is believed to be the birthplace of apples. You’ll find a variety of apples every where being sold from trunks of cars and in markets. Other fun facts:
- Tulips also originated here
- Site of the world’s first space launch
- The country covers 3 time zones.
Everyone speaks Russian in Almaty, although their is also a native Kazakh language. If we heard both being spoken then we were unable to tell the difference. English is certainly not very popular there. English speaking Uber drivers were few and far between as were menus in English.
Luckily, the city does have Uber. Taxi’s are actually hard to come by. That’s because Almaty has adopted a sort of ride-sharing system among it’s citizens. You simply put out your hand by the road and drivers will stop and ask where you need to go. If it is on their way, they will take you. If not, it won’t be long before another car stops. This made for quite interesting traffic patterns. We weren’t able to try this because we definitely do not speak Russian.
The traffic in Almaty was surprisingly horrendous. The honking was incessant and lane markers appeared to be only guidelines. Streets marked with 2 lanes of traffic would often have 3 lanes of cars. And left turn lights are no where to be found. Wrecks on the other hand, could be found every block or two. Even though Kyle is a great driver, it’s still a miracle we avoided being involved in a wreck.
Thanks to technology, we managed the language barrier just fine. Between Google maps, Google translate, and pictures in menus we didn’t starve and were able to go where we wanted just fine. All traffic signs are in Russian so it would have been a completely different experience without Google. The city is very walkable and the weather was, mostly, great. We did have one complete day of rain, but the rest of the trip was cool, beautiful weather. We were very lucky to experience true fall weather for a week before returning to the desert.
To get to the mountains we rented a car. This turned out to be quite the ordeal. Kyle found a car rental agency located inside a hotel. When we went to pick up the car, the agency was closed. Luckily, the hotel concierge was kind enough to contact another car rental agency who would bring us a car. We ended up waiting almost 2 hours for the car to arrive. The agency only accepted cash, and the hotel ATM was out of service.
The rental agent followed us to another ATM to retrieve the cash, and we were finally on our way. For some reason we did have a rather hard time with ATMs in Almaty. Only about every 5th one we tried would work. We thought our bank had placed a hold at first but that must not have been the case since we (luckily) found some that would work.
Horse meat is a popular dish in Almaty. Call me what you will but I wasn’t about to try it. Kyle, on the other hand, ordered it more than once. The bar cheese was also really interesting. We were quite curious when we saw someone eating it until we were finally served some. It has a very salty, smokey flavor and is really chewy.
Here are some of the “not to be missed” highlights.
The Zenkov Cathedral
Also called the Ascension Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox Cathedral, rumored to be built with no nails. It is the second tallest wooden building in the world. Located in Panifilov Park, the scene is complete with lots of greenery, horse drawn carriages, and, of course, pigeons. The interior of the cathedral is quite exquisite, but no pictures were allowed. Judging from the photos, it’s just as beautiful snow covered in winter as it was in the fall.
Big Almaty Lake
Our first hiking excursion took us to the Big Almaty Lake. We intended to hike into the lake but, because the car rental took longer than anticipated, we drove all the way to the top. The lake is a result of an earthquake and, from what we could gather, the altitude is responsible for the color. We hiked around for a couple of hours while we waited for the clouds to move off of the lake, and I’m glad we waited. The lake is unbelievably beautiful. While we were waiting we grabbed a coffee from the Jolly Volly mobile coffee van parked at the top.
Hiking to Furmanova Peak
There is no shortage of hiking trails in the mountains just outside of Almaty. We decided to spend 5.5 hours hiking to the peak of Furmanova. It was by far the hardest hike I’ve ever done, although that’s not necessarily saying a whole lot. The hike took me to the highest as well as the Easternmost point in the world I’ve ever been to. So far.
It was a gorgeous hike. It didn’t take us long after leaving the parking area and passing a few roaming, wild cows to find complete silence. I could only hear the water from the large stream running down the mountain and my own huffing and puffing. We ran into some snow near the top and modified our route slightly to avoid slipping. Wildlife on the mountain seemed nonexistent, so when we reached the top and disturbed a large flock of birds we were quite shocked when they all took flight at once.
We ate lunch on a large rock overlooking the city before heading back down. Luckily, we realized we had chosen the hard trail to go up, and the easier trail to go down. Near the peak there are remnants of abandoned ski and sled lifts. Judging from the recently used fire pits the peak, and several spots on the ascent, were popular camping places during the Eid holiday a few days before.
For this hike, we parked at the Medeu Ice Skating Rink, which is the highest altitude skating rink in the world. The cable car from downtown Almaty to the peak of Kok Tobe runs above this area as well, and is a very popular attraction.
Also called the Zelyoni Bazarr, the Green Bazaar is a massive farmer’s market. Fruits, nuts, local meats, and spices are in every corner and line every alley. It is the largest farmer’s market I’ve seen. The bazaar is located a short walk away from the cathedral.
This market is located just outside of Almaty. There is nothing in this world that you could ever need that you wouldn’t find in this market. From furniture to clothing to food to electronics to wedding dresses. It would have taken us days to walk through the entire thing. It’s made up of small booths, mostly set up inside old shipping containers. I’m still surprised we managed to make it back to our car. Unfortunately we didn’t get any pictures because it was raining, but feel free to google it.
Almaty was a great getaway after our first month in Kuwait. We would love to make it back there one winter for skiing!