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September 23, 2014 / oneworld82

Almaty – A Central Asian Metropolis (a.k.a. Where East Meets West)

While the name Uzbekistan got me interested, well, in the Land of the Uzbeks, a book that I read a couple of years ago awoke my interest for Kazakhstan and its endless steppes. I am talking, of course, about “Apples are from Kazakhstan” by Christopher Robbins. I was fascinated by that great piece of journalistic literature, as the author embarked in a thorough, entertaining cultural, ethnographic, and political journey of a country that after reading the book you can’t help but define on the rise. Robbins was not only able to ascertain that apples are indeed originally from Central Asia, but also to portray the intricate political system and the delicate socio-economic equilibrium that govern the country. From Kharaganda to Astana, from Beshbermak to lamb head Robbins tried it all and his work is just inspirational for everyone who wants an introduction to one of the least known but fastest-rising countries in the World.

And so here I was, in Almaty. To be honest with you, I did not know what to expect. I mean, I had an idea, but not 100% clear. Would anyone speak English? Would they try to cheat me at every step of my way? Would I find an ugly soviet city with nothing of interest?

Well, the only right thing was that almost no-one speaks English. But that’s ok, you can get around it easily.

Since this was the first stop of a 10 days trip to an unknown land, I decided to treat myself with a two nights at the Hotel InterContinental. I thought about the Ritz-Carlton, but I decided against it because 1. it was way too expensive (for traveling alone) and 2. it was a little too far away from the main sights in town. But the InterCon was absolutely spectacular. A top otel (offering complimentary airport shuttle service) with excellent service and ell-appointed rooms – definitely five-stars worth. My deluxe room had a nice sofa, marble bathroom, and all the necessary amenities. At check-in my Platinum status was recognized, and that gave me access to a room at the 8th floor with vista, a complimentary drink at the Sunset Bar (very nice outdoor hotel bar and popular spot among locals and expats alike), and a welcome gift in room consisting of assorted nuts, chocolates, fruit, cheese, and half a bottle of wine! I will conclude by saying that the hotel has top facilities as well, with outdoor tennis courts, outdoor solarium, indoor resort-style pool, gym, exercise room, sauna, hammam, and nice locker rooms.

 

After waking up late (due to jetlag), I set off to explore Almaty, following to the letter my Lonely Planet’s suggested walking tour of the city. The first stop was the relatively-new Republic Square (Respublika Alangy). This square is majestic, with the Monument to Independence on one side, the city government building on the other, and the Tian Shan mountains as backdrop. To say that this view was amazing is an understatement: those mountains are so high, imposing. They smell of Himalaya. The square is very trafficky, busy with families and teenagers just hanging around. Keep going straight past the square on Satpaev and ou reach Dostyk (Lenina); down the road northwards you will first meet the Palace of the Republic, a strangely-appealing modern building that serves as a concert hall. Further down the road you stumble upon the Soviet-era modernist Kazakhstan Hotel. bear in mind I do not usually find Soviet architecture attractive, but this skyscraper was actually neat, with it’s golden panels/balconies all the way up its 28 or so stories. Turn left on Shevchenko and you meet the Academy of Sciences, the center of Kazakh knowledge already in Soviet times. Not far away the imposing Kazakh-British Technical University is a great example of neo-classic-slash-soviet style, and the park in front of it it is a beautiful example of how savvy urbanists during the USSR actually could be.

 

Republic Square

Republic Square

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Monument to Independence

Monument to Independence

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Republic Palace

Republic Palace

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Hotel Kazakhstan

Hotel Kazakhstan

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Soviet housing

Soviet housing

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Europe?

Europe?

Chinese zodiac fountain

Chinese zodiac fountain

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Academy of Science

Academy of Science

Abay Theatre

Abay Theatre

Hotel Alma-Ata

Hotel Alma-Ata

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Kazakh-British Institute of Technology

Kazakh-British Institute of Technology

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Monument to the Heroines of WWII

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British-Kazakh Institute of Technology

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To that point, the best park in town has to be Panfilov Park, with its beautiful Zenkov Cathedral straight out a Russian painting. Its yellow domes only go too well with the greenness of the park surrounding it. Here people of any age, but mostly families and couples, come strolling by and spending the steamy summer afternoons under some leafy tree. Not a bad way to spend time, if you ask me. Leafy, I said. That’s definitely a striking feature of Almaty’s southern (and wealthier) side. Lots of long, tree-lined boulevards provide plenty of space for nice al fresco cafes and restaurants and of opportunities for outdoor walks. I don’t like comparing cities, so I won’t. But Almaty felt a lot like an European city and not really like an Asian one. While I was expecting lots of Russian influence, I didn’t expect a city that embraced so well the best of the East and of the West.

 

Panfilov Park

Panfilov Park

Zenkov's Cathedral

Zenkov’s Cathedral

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Clever ad placement

Clever ad placement

Things start to change (for the worse) once you pass Zhibek Zholy, which marks the beginning of the commercial heart of the city. Here the sprawling Green Market is a hustle and bustle of people and merchandise of all type, and north of it the Central Mosque area is a hive of activity and people. Northern than that, around Almaty-2 train station and further north, things get increasingly messier and poorer. More and more (ugly) soviet-style buildings appear, and the overall look of the city there isn’t nice at all. There is certainly more work to do here.

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Central Mosque

Central Mosque

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Kazakhs: a people of warriors

Kazakhs: a people of warriors

Doner stands

Doner stands

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Subway

Subway

I mostly walked around the city, except once when I took the new and efficient metro system. The centre of Almaty is pretty compact, and walking around is definitely the best way to appreciate this city and its little treasures.

The thing that surprised me the most, though, is the cultural diversity found here. People of Kazakh, Russian, and Korean origin live side-by-side in what is an incredibly successful cultural melting-pot of different ethnicities. We praise ourselves a lot in the West (especially in the USA) for our cultural diversity and tolerance, but we are many time unaware that similar situations happen elsewhere in the World as well. To see different people from different backgrounds hanging out happily together was, honestly, humbling and refreshing.

The second day I set off to explore the Central State Museum – near the Republic Square. It’s a 10 minutes walk from the hotel, and on the way you pass by the Presidential Residence where Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev stays when in town (since the capital is Astana, in the middle of the steppe). The palace is uninspiring (it resembles more a cinema than a presidential house), as you can see for my photo.

 

Presidential palace

Presidential palace

Almaty city hall

Almaty city hall

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One block away is the museum, housed in a beautiful building with blue roof. The interior is imposing, with a big central hall with lots of granite in it. The museum houses very interesting ethnographic exhibits on the Kazakhs and a celebratory exposition on President Nazarbayev (almost an entire floor is dedicated to modern Kazakhstan which, basically, means to Nazarbayev).

Central State Museum

Central State Museum

Carpets

Carpets

I spent a good hour at the museum, after which I went to Kok-Tobe, the hill-cum-recreational center perched on a hill atop the city. A nice cable car ride takes visitors up and down the hill from where a nice 180 degree view of the city can be enjoyed. The hill houses many facilities (theme park like) for kids and families, as well as a cool bronze ensemble of the 4 Beatles.

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Kok-Tobe cable car

Kok-Tobe cable car

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TV Tower

TV Tower

View of Almaty from Kok-Tobe hill

View of Almaty from Kok-Tobe hill

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A Beatles statue. Apparently this is the only statue in the World with all the Fab Four together

A Beatles statue. Apparently this is the only statue in the World with all the Fab Four together

In a nutshell, this is what I did in my two days in Almaty. Oh, and I ate local food. You might or not know it, but Kazakh were (and in most cases, still are) people of the steppe, nomadic herders that plied the vastity of Central Asia raiding sedentary peoples (in bad times) and trading with them (in good times). As such, their cuisine relies a lot on what nomads in Central Asia have in abundance: horses and sheep. Add some potatoes and onions and you’ll have the basic Kazakh diet right there.

I was extremely lucky to have, not far  from the Hotel InterContinental, Gakku, one of the top-rated (and reasonably priced, at ~$25 a meal)Kazakh restaurants in Almaty. I ate twice there in two days, trying to dishes that I knew I had to taste: Beshbermak and Quurduk.

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Beshbermak

Beshbermak

Quurduk

Quurduk

Fried bread

Fried bread

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Flat cake

Flat cake

Beshbermak is boiled horse and mutton meat on a bad of flat noodles and broth. Although it doesn’t sound like much, it tastes amazing. Many of you are likely unfamiliar with horse meat. Growing up in Italy I was already used to it, as it’s not an uncommon meat at home to have. Horse has a very lean, tender meat that resembles beef in many a way; the major difference: it’s a bit sweeter. I am pretty sure that if I fed horse to 10 people who never had it before and told them it is beef, at least 8 of them would not notice any difference. Beshbermak is very tasty and filling. The flat noodles – served on a light chicken broth – complement very well the meat of both horse and mutton. This is a true delicacy of the steppe, a dish that unfortunately many people will never experience.

The second time around I tried Quurduk, another traditional dish of the steppe. This is basically sautéed mutton, mutton liver, and mutton bone marrow served with onions and potatoes. it is filling and absolutely delicious, especially when accompanied by the awesome Kazakh bread. Bread – considered sacred in Central Asia (there are many customs and uses around bread, its consumption, and its disposal) – comes here as a “flat cake” (basically baked break with a soft but thick centre) or as a fried bread (deep fried dough). The latter reminded me of Neapolitan zeppole and it was oh-so-delicious! Overall, my encounter with Kazakh cuisine was a happy one. I loved how tasty and different it feels – nothing compares in neither Western nor Eastern cuisines. The only compliant: they don’t eat much greens/fruit, more of a function of their cold land than anything else. Except for apples, of course. After all, Almaty’s previous name was Alma-Ata (“Father of Apple”). Apples are indeed from Kazakhstan.

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