Trans-Siberian Part 5: The End of the Epic Detour and Almaty, Kazakhstan
On the Trans-Kazak Railway from Astana to Almaty locals told us that Almaty was the “true” city of Kazakhstan. Almaty was the old capital until 1997 and in the eyes of most of the population was still the heart of Kazakhstan. As we rolled off the train and entered into the streets we found a very different city than Astana. The streets were full and bustling with people coming and going with a white cap mountain range circling in the backdrop.
We wandered our way to the cheapest hotel we could find that wasn’t super cheap for backpacker standards and was located on a college campus. As we wandered the old capital we noticed that there was no lack of BMW’s and Mercedes as far as you could see; this was definitely where the oil money lived.
Taking a break from the city streets we wandered into the park where we found some of the coolest U.S.S.R. monuments we had seen anywhere yet. A man on the train told me very discretely in limited English, he said, “You know, U.S.A. and Canada are brothers, well Kazakhstan and Russia are brothers.” The break up of the Soviet Union had no effect on these peoples past, they made no attempt to hide or deny their old culture, it was cool to see they still had pride in it’s accomplishments.
As we made our way past the War Memorial in Panfilov Park the Zenkov Cathedral rose over the tree line ahead of us. Zenkov is another great Russian Orthodox Cathedral and is truly a beautiful sight to see. In the square in front of it are ornamented horses, children, birds flying around, it was raining gum drops…ok so maybe it wasn’t raining gumdrops, but it was pretty nice. Like other cathedrals it was as amazing on the inside with its many incredible murals of saints and golden altars as it was on the outside covered in bright yellow and blue hues of paint.
As, we left the park we turned the corner and swung into Zelyony Bazaar, also known as the “Green Market.” It’s a huge market located within a building with multiple vendors selling everything from horse meat, camel cheese, baguettes, to dried kiwi. It actually reminded me of home a little bit; in Cincinnati we have the locally famous Findlay Market, which also contains many stands of butchers and fresh vegetables. The Zelyony Bazaar is not just cool to see, but nearly every vendor gave us a sample, so we got to taste all the local flavors as well. For instance the local salami we thought we were sampling turned out to be smoked horse meat and the delicious looking dried kiwi we were pumped to try out ended up tasting like the shit it was fertilized with; it was the only fruit that tasted like a toilet however, all the others were very nice.
After feasting at the Zeylony Bazaar the next day we put our excess calories to good use and took the #6 bus up to the Zailiysky Alatau Mountain Range. Once up in the range we checked out Medeu that contains the biggest outdoor ice rink I’ve ever seen and also we ventured to Chimbulak Ski Resort. There were two main highlights to the mountains; one was the beautiful cable car ride we took up to the Chimbulak Ski Resort that carried us across and over the range of mountains. The second was the off the cuff hike we went on. We literally just found a road past the ski-resort that looked like it went up into the mountains. The road went from paved, to dirt, to snow covered, to eventually just a couple of footprints through the snow up into the wilderness of the upper mountains. We did this entire hike in t-shirts, as it is early summer, which added to the fun of throwing snowballs. We eventually neared the top of the mountain where the view was incredible and hazy Almaty lay below in the distance.
The last thing worth mentioning about Almaty was this restaurant’s, pictured below, Donerci and Kebabs. I normally don’t plug individual restaurants, but for the money and the size of the donerci, (a pita filled with kebab meat, secret sauce, and French fries), you can’t beat this place in expensive Almaty. Mr. Donerci 2 Kebab, check him out. Also, cheap baklava, need I say I more?
All in all, I did feel like Almaty was the heart of Kazakhstan. Maybe it didn’t have the over the top architecture of Astana, but it had culture and people swarming the streets. Once again, like Astana there were almost no tourists as Kazakhstan hasn’t really set up a good tourist agency yet, so go now and be the first to experience this cool town while it is still almost purely locals. Where to now? Back on the train for an 81-hour train ride to Moscow, BOOM! Wish me luck on my return to the Ruskies!