Until recently the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty has the ex-Soviet legacy that you might expect. But it also has dramatic historic monuments and beautiful open spaces, as Sarah Maxwell discovers on her tour
1. State Museum
Start on Furmanov Street at the Central State Museum, which has the largest collection of exhibits in Kazakhstan. The distinctive building is topped by nine blue domes and inside, the main marble-floored hall is dominated by a huge map of Kazakhstan. Few of the exhibits have an English translation, so ask for an English-speaking guide at the front desk, although many of the items are so beautiful – particularly the traditional clothing, jewellery, art and crafts – that you can enjoy them without reading the full history. The museum has large galleries on either side of the main hall and the exhibits are excellently laid out. Everything is covered, from Kazakhstan’s palaeontological history to the wars and earthquakes that have shaped the country’s recent history. There is also a good souvenir shop. Open daily except Tues 9.30am-5pm. Tel +7 3272 645 5777. Entrance free; the gold exhibit costs KZT1,000 (£4.30).
2. Republic Palace and Koktyube cable car
Head for the Republic Palace, which can be reached in a 15-minute walk along Satpaev Street, and then left onto Dostyk Avenue. It doesn’t look much like a palace and it is used these days as a concert hall. More importantly, next to it is a cable car stop where you can take a journey up to Koktyube (green hill), which offers great views of the city (KZT300, about £1.30, each way; you can’t buy a return). The cable car operates 11am-11pm most days and takes five minutes to ascend over Almaty’s suburbs, At the top is a pleasantly sculpted park where you can stroll along tree-lined walkways, stop at one of several café, browse in the small cluster of souvenir stalls and admire the views. The best is of the mountains, which are spectacular.
3. 28 Panfilov Heroes Park
Almaty is a city with plenty of trees and parks, and this one – the second-largest in the city – is a must-see for visitors since it contains the fantastic, brightly-coloured Cathedral of the Holy Ascension. The park is dedicated to the soldiers – under the command of division officer Panfilov – who died defending Moscow against the Germans in 1941. To reach it, continue along Dostyk Avenue. Walk straight ahead to the main square where a large banner recites the Kazakhstan national anthem and constitution. Most impressive though is the three-part Glory Memorial, built in 1975, which depicts the Soviet Union’s war heroes. The main monument of the three is the most dramatic and shows soldiers of different nationalities defending Moscow. Traditionally, newly wed couples come to lay flowers by the eternal flame that burns in front of the memorial. Along a tree-lined path lies the cathedral, a typical Russian Orthodox church made of wood. You can walk inside and admire the wall paintings and chandelier; it has no pews so the congregation must stand. Services are held here at 8am and 5pm twice a week. Outside at the weekends, people gather here to play chess.
4. Green market
Next head north to the Green Market. The mint-green building has metal pyramids on top to evoke the mountains, and inside you can wander through the various sections, selling flowers, medicinal herbs (stall owners will advise on which herb to use for different ailments), Korean spicy food, row upon row of fruit, dried fruit, honey, and a large meat section – which has a pungent aroma on hot days. You can even sample a glass of camel’s milk, served at room temperature, which costs KZT50 (20p) for two cups and is much stronger than cows’ milk. It’s an interesting place to lose yourself in, and you won’t be harassed too energetically by stall-holders.
5. Medeo and Shymbulak
A trip into the mountains can take two or three hours, but it’s worth it for the beautiful scenery and clear air; so if you have any extra time or don’t mind skipping a couple of sights in the city, this is a must. From Dostyk Avenue, head up towards the mountains and after 20 minutes you’ll reach the entrance to the national park (which charges cars KZT250/£1.10). On the way is a tap where you can take a drink of refreshing, spring-water. Around 30 minutes after leaving town, you’ll reach the ice rink of Medeo and a large dam, which was built in 1967 to protect the city from the mudflows that used to carry giant rocks down the mountain, destroying homes (in the river you can still see stones that were deposited by the most devastating mudflow to hit the city, in 1921). Driving beyond the dam takes you to the ski resort of Shymbulak, where three chair-lifts lead to the handful of ski runs – in summer you can take a lift upwards to admire the fantastic mountain landscape, with wild flowers in abundance and fir trees clinging to the mountainsides. On your way back, stop at the restaurant Kazakhaul, near the ice rink. The owners have recreated a Yurt (traditional Kazakh tent), where you can drink tea and eat baursak, a fried-bread snack. Also on the menu is mare’s milk, a popular local beverage with a strong, sour, beer-like taste.
City and mountain tours are best organised through your hotel as very little English is spoken and there are no taxis that you can hail on the streets. Hotel taxis can be hired; for instance 5-30 minutes in Almaty KZT1,400 (£6) or eight hours KZT22,500 (£97).