Almaty, City of Gardens
Vibrant, open and surrounded by imposing mountains. This is Almaty, the largest metropolis in Kazakhstan: a dynamic, modern and cultural city. Though not the biggest, nor the oldest, it is without a doubt the most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia.
I am already very close to Almaty, and the traffic has become denser and denser, giving way to what seems to be a daily traffic jam. It’s November, it’s raining, it’s cold and the fog is becoming opaque as it meets the night. The Soviet housing blocks, the offices in the suburbs, the traffic and the fatigue—a cumulated after several hours travelling in a van converted into a bus—are what make up my first real image of Almaty. After that first brief misunderstanding, my lasting image of the city couldn’t be more different: vibrant, open and surrounded by imposing mountains.
Almaty, the city of gardens, the ancient capital of the Kazakh Socialist Republic (and also of the early years of independent Kazakhstan) is a dynamic, modern, and cultural city. Without being the biggest, nor the oldest, Almaty is the most cosmopolitan city of Central Asia. Its magnificent location on the slopes of the Zailysky Alatau mountain range, together with its varied cultural, leisure, and mountain sports activities, have made Almaty a very attractive city. Despite all this, it is still a great unknown for most of the Western world.
“Almaty is the most important cultural city in Central Asia, and that comes from the time of the deportations when many intellectuals from the Soviet Union were forcibly transferred here from St. Petersburg and Moscow,” says Sayora Varis, a guide, singer and dancer from Almaty. Not only part of the intelligentsia of the great western Soviet cities, but also many families of Koreans, Volga Germans, and Chechens (among others), ended up integrating and becoming part of the multiculturalism of this corner of southeast Kazakhstan.
Sayora is ethnically Uyghur, one of the many ethnic groups that make up Almaty’s wide cultural heterogeneity. And like many other inhabitants of Almaty, Sayora is proud of its identity as an open city and of the character of its residents. “The people here are open-minded and everyone chooses how they want to live or what they want to do with their life. Outside the city, in the villages, the mentality is different, more conservative.”
“Almaty is the most important cultural city in Central Asia, and that comes from the time of the deportations when many intellectuals from the Soviet Union were forcibly transferred here from St. Petersburg and Moscow”
Almaty is a city where the concept of multiculturalism, respect, and coexistence between ethnic groups and cultures is not something recent. This diversity can be seen in the gastronomy, the music, and in certain traditions. It is actually the foundation of its modernity and openness. “Here we all have a part of each other’s culture. Since we are relatively small, we are all mixed together in school and most people speak three languages or more.” Sayora speaks five languages: Uyghur, Kazakh, Russian, English and Spanish. In the city center, Russian is the most common language of communication. Yet as we move towards the neighborhoods of more recent rural immigrants, Kazakh is becoming more and more prevalent.
Almaty is a city where the concept of multiculturalism, respect, and coexistence between ethnic groups and cultures is not something recent
One of the emblems of Almaty’s modernity is the metro. It was opened in 2011, though the project was born in 1988 during the Soviet Union. 23 years later Almaty became the second city in Central Asia (after Tashkent) to have such a rapid transit network. As in other ex-Soviet cities, most metro stations are places of aesthetic interest in themselves. Out in the street, the radiant sun invites me to walk around the city center without worrying about the destination. I love to walk around unknown cities without direction or purpose, letting myself be surprised by unexpected encounters and naive misunderstandings.
After wandering around for a while, I start to get the feeling that the landscape is reproducing itself identically over and over again. Have I been walking around the same block for two hours now? It is as if M.C. Escher had designed parts of Almaty with the purpose of provoking the aimless walker in the same circular sensation of his drawings. Soviet rationalist urbanism has something of the Dutch artist’s concept of a closed, surrealist circuit. Large, wide avenues lined by rows of trees which are watched over by buildings with renovated facades escort me without pause in my endless search for the city. Suddenly, something totally unexpected happens, a pedestrian street! I find myself in the small, traffic-restricted section of Zhibek Zholu Street (Silk Road). Here people walk more slowly, feel more relaxed, and I’ve even exchanged a few smiles. The presence of a Westerner still arouses some curiosity in this part of the world.
After the break, I return to a large avenue. This time, after consulting the electronic map of the city that I have downloaded to my mobile phone, I’m heading for the nearby park of Panfilov’s 28 Guards. On the way to the central park, I visit the famous Zelyoniy Bazaar, a food market that, for the moment, has survived the visible proliferation of shopping centers. Its colorful and tidy stalls of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and meat have definitely whetted my appetite.
Lagman, a thick spaghetti accompanied by fried vegetables and meat, a national dish for both Uyghurs and Dungans
Vegetarian cuisine is not common in Central Asia (and nothing could be further from the gastronomic nomadic roots), but Almaty belongs to the urban and modern world despite having been built between the glaciers of the Tian Shan and the great Kazakh steppe. Saltanat, a young Kazakh filmmaker, has enthusiastically recommended one of the new vegetarian restaurants to me. Georgian cuisine is also very popular. However, I decide to move away from the center and go to a local bistro. The menu is varied and extensive and is only in Kazakh and Russian. Among the many options are the Plov (an Uzbek dish based on rice with vegetables and meat, similar to the Spanish paella) and the Lagman, a thick spaghetti accompanied by a fried vegetable and meat, considered a national dish for both Uyghurs and Dungans. I settle on the Beshbarmak, a dish of noodles with boiled meat on top, with a side of fresh vegetables. It is the nomadic dish of Central Asia. Beshbarmak means “five fingers,” as tradition dictates that it being eaten by hand.
I finally get to the quiet urban park of the 28 Guardians of Panfilov. Here, the colorful Assumption Cathedral and one of the icons of the Second World War in Central Asia—the members of General Panfilov’s battalion—live side by side. This self-sacrificing group of men, most of whose members were from Central Asia, went down in collective Soviet history as those responsible for safeguarding Moscow from the Nazi offensive. This park also gave birth to SIGS, a horizontal space dedicated to creativity and social education, an interesting rarity in Central Asia.
The good thing about Almaty is that you have a wide variety of places to go at night
“More and more cultural initiatives are emerging in Almaty and this is a reflection of what the people here are like,” says Saltanat proudly. In recent years, musical movements close to indie or electronic music have emerged, and the artists seek to create their own identity within the genre while making themselves known inside and outside the country. The conversion of an old cinema into an important Centre of Contemporary Art has also been approved, which will be a milestone for the city.
In the evening I meet Saltanat, as he has promised to show me the nightlife of Almaty. “The good thing about Almaty is that you have a wide variety of places to go at night: jazz bars, rock bars, mainstream Russian pop and electronic music.” We met at a popular beer hall, where people seem to be warming up before a long night. Saltanat tells me about his film projects and says that he would like to go to Europe to continue his training, “but afterwards, I want to return to Almaty and make films here.” We are going to an alternative electronic music venue to continue the evening. I tell Saltanat with pleasant surprise that this place reminds me of the Berlin or Tblisi underground. He smiles with a gesture of satisfaction as he turns around to effusively greet some friends. The atmosphere and the company promise an exciting evening, but tomorrow morning the mountains of Almaty await me.
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The day dawns with a radiant sun and a fittingly Central Asian blue sky. The last stop on bus number 12 is the Medeu Stadium, the spectacular ice-skating rink at the foot of these huge mountains. “This is what I like best about Almaty, you leave work in the city center and in 20 minutes you’re surrounded by nature,” says Faez Kanji, a Canadian ice hockey player and coach whose spirit of curiosity brought him to this part of the world. A few meters below the stadium, the modern cable car departs for Shymbulak, the largest ski resort in Central Asia.
Faez has gone up to train in Medeu, while my route today is along the nearby Furmanov peak, one of the many hiking alternatives that start close to the city itself. “The possibility of skiing, ice skating, or getting lost walking through these forests and lakes without having to drive for hours is a privilege we have in Almaty,” says Faez.
This is what I like best about Almaty, you leave work in the city center and in 20 minutes you’re surrounded by nature
The most popular destination in the Ili Alatau National Park is undoubtedly the Great Lake of Almaty, a spectacular alpine lake that can be reached on foot, by bike, or by car and from where many walks to the surrounding peaks begin. But I’m headed in the other direction, towards the Furmanov peak. My path follows a channeled stream and before I realize it, I am in the middle of a deep alpine forest. Now I understand perfectly what Faez meant when he spoke of privilege. On the way to the summit I meet several groups of walkers who have decided, like me, to disconnect from the urban noise and take refuge for a few hours on the green slopes of these impressive mountains.
On the descent back to the city, I start to digest the last two days in Almaty as the city lights come into view at the bottom of the valley. I consult the map and discover that it was possible to make a circular tour passing by the Butakovskiy waterfall. Next time. Almaty is impossible to get through in a two-day visit, but it has been a fascinating weekend.