When we learned that it was possible to get a marshrutka (minivan) from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) directly to Almaty (Kazakhstan), it certainly sounded convenient. We would not have to deal with another round of negotiating on the other side of the border. But it did not work out quite as smoothly on that day. All the passengers in the marshrutka were dropped off at Kyrgyz passport control and when they saw our passports we were actually fast-tracked through. With our recently acquired visas we emerged on the Kazakh side of the border in a manner of minutes. Our co-passengers eventually joined us but there was no sign of the marshrutka itself. Evidently the papers for the vehicle were not in order and it was not given permission to cross. We waited for over an hour and half before the driver appeared. It seems he had given up on getting the vehicle over but had thankfully arranged for a substitute vehicle to ferry us for the remainder of the distance.
Kazakhstan is the world's 9th largest country in area and most economically advanced of the 'stans'. The highway from the border to Almaty is in excellent condition and is regularly signposted with exit names and distances to various cities. This immediately caught our eye as we had not seen much of this in either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan.
Almaty itself is a charming leafy city with the backdrop of the snow-capped Zailiysky Altau. The country's economic prosperity is most palpable here. In the heart of downtown, Mercedes, BMWs and Audis zip through streets that are lined with glitzy international brands. You are never more than a block or two away from a western style coffee shop. Restaurants spill over into the streets and you could almost believe you are in some European city. Though the capital was moved to Astana several years ago, Almaty is still the commercial and cultural hub with a renowned opera and ballet (there was a series on when we were there). Also evident or our first day was the significant Russian population, more so than the other 'stans'. They form close to 30% of the overall population and many northern cities are said to be predominantly Russian.
The marshrutka dropped us a bus-station that is around 5kms outside the city and while there appeared to be several buses and a trolley bus plying on the street, evidently none went directly to where we were headed. So we had to take a taxi. We had made reservations at the only hostel on Almaty, a city where budget lodging is almost non-existent. Apple Hostel had opened less than 2 months ago and we had first learned about it from a Serbian bicyclist who was staying at the same guesthouse as us in Bishkek. It was basically an apartment in a residential building (without any signs outside indicating it was a hostel), so we were a little apprehensive about finding it from the directions. But we did find it and were warmly welcomed into a spanking new place and with few other guests. We also found out that the newly opened metro had a station within minutes of the hostel, a nice bonus.
Almaty inaugurated it's metro only in December 2011 and has a short single line and a handful of stations stretching just beyond the city center. The stations look dazzlingly new and are modeled after Tashkent (the only other metro in Central Asia) with artwork distinguishing one station from another. We managed to get on or off at most of the stations as we explored the city. Like the Tashkent metro, ridership is low and you are never going to be standing unless you want to. But unlike Tashkent photography is allowed. And announcements are loud but sparse and made in both Kazakh and Russian.
Among the popular sights in the city is Panfilov Park, a large rectangular patch of greenery. It houses several interesting buildings including a war memorial and the candy colored Zenkov Cathedral, one of the few tsarist-era buildings remaining in Almaty. We got there just a as the sun was setting and caught sight of it in an excellent golden glow.
The Kazakh Central State Museum is in a grand building and displays Kazakhstan's history from the bronze-age to recent times. The highlight is a replica of the Golden Man (a warrior costume). It is now Kazakhstan's favorite national symbol and a stone version of it (on a winged snow leopard) stands atop the Independence Monument on the city's main square, Respublika Alangy.
We made a special trip to the office of "Migration Police" to register our presence in the city. Foreigners who stay for longer than 5 days in Kazakhstan are required to do this and are expected to carry the certificate along with their passports.
Later we also went to Almaty's train station (specifically Almaty-2 since the city has many) to buy tickets for the next day on the night train to Shymkent. While several automated self-service machines were available, none seemed to be equipped to deal with international credit cards, so we had to make our bookings the hard way, waiting our turn to be helped by a human being. At least they had a token system and you could sit in a waiting area until your token number was called. No shoving or pushing here.
When we returned to the hostel that evening, we met the other guests and were surprised to meet Ofir and Slava, also from Israel, who were friends of Mor and Ofer and had actually trekked with them in Karakol. They had planned a longer vacation and were therefore spending more time in Almaty. So we were happy to exchange notes with them. Also Slava spoke some Russian so served as translator between all of us and our hosts at the hostel.
Readers of this blog may recall that the display on V's ASUS tablet stopped working when we were in SE Asia and despite having got it repaired while in India it went bust almost immediately after we resumed on the road. He was constantly on the lookout for a suitable replacement and did not have much luck in either Dushanbe or Bishkek. We thought Almaty was probably our best bet and almost immediately got to computer shopping. While we did not expect an equivalent of a Best Buy or Frys, surely there must be some place that has a good selection to chose from! Where do the locals buy their computers and laptops? V was looking for a compact netbook, preferable with Windows. (You may also recall that the only thing he really missed so far on this trip was a Windows machine that understood him!) The few places they did have more than a handful of models on display, they were selling the bare machine and you would have to buy the OS separately and install, not easy on a netbook. If the OS was already installed, it was the Russian version and there did not seem any way to switch it to English post installation. We were in and out of several stores before we found one with a suitable model and an enterprising storekeeper who offered to install the English version of the OS (and some other software), for a price of course. Finally Almaty delivered and V is going to think about the city fondly every time he opens his new netbook!
Google Maps Link
Ah; a favourable first review of Almaty. Is it an interesting place ??
V - Thought you had got over your love affair with Windows. Evidently you are a long term addict. A certain Mr William H Gates III send you his eternal thanks :) From , on Oct 5, 2012 at 10:53AM