No longer the butt of Borat jokes, Kazakhstan is on the rise as Central Asia's most prosperous nation, and its national airline is taking off with it. A four-star carrier, Air Astana regularly offer some of the cheapest routes west, with daily flights from Beijing and onward connections to the European hubs of London, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt (all via the capital Astana). Such three-part journeys can be a real slog, but Almaty can provide some pleasant layover relief.
Almaty's backdrop, the Ile-Alatau mountains. Image: Сергей Марцынюк via Wikimedia Commons
First off, some background to the city itself: now a city of 1.9 million people – the nation's most populous – Almaty's settlement actually stretches back as far as the 9th century BC, along the trading routes of the Silk Road, though it began in earnest in the mid-18th century when the Russians showed up and founded Verniy. This city, renamed Alma-Ata in 1921, would serve as the Kazakh capital under various incarnations of Russia, and continued to do so as Almaty following independence in 1991, before government relocated to the planned city of Astana in 1997.
Unless urban planning is your culture, Almaty remains the far more culturally intriguing and attractive city. What will first strike you as your plane touches down, is the literal background of this metropolis – few world cities can claim to have a backdrop as stunning as the spectacular 900-metre peaks of the Ile-Alatau mountains that mark Almaty's southern edge. Indeed, the more time you spend near or among these marvels, the better your experience will be, but in any case, you must first leave the airport.
Getting to the city
Should you not have deep pockets, strong negotiating skills and a talent for persuasion, save yourself the trouble of getting a taxi – even the official, airport-approved line have been known to pull shady tricks to extort huge fares from foreigners, including fake metering apps and outright aggression. Instead, the number 86 bus leaves just outside the front barrier, a three-minute walk from the terminal, and makes the 10km journey to the city for just 150 tenge (3RMB).
Layovers above and beyond eight-hours long are not uncommon, so you're likely to have time to burn. Disembark the 86 when it reaches Sayakhat station.
The city sights
Head south on Pushkin Street, past the Almaty Central Mosque until you reach Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, a monument-filled urban park dedicated to the Panfilov Heroes, 28 Almaty soldiers who died fighting Nazi invaders near Moscow in World War II. Highlights include the wonderfully angular, Soviet-era Great Patriotic War Monument (pictured, above), the eternal flame before it and the impressive arches of the park's eastern gate.
At the centre of the park is the Ascension Cathedral, a beautifully ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral dating back to 1907, whose yellow structure is easily the architectural highlight of an often concrete-heavy metropolis. Heavily embellished with patterns of green, red and blue upon its multiple domes, the wooden building is also remarkably built without a single nail.
Five minutes' walk west is Panfilov Street, a quiet and leafy parade. There are parks, benches and several interesting buildings along this stretch, but reaching the end, you will meet the Abay Opera House (pictured, main), with its impressive pillars and fountains. Time your visit right, and you may also catch a performance inside the delightfully grand auditorium of this 84-year-old building.
Auezov Theater station. Image: Patrick Moore
Whether you're transit-oriented or not, the station platforms of the Almaty Metro are a worthy sight. Finally opened in 2011 after 23 years of troubled and expensive construction, the quiet network's one line features nine stations, each designed in a different style. Most are worth popping off for, though the western Auezov Theater stop (pictured, above) is perhaps the standout; jump out to see an awesome Soviet-esque affair with immense arches, chandeliers and a colourful mosaic at its end. All can be seen in a single journey (80 tenge; 1.5RMB), but bear in mind that there's a 10- to 15-minute wait between trains.
Mountain views from Kok-Tobe's southern side. Image: Igors Jefimovs via Wikimedia Commons
Alighting at Abay station, you're just a short walk east from the entrance to Kok-Tobe, a hilltop lookout and leisure zone that's seemingly the city's top attraction. A cable car (2,000 tenge for a round-trip; 40RMB) will hoist you high above the city towards said hilltop and, importantly, closer to that mountain backdrop.
On arrival, the serenity of nature gives way to the ruckus of an amusement park with fairground rides, traditional Kazakh dress-up, a petting zoo and the chance to hold an eagle (actually kinda cool, huh). Nestled among it is perhaps the single most incongruous memorial ever seen – an opportunity to take your photo with bronze statues of The Beatles, back in the USSR. That, or the poster commemorating the time Steven Seagal visited.
Come and keep your comrades warm. Image: Patrick Moore
There is beauty to be found in some quieter corners up here though, with mountain vistas to the south duly pleasing, and your higher ground a good vantage point to take in the scale of this sprawling metropolis – provided the air's not too polluted. (Yep, they've got that too.)
Descend, and take the subway north to its terminus at Raiymbek Batyr, from which it's just a short walk back to Sarykhat for your 86 bus to the airport. Reflect on your pleasant, if not fully remarkable day out in Almaty – if you do have more time, consider skipping the urban sights and heading straight for the mountains. Take a 40-minute drive into the Ile-Alatau National Park for some of what Central Asia does best: immense natural beauty.
Panfilov Street is lined with all kinds of food options – burger and chicken joints, street-side cafés, steakhouses, döner kebabs, British tearooms, Irish pubs, even South African biltong outlets. It seems the bougier end of town, and with time of the essence too, opt for street stuff; you will encounter vendors selling manty (steamed dumplings), plov (fried rice, veg and meat) and samsa (meat pies) across town. These make great snacks on the go, and are inexpensive compared to restaurant fare.