Almaty: The Big Apple (of Central Asia)

I felt like I was in Paris. There were stylish bars, patio cafés, delicious pastries, and prices hurt like a mother*#@!er.

Travelers arriving in Almaty from elsewhere in the region might be forgiven for thinking they’ve momentarily stepped out of Central Asia and onto the pages of a very different travelogue set someplace in Western Europe. Certainly Almaty is no Paris, but relative to its more immediate neighbors the city offers a posh enclave of tree-covered cafes and chic bottle service bars that clear the steppe from your mind and wash the horse milk from your mouth. But while Almaty offers travelers some unique luxuries and a small break from roughing it, for others who don’t have the time or money to lounge at cafés it may be wise to enjoy a macchiato and quickly move on.

Unlike the moody May weather pouring off the Kyrgyz Alatau Mountains to pester Bishkek, sunshine and blue skies were on order when I arrived in Almaty. It sits between the northern base of the Zalinsky Altau Mountains and the sprawling steppe, and on clear days the city enjoys fine panoramas of the snow- and tree-covered range. Warm but tolerable weather invites you to linger on shaded streets and delay exploring the city or setting off on that hike you had planned.

My first reaction was delight at finding fast internet connections and cafés that served American coffee and breakfast. I sat near Shevchenko and Zheltoksan drinking up WIFI and mainlining pour-over coffee. It was an area of town full of hookah bars, upscale restaurants, and pastry shops selling $2 pains au chocolat. Nearby, I found a giant grocery store selling readymade salads, various Kazakh dishes, and single bottles of Blanche de Bruxelles.

I pried myself from my café chair once or twice to put play the flâneur and check out some of Almaty’s architectural history. I found a number of brightly-painted Russian Orthodox churches. I ate ice cream outside the yellow and green tsarist-era Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Park, and I watched women in babushkas light candles inside the teal and gold-domed St. Nicholas Cathedral before treating myself to a $5 cupcake.

But sticker shock is also part of the Almaty experience. Last week you spent $2 on laghman and a bottle of Kyrgyz Nashe, and this week you’re paying $17 for kebab and pilaf from a hot bar. On the whole Kazakhstan may be only slightly more expensive than its southern neighbors, but Almaty will be a thorn in your pocket. My daily expenses were almost 50% larger than in Kyrgyzstan.

For this and other reasons, not everyone is a fan. Most travelers I met in Almaty seemed to be breezing through, and I’ll admit that four days there left me eager for the road again. Others sometimes describe the nightlife and expensive drinks as vacant, showy, or overpriced. During a yurt-stay in Kyrgyzstan I met a Ukrainian tour guide with years of experience in Central Asia who described Almaty flatly as, “a city that thinks it’s Moscow.”

But rather than Paris or Moscow, Almaty may be more aptly described as the New York City of Central Asia. Its Russian name—Alma-ata—translates roughly as “Father of Apples” (possibly because of the region’s wealth of wild apple varieties). And there are other similarities too. Like New York City, Almaty is a former capital (it was replaced by Astana in 1997) that still reigns as the country’s largest city, most dynamic cultural center, and financial and economic powerhouse.

But the similarities end there, and at heart Almaty is still without doubt very much a part of the Central Asian sphere. You’re still traveling by marshrutka, still wrestling with Cyrillic, and still disposing of used toilet paper in small bins. It’s history and culture are of course interwoven with that of its neighbors, and it wrestles with many of the same current events as well. So in many ways, Almaty is like any other Central Asian city, except that a short stay here will leave the budget traveler feeling happily pampered and eventually very broke.

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