My misconceptions about visiting the city of Almaty vanished as soon as I set foot in Kazakhstan.
Had I not been invited by the KIMEP University to train in the Tech Forum Central Asia Conference, I would probably never have ventured to the largest of the ‘stans of Central Asia’. What initially appeared as a distant city in a land unknown soon endeared itself to me with all the novelty it offered.
Located on the foot hills of the northern Tian Shan mountain range (the ancient mount Imon), Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, and is modern and culturally diverse. It was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997, when it lost this status to Astana. Once very much shielded from our gaze behind the Iron Curtain, Almaty seemed to me to be a far away place, alien and exotic. Actually, it’s just a 6 hour flight from Karachi, and that too if you take a flight via Abu Dhabi or Dubai. If you are flying from Lahore or Islamabad, you may be able to shave off another hour or so.
The descent to Almaty in wintertime is a breathtaking one. It seems like the aircraft is hovering above a miniature snow globe, dancing and swirling with white flakes under its glassy interior. Only this time the plane breaks the glass bubble and lands on this white pristine wonderland.
It may be slightly alarming at first for anyone not used to the sight of white powdery snow constantly descending on the city — for as long as 5 hours a day in some cases. Luckily, the temperature during my stay there did not fall below -2 degrees and it felt just like Nathia Gali or Swat. The great thing about Almaty is that even though it’s snowing constantly, it is always business as usual. Mornings begin with snow ploughs clearing the roads, people scurrying to work, cars and aircrafts moving as per usual. Coming to Almaty really makes you forget that the concept of weather delays even exists.
Grand mosques stand side-by-side with majestic cathedrals, while soviet-era domes jostle for space with the newer glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers that dot the city’s skyline. In the backdrop are towering blue and white mountains that surround the city as if to shield it from the eyes of invaders. It is a city made famous by its apples, and it will surely offer you many varieties from the interior of the city or from the hillsides. The apple festival is a superb attraction in the summer, and it is from this abundance of apples that the city finds its name — ‘Almaty’ or ‘the city of apples’ in Kazakh.
Here in Pakistan, with our daily dosage of American media and Hollywood movies, anything Russian is invariably cast as alien or exotic. But Almaty, on the edge of the Russian border, has a charm that defies the stereotype and wins your heart almost instantly. Despite the language and cultural barrier, you can instantly connect with the people of Almaty. Although they are predominantly Muslim, the people of Almaty are very secular and at ease with themselves and their identity. And they also seem happy with their leadership headed by President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, even though they do not live under a democratic framework. Perhaps this is because the per capita income of the population has increased tenfold since the time of independence. The sense of contentment is almost palpable, gauged through even the smallest of interactions with the residents of the city.
My recommendation for any visitor to Almaty is to explore the city on foot. There are not many cities in this world which are as pedestrian-friendly as Almaty, especially in the winter haze. A sip from a hot mug of coffee as you meander along the roads of Almaty, all in a white picturesque setting of powdery snowfall, is an unrivalled experience. There are no security issues here, and streets are often watched carefully by police in uniform and in plain clothes. Refreshingly for us Pakistanis, there is absolutely zero worry about being harassed or mugged. In fact, it is not a bad idea to stop and chat with the locals, since most of them are friendly and speak very good English.
A visit to St Nicholas Cathedral is a must; it gives you a magnificent flashback to the architecture and the colours of Czarist Russia. Its pale blue exterior and golden domes are straight out of a fairy tale, and the insides are dotted with candles and restored frescos. It is an unforgettable experience for anyone with an eye for aesthetics.
The modern Almaty boasts of several malls and shopping plazas like the “Silk way city” and the largest Mega centre, “Alma Ata”. The Zelyony bazaar is an enthralling experience with its stalls of fresh and dried fruits, as well as chunks upon chunks of meat. This is where the locals shop and if you are feeling courageous you can purchase fermented mare’s milk, “kumys,” as well as fermented camel’s milk “shubat”. A good idea is to sit in one of the cafes overlooking the bazaar, munching on some bread and cheese and sipping coffee while watching the city on a winter morning.
Almaty has a wide variety of restaurants and cafes serving hot tea and coffee as well as different international cuisines. But no culinary tour of this city would be complete without a visit to the Yubileyny area. From dawn to dusk, one can see lines of people waiting to gorge themselves on “donor kebabs” more familiar to us as “shawarmas”. The crisp bread is stuffed with flavoured meat, sour cream onions and carrots, and complemented with big, fat French fries. You can enjoy the food as you leisurely walk in the area or sit in one of the cafeterias. Most of these stalls also provide fresh pomegranate juice which makes a chilling complement to the piping hot sandwiches.
The city also boasts a cable car for the more aerial enthusiasts; for those eager for a more personal connection with Mother Nature, the city offers various tour-guides who are willing to take you on a hike up in the mountains or a ski trip for the day. It is said that the view experienced from the mountains is a scene from the heavens. Unfortunately, my limited time in this place did not allow for such an excursion.
In a way, I am actually glad for this lost opportunity, now I have a reason to return to Almaty, and refresh my memories of this living and breathing snow globe, where the steadily descending snowflakes mark its fragrant pathways by day and by night.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.
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