Last weekend, we finally managed to get down to Almaty to properly explore the city (previously we’d only been to the airport before hopping in a taxi for Shymbulak). I must say, I love Almaty and wish I lived there. Astana is great and all, but Almaty has trees, it is old, and has an appealing charm to it that just fits my personality a bit better… It’s also old enough to be a little quirky.
For the first day of wandering, we ventured to Central Park to take in some trees. Immediately I noticed a castle playground (kids only, damn.), then later a mini and ancient looking carnival, and also an aqua park; Kazakhstan lives for its children.
We continued our ambling over to the Green Bazar, the largest, or at least most iconic, food market in Almaty, and continued down the street to Zenkov Cathedral. Even though the exterior was under renovation, the charming pastel colors and decorative details peaked through the scaffold and looked like an Easter egg. The inside was a stark contrast. Each nook and cranny was filled with images, icons, and other details in dark blues and reds and all highlighted by gold leaf. Luckily, I remembered to bring a scarf to cover my head, as that is the proper procedure for visiting the inside of Russian Orthodox churches, so I was able to walk around easily and take in all the splendor.
After enjoying our cheapest lunch since entering Kazakhstan (3,700 tenge [about $10] for two four-course meals, a coffee, and a beer at Chukotka, an Almaty institution!), we made the hike to the Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan to take in their archaeological collections. From what I’ve understood, most of their collections have been moved to the National Museum in Astana, but the museum still housed some impressive artifacts from prehistory through the medieval period. Their gift-shop also had books! Yay! Finally a book about Kazakhstan archaeology!
Our long hike back required a quick beer and “Macho Nachos” at Shakespeare Pub (a favorite hangout for expats), followed by a proper dinner at I place I found called ШЕФ or Chef. What a delightful meal! It was the closest thing I’ve had to an American dining experience while in Kazakhstan. It was in a cozy basement filled with kitschy artifacts while oldies and upbeat jazz played overhead. I ordered a type of white fish and grilled vegetables, and it was served with a little cup of dry ice that misted over the plate offering entertainment along with my dinner.
Another day, we planned a trip to Charyn Canyon, about 2.5 hours by car from Almaty near the Chinese border. Often referred to as the little brother of the Grand Canyon, Charyn is about 53 miles in length. Millennia of erosion created various outcrops and revealed the incredible stratigraphy of the region. We hiked in the canyon for about two hours to the river and back and then stopped at another area along the top to take it in from above. We don’t see much landscape diversity in Astana. To see the seemingly forested city of Almaty and this impressive feature a few hours away was a great physical reminder that there is a lot of country left for us to explore in Kazakhstan.