Kazakhstan – Almaty

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Overall thoughts, Accommodation, Travelling around, Things to do, Dinner, Lunch and cafes

Overall thoughts

Brief: busy, vibrant, dusty, dramatic snowy mountain backdrop, wealth contrasts, very flash cars and 4x4s, statues, tulips, Soviet blocks, run down, hectic driving, signs in Russian/Kazakh, pot holes, smart chauffeurs/body guards standing around, noisy, war memorials, exciting.
Not so brief: I like Almaty a lot. I like that it’s not spoilt by tourism, I didn’t hear a single native English Old v new Almatyspeaker (in fact the only foreign speaking I heard was a small table of Italians at a pavement cafe) and all roads that go up hill, ie south (confusing, where maps and my sense of direction are concerned), end with the stunning mountains, over which is Kyrgyzstan. The people were a lot more friendly than I expected of a formerly Soviet country and I, kind of unusually for me, liked the mix of An Almaty pavementSoviet, pre-Soviet, modern and random architecture, oddly enhanced by dust, dirt, cracked pavements and the sense of a city very much taken for what it is and proud of it.

It was not the wild, dangerous place I feared it might be. The only times I felt a bit uncomfortable were in and around Panfilov Park where there are quite a lot of beggars, but they seemed no different to beggars in European and American cities.

It is kind of bizarre to be looking at crumbling Soviet apartment blocks, then next door seeing a new, fancy shop or restaurant with body guard types and shiny Mercs, Bentleys, etc, parked outside, probably located where a Soviet block did actually crumble and fall. It seems that people muddle on together, but maybe someone who has spent time there would say otherwise.

Recreation and parking area within the courtyard of our Air BnB apartment, AlmatySoviet blocks have a garden area in a massive courtyard and car parking area. As a result of this, there is a lot more green space and trees than you might expect. Tulips are from Kazakhstan, though I was proudly told by one local that the beautiful tulips that were beginning to flower when we were there actually came from Holland, and there are tulip beds and tulip details everywhere. I imagine in early May, with all the tulips out, the parks and more upmarket road sides would be awash with colour.

The mountainous backdrop, the beautiful minarets and tall statues, the greenery and the loveliness of the Memorial to women in the war, off Astana Square, Almatypeople make for a great city, but there are days when you can barely see the mountains for smog and it is a dirty city that is not the stuff of chocolate boxes. As you fly into Almaty, there are lots of bright coloured tin roofs, tall white apartment blocks, factories hard at work, the wonderful mountains and, unlike Astana, a real feeling of a city below.

It is not what I would call an easy city for a holiday but it is interesting and different (though my boyfriend who has travelled extensively around Russia found it fairly familiar, particularly having been to Omsk). If I went again, I would go to the Green Bazaar, Arasan (and this time spend a whole day there), I would walk more around the south of Central Park and up Kasteev Street and beyond Kabanbai Batyr Street (which was as far as we went) and I would also go to Koktobe, the viewing area at the top of the cable car. The reason I liked Kasteev Street and that end of Kabanbai Batyr Street is because of the old, grand, pre-Soviet buildings there. I also really liked the square in the photo above, in part because I liked the memorial to women in the wars. I am told it does not have a name but is around Astana Square/near the Old Square/opposite Kazakh-British Technical University.

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I read the Hg2\Almaty & Astana guide book. It is useful and covers a lot but if you look at the photos and read theOff Fumanov Street, behind Abay Metro. I love the colours and shapes of this structure write-up, as I did before I went to Kazakhstan, it creates an image of those two cities that didn’t match my reality. It’s not as funky, cool, trendy and posh as I expected, or perhaps more accurately not in the way I felt I was led to expect. It’s hard to explain, and I reiterate that I found the book useful and I loved Almaty, but maybe it’s because you look at a pretty map of, say, Almaty and it looks like a mini Paris. But it’s not. Soviet architecture and build quality is dreadful, the roads and pavements are knackered, it’s dirty and if you look closely at the trendy-looking interiors when you’re there, the quality detracts from the overall effect. Or maybe that’s just me. But that’s also one of the reasons I loved the city.

Accommodation

The internal staircase of our Air BnB apartment, AlmatyAir BnB apartment, Kabanbai Batyr Street (great location)

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/1700372?guests=2&s=u0Yi

Dmitriy is the Air BnB host and is very helpful, friendly and accommodating; I couldn’t recommend him enough and he has more than one property. (my score out of 10 with my boyfriend’s score in brackets, uninfluenced by my score)

Nearby amenities: 8 (8)/10 (lots of cafes and restaurants nearby, short pleasant walk to Panfilov Park)

Safety perception: 6 (6)/10 (no security as Soviet block but didn’t feel unsafe, front door very sturdy and secure – felt secure in flat but stairwell isn’t as safe-feeling as a staffed hotel reception)Part of the apartment complex we stayed with Air BnB, Almaty

Room: 7 (7)/10 (bigger than a hotel room, fully fitted kitchen, sofa bed more comfortable than expected, nice duvet)

Sleep: 6 (5)/10 (comfortable but there is a nightclub below and drunken revellers could often be heard and occasional music)

Bathroom: 8 (8)/10 (comfortable and clean, decent toiletries, no hot water last night (usual for Kazakhstan))

Breakfast: N/A

Staff: N/A

Likelihood of repeat stay: 8 (8)/10 (club noise below was annoying – I used earplugs – but nice area and Dmitriy was really amenable and a great host)

Almaty Golden Palace, A Baytursynov 54/Karasai Batyr Street (good location) (my score out of 10 with my boyfriend’s score in brackets, uninfluenced by my score)

Nearby amenities: 7 (7)/10 (a few canteen style restaurants around, bit of a walk to others, St Nicholas Cathedral nearby and lovely view of mountains through trees)St Nicholas Cathedral, very near Almaty Golden Palace Hotel

Safety perception: 7 (8)/10 (fairly busy area, staff on reception, room door ok)

Room: 7 (6)/10 (all brand new but poor quality)

Sleep: 6 (6)/10 (Noise from neighbouring rooms)

Bathroom: 5 (4)/10 (looks fine, no window, quite small but stand up shower too high and perilous getting out of shower cubicle, water pressure far too strong)

Breakfast: 5 (6)/10 (Buffet, it was a struggle to get milk for cereal or drinks, basic selection, blini nice but all warm things tepid)

Staff: 6 (8)/10 – 10/10 (Restaurant staff not as friendly as reception staff, one reception girl was the perfect front of housThe pink drink (and lovely tea) that came with Almaty Golden Palace’s business lunche staff and spoke excellent English)

Likelihood of repeat stay: 4 (4)/10 (great on paper but a bit disappointing in reality and non-canteen restaurants a bit of a walk away)

This hotel did a good, cheap business lunch, albeit with a pink drink that made me think of the dentist pink mouth wash.

Travelling Around

Metro and taxi (see “General information”).

We largely walked, quite a lot. We also caught a Metro train and used a few taxis.

Things to do

A map highlighting the central shopping and art area of AlmatyThere is plenty online about things to do in Almaty so I won’t go into too much detail about anything, except the dried fruit and nut market at Green Bazaar, which I loved.

Also, when looking at a map of Almaty, I guarantee it will make more sense if you turn the map upside down. On maps of Almaty, the stunning mountains are at the bottom of the map. In reality, the roads go down from the mountains so it’s much more logical to turn the map upside down. This will make a lot more sense when you’re there, honestly.

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Walk
There are so many unusual and unexpected things to be found by walking around Almaty.

Some of my favourite streets and areas to walk:

Kabanbai Batyr Street, ffrom around Dostyk Avenue towards Kaldayakov Street and beyond. There are lots of pre-Soviet houses along there and lots of shashlik restaurants with outdoor grills (definitely not the kinds of establishments that accept cards or have English menus though). Or from the other end of that stretch of the street, there is a small exit from Central Park that leads onto a quiet residential road, Kasteev Street, with good views Walking up Kasteev Street, Almatyof the mountain ahead of you and the cable car, that you can walk straight up. That road crosses over Kabanbai Batyr Street so you can then turn right onto Kabanbai Batyr and head into the more central part of Almaty, passing all these nice houses and restaurants. It’s quiet around there and doesn’t cater for expats in the way that the more central restaurants do.

Two roads parallel is Bogenbai Batyr Street. Also going out of town, from around Kunaev Street to Dostyk Avenue and beyond, there are some nice looking restaurants and bars, also a bit less geared towards passing visitors and expats.

Zhibek Zholy pedestrianised shopping area. I went to this area as it appears to be the place to hang Zhibek Zholy street marketout. It didn’t do much for me, though there is an interesting street food market (but more for locals than visitors as it’s mainly meat, milk, fruit and veg, ie only go if you enjoy markets). If you walk along Zhibek Zholy, between Furmanov Street and Abylai Khan Avenue, that is the pedestrianised area, with some more European/Western shops and a bit of busking and sometimes art and a few makeshift stalls. We walked along this part of Zhibek Zholy, which also runs right in front of the Green Bazaar, and at Abylai Khan, if you turn right, ie down the hill, after maybe ten minutes, on the right you see Pirosmani, the decent Georgian restaurant we spent ages trying to find as we didn’t have the number.

Republik Square, and beyond is kind of the new town. The square and all its political posters, etc, is Almaty Financial District, from the former presidential palace end of Republic Squareworth visiting. There is a park there, a tall memorial and, further up the hill, a big Ramstore supermarket, the financial district, the president’s former main residence, a park and the odds are you’ll see a wedding party or ten around there having photos taken. It’s not beautiful, I guess it’s another side of Almaty and if you have time, it’s worth visiting.

Panfilov Park

It’s one of the main sights in Almaty and well worth a walk around. The cathedral is striking, as arAscension/Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Parke the war memorial statues. It’s also full of people having their wedding photos taken, couples on dates, families, beggars (one of the rare occasions we were pestered, though just around the cathedral), children, dog walkers; all sorts. It’s also close to Arasan and the Green Bazaar and the cheap but pleasant (especially if you like little biscuits) Thomi’s Pastry is down Pushkin Street, which goes between the park and the bazaar. There is also another restaurant, Cooshy Sushi (which my guide book said was ok), between those two areas.

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Green Bazaar

I love going to markets when I go to new countries, indeed market visits are usually a highlight for me. The Green Bazaar would have been my best Kazakh market experience had I not later gone to the central market in Shymkent, but it is large, bustling, exciting, interesting and wonderfully unspoilt by modernisation.

My favourite aspect of the market was the indoor dried fruit and nuts area. The fruit and nuts were beautifully presented and vendors offered lots of free samples. We ate a lot of dried fruit and nuts while sampling and ended up buying a lot too. It’s kind of ok not being able to speak Kazakh or Russian as some vendors can speak enough English or it’s easy enough to eat, enjoy, indicate a bag full and whether you want more or less than they try to put in a bag. We bought kilos of fruit and nuts there (the sugary white dot-looking covered almonds are the ultimate sugared almonds, I think) and it came to over £30. I had a slight panic that we’d been ripped off. But then I realised how many kilos we had and how much small bags of fruit and nuts cost at home. Also, I later found out, by checking with a local and also price tags on a fruit and nut bar in a Ramstore, that prices per kilo are fairly consistent. I’m fairly confident that you won’t get cheaper fruit or nuts by shopping around the market, but that’s only a vague confidence. Make sure you try the pecan nuts, they taste of caramel and are wonderful. If you are offered a free macadamia nut opener (a kind of thin metal key) to go with your macadamia nuts, you’d be mad to say no. It’s great at getting into the thick cut they make in the macadamia nuts to free the tasty macadamia nut. Oh, I’m on a nut roll now. The almonds in their shell are amazing. Try different kinds of apricot, I guarantee you there will be one kind you’ll love more than the others. Oh my, the dried figs. If I went again (or I go to Uzbekistan, where most of the dried and fruit and nuts come from), I would mainly get pecan nuts, dried figs and the large, bright almost orange apricots. Oh, and the sugared almonds. The chilli dusted almonds were good too, as were the macadamia nuts … try them all when you’re offered tasters, it’s a lot of fun, but beware the laxative effect!

The rest of the market, for me, was more interesting as a cultural appreciation. I even enjoyed the meat and seeing how differently it’s arranged and sold than in the UK.

There are a few souvenir shops along a covered shopping area just in front of the dried fruit and nut market. They are pretty much the only souvenir shops I found during my whole stay in Kazakhstan and I bought most of my nut bowls, plates, scarves, slippers, etc, there. You need cash for these shops and the market.

Central Park

It’s not the most beautiful park but it’s big, there are lots of trees and greenery and is full of family entertainment and people and it’s great for people watching.

Arasan (Russian banya/baths), closed on Mondays, different prices on weekdays, evenings and weekends.

http://arasan-spa.kz/en/

I read the website, visited Arasan the day before I planned to go there and asked questions about what to do and then asked more questions at reception on the day I went there. The website is in English and there appears to always be at least one member of staff in the reception area who can speak English.

Here is some information I wanted to know and found out and feel is useful to pass on:

Bring your own towel (you can rent one otherwise), flip flops (or equivalent), a bottle of water, shower cap (or equivalent), soap, shampoo, flannel and a bag in which to carry around your bathing kit (bags of soap, etc, are hung up while you bathe). You don’t need a swimming costume or bikini, you’ll be wandering around naked or wrapped in your towel.

You can buy a birch leaf and twig bundle, venik, outside Arasan to use in the Russian steam room. I didn’t buy one and didn’t pay to have my body thwacked with one in the steam room but maybe if I’d been with a friend (men and women are separated within the entire banya complex) it would have been fun to find out what to do, or copy someone else, and thwack each other with twigs! It smells lovely.

At reception, you register an arm band and pay the entry fee but everything else you pay when you’ve finished and check out. You can either choose to be in there for two, three, four hours (you pay overtime if you go beyond the time you entered under) or unlimited. If you get a massage or a treatment, you automatically get unlimited time in Arasan (so pay the lowest entry fee initially – tell them what you’re planning). I am saying all this as I recall it but the website and the payment seems slightly complicated. I told them I wanted a back massage, 4,000 tge, and I had that before I went in the bath. It was worth every tenge. The lady who found me in the changing rooms knew I wanted a massage so took me there. With hindsight, I think I would have preferred to have my cleaning and bathing session first.

If I hadn’t wanted a massage or a hand massage (an impromptu decision based on seeing the “cosmetologist” menu), I guess two hours would have been enough, just, but there would have been a bit of clock watching. It is very relaxing in there and I felt fantastic afterwards. I think I was in there for about two and a half hours but I had a time by which I wanted/needed to be out.

Once undressed in the changing room, follow someone! I was found by a woman who was clearly sent to find me, following the numerous questions I asked at reception. She spoke English and escorted me to the massage room and showed me where to shower and where the steam rooms were.

The Turkish, Russian and Finnish saunas and steam rooms are all in the same area. Once you’re in that part of the building, wash yourself thoroughly in the open shower area – there will be plenty of other women (or men if you’re male!) you can follow the lead from. There is then an area where the three types of hot room are, along with showers (or pull the cord of the bucket above and get a refreshing, cold bucket of water poured on you to cool off!).

It’s fairly obvious and familiar what you do in the saunas. It’s fun to be in the Russian sauna when someone is being beaten with birch. It smells amazing. I found the Russian sauna very hot.

You then walk downstairs into the beautiful domed area, where there is a cold pool, which looks delightfully inviting. To swim in this you need to be naked and to have your hair covered, no matter whether you intend to go under water or have really short hair. It’s cold and lovely.

There are steps down from the pool as well as up, where you will have just come from. Down the stairs is a second area of Finnish, Turkish and Russian baths, just like the first lot only likely to be quieter. You might want to try them out instead of the ones just off the cleaning area. The area is smaller and I kind of preferred it.

My back massage was done in a massive room close to the cleaning area. No English was spoken but that was fine. It really was an amazing back massage.

When I’d finished with the steam rooms, I decided to wrap up in my towel and wander around. I found the cafe, which seemed expensive and not that appealing. If you walk through the cafe, you get to the hammam/Oriental/Turkish Bath area, which is very pretty and has a very different feel to the other steam rooms. I just walked through in my towel and flip flops. It was there that I found the English menu for cosmetology treatments. The prices are very reasonable. My hand massage wasn’t particularly exciting and I spent most of the time sitting in the lounge area with my hands in plastic bags. The massage ended before my hands were encased in plastic bags. After about 20 minutes, I was then escorted to the loos and it was demonstrated that I should wash the hand exfoliant off. That was the end of my session, no moisturiser or such like. I wouldn’t bother with the hand massage unless you also wanted a head massage or facial as that is done while you’re left with hands encased in plastic bags.

I knew my massage was 4,000 and I knew how much the hand massage was (I can’t remember if it was 500 tge or 1,000 tge). When I checked out, the amount owing was exactly what I’d worked out it would be.

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Dinner

We didn’t do particularly well on occasions when we walked out to get dinner or lunch on the “let’s see what we find” basis. Challenging though it was without an English menu or English-speaking staff, my favourite dinner was at Pugasov. We ended up having a fellow diner come and help us decipher the menu and it was good to know as it was a comprehensive menu.

If I were to try the “let’s see what we find” approach again, I would probably try Bogenbai Batyr Street between Pushkin Street and Abdulliny Street (where Pugasov is), possibly going up Dostyk Avenue.

For breakfast or lunch, Marrone Rosso and Coffedelia have menus in English and the food is decent. But it’s not cheap. I guess it’s London prices.

There are also a fair few more expensive but pleasant looking restaurants around Kabanbai Batyr Street and Bogenbai Batyr Street from Furmanov Street to Abylai Khan Avenue. But the more expensive restaurants in the more expat type areas are easier to identify on Google searches. And from where I’m suggesting, you get an idea of the two areas where we stayed, so I appreciate that my suggestions are limited.

Pugasov, Abdullinykh 70/Bogenbai Batyr

Russian food, vast menu, large outdoor area (but gets busy indoors and out), not in English, cash (but, long story, we were able to use a Visa card that was agreed BEFORE we ordered). If you want to go for the random point, “That, please”, be aware that most of the headings on each page refer to a particular meat, e.g. a whole page of pork dishes. If you want to go pot luck, I suggest you write down the Russian for a meat you like soyou can at least point to a dish that will contain a meat, the origin of which is identifiable.

We had a lovely lamb dish, a rich and tasty Russian/Olivier Salad (ham, potato, mayonnaise, etc), chips and beer with chechil (“Churchill”).

Pirosmani, Abylai Khan Avenue 32/Mametova Street

Georgian food, large selection, English menu, free wi-fi, nice toilets, bit out of centre.

Ciao Pizza, Tole Bi Street 89A/Seifullin Street

Kazakh twist on Italian food, decent food and prices, do takeaways, English. Bit off the beaten track and more local than expat in feel, which was just what we wanted that evening when we fancied a pizza.

http://www.ciaopizza.kz/page/show/name/ciao_s.html

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Shirabsky Domik (?), Abylai Khan/Kabanbai Batyr

Kazakh twist on German food, decent food and prices but fairly small portions, large and themed restaurant, good beer, menu in English.

c 10, 500 tge for two mains (I had mutton stew with plums), two sides (delicious potato balls and pea mash), two large beers and two desserts (I had apple pie, which was very nice)

Lunch and Cafes

Black & Brown (inside Voyage Hotel), Furmanov Street 97/Gogol

Light lunches/cafe style, very nice club sandwich, English, prices range from ok to more than you’d expect for a cafe.

Marrone Rosso, Furmanov St 149/between Bogenbai Batyr and Kabanbai Batyr

English, large menu, just about acceptable prices for upper mid-range, popular with trendies and expats (apparently), English, lovely large salads, sandwiches, outdoor area, have to leave your name to be called out to collect food – bit tense listening out for your name!

http://www.marronerosso.com/OurMenu.aspx

We sat outside in the sun and had one mocha (not great), free cold water, a salmon doorstep sandwich (good) and I had a very tasty chicken, walnut and feta salad with a good wholegrain mustard dressing.

Thomi’s Pastry, Pushkin Street 40 (?)/between Green Bazaar and Panfilov Park

Displayed behind counter so pointing “menu”, simple food baked on site and drink, verging on cheap) For 650 tge, we got eight small biscuits (weighed to price), a black tea (fine, but couldn’t get milk for fear of a very milky tea) and a cappuccino (not great)

Eclair, Mendikulov Street 43/Zholdasbekov

Pleasant residential area, quiet, outdoor area, cakes, breads and lunches, OK coffee and teas, reasonable prices – possibly less than in the centre.

Apologies to Chris for using this photo of him shovelling down a piece of tiramisu but it’s the only photo I took of Coffeedelia, Kabanbai Batyr/Furmanov St, Almaty

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Coffeedelia, Kabanbai Batyr Street 79/Tulebaev (busy) AND Zheltoksan Street 17/Bogenbai Batyr (quieter)

Large and good food menu (lovely breakfast choice), English, ok coffee, fairly expensive for a non-posh cafe.

Bon Bon, Abylai Khan 123/between Kabenbai Batyr and ZhambylMasala tea at Bon Bon, sitting outdoors, Almaty

Selection of teas and coffees, not in English, large cake selection, outdoor area.

We sat outdoors and had masala tea (a mass of creamy milk with a splash of tea) and cake, both of which were overpriced and disappointing.

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