I WENT TO KAZAKHSTAN
In November 2017, I traveled to Almaty Kazakhstan on my own.
It was equal parts intimidating, wonderful and strange.
In 2015, I went on a Tinder date with a beautiful, spirited and brilliant young woman from Kazakhstan. I fell for her quickly, but due to my own personal failures, our courtship did not last for very long. But I was never able to shake the desire to go to her country someday.
Ever since I have been fascinated about the place. Having in September made a new friend that lived in Almaty, I decided to finally go! I left alone, armed with little more than some very rudimentary Russian, a quite favorable exchange rate and many hours of reading history and trivia about the region.
Visiting Almaty was an unforgettable experience.
The Original Big Apple
Almaty has had many names over its roughly 3000 years of continuous settlement, including Verniy, Almatau, Alma-Ata, Almatinsk and now Almaty.
All of these names (it was known as “Verniy” under Russian Imperial rule in the 1800s) mention apples in one way or another. This is because the region has always been known for its apples and for its mountains–these features have defined the region for its entire history. In fact, the primary ancestor for all apples is from this region: the genus malus sieversii.
And so, it is fair to declare Almaty the original “Big Apple”.
Almaty was, indeed, an important major culturual and trade nexus for centuries. The area experienced continuous development for over 1000 years, even developing plumbing around 1000 AD. The city continued on its trajectory until the decline of the silk road through the 18th century, of which it was a major trade hub. The region’s fate was further tied to Russia through its integration into the Russian Empire and the subsequent rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
Following are some pictures of the city’s Central Park, which is, paradoxically, located on the east side of town. Because it was so peaceful, I must say I enjoyed it a lot more than America’s crowded and noisy equivalent.
I am not much one for selfies, but I did take a few every now and then.
A former Soviet Republic
The Soviet Union was more or less perpetually at a state of war for nearly a century, and Kazakhstan, as a member, was invariably pulled into its conflicts. Throughout the city are many monuments and memorials honoring the sacrifices of Kazakhstan’s citizens in more or less foreign wars.
I was impressed by not only the bold artistry of these monuments–they are certainly a lot more visually arresting than our American counterparts–but by how they captured a spirit of honor and sadness.
As an American, I of course have always had a negative opinion of the Soviet Union. However, learning more first-hand history and the perspective of people from one of its member republics has made these feelings more personal.
I spent a great deal of time simply wandering around the city and enjoying its sights, food and people. By night, I would find myself in restaurants, bars and night clubs open until all hours of the morning.
The city has a lot to offer–and a lot for one to learn–depending on where you go and how much attention you’re paying. It has a rich history on display in its monuments and memorials and several decent museums.
Like many modern cities, Almaty displays deep poverty and extravegant wealth side-by-side; its streets are clogged with 35-year-old Soviet-era diesels alongside brand new Lexus SUVs. Near the mountains on the south part of town, people live much better than further north or west (locals refer to “up” and “down”, meaning in relation to the mountain, so I never understood anyone’s directions).
However, a universal truth to the people of Almaty, as far as I encountered them, is that they were enthusiastic, helpful and kind to me. I felt safer in a poor neighborhood alone at night than I do in most American cities.
Western Coffee Culture
Some of the most popular and fashionable places in the city are western coffee shops, complete with acoustic covers of popular western top 40 hits. In fact, three young professional women living and working in the city all independently recommended the location featured here, Coffeedelia, to me.
Almaty seems to have a small but growing coffee culture, where most people traditionally prefer tea. The coffee shops are all distinctly western in style, with American or Italian-sounding names and menus in English. Drip or pressed coffee is not available–only espresso–but Americano is popular. I felt particularly self-conscious ordering it, especially when servers would look at me like a lunatic for ordering it without milk or sugar.
Kazakhstan, like other members of the former Soviet Union, established its independence in 1991. There are a couple of powerful monuments dealing with this period of history that I really enjoyed.
Almaty’s Independence Monument documents the history of thousands of years of Kazakh history in a series of fascinating murals made of molded bronze. The murals begin with the ancient nomadic peoples and conclude in the modern day with the establishment of the nation of Kazakhstan under president Narsultan Nazarbayev in 1991 and relocation of the new capital to Astana in 1998.
If you look closely, you find many small details that summarize legends, major historical figures or cherished cultural artifacts. At the center is the Golden Warrior monument, the soaring obelisk being about 100 feet tall.
The murals document thousands of years of history, and I like, in particular, some of the powerful symbolism. The depiction of the Nazi army during World War II is particularly striking, as are the skirmishes between Kazakh horse archers and Russian cannons during the 1800s. Very sad is the depiction mass starvation of Kazakhs prior to gradual assimilation of parts of the culture into Russia’s, leading straight into the Soviet period and foreign war.
The Nice Part of Town
At the top of the city and nearer to the mountains, overlooking historic Almaty is the wealthiest part of town, full of gleaming western-style glass towers and Greco-Roman architecture. It is a stark contrast to the rest of city which wears its 20th-century legacies on its sleeve.
Here you’ll find tremendous displays of wealth; I walked past no fewer than three weddings in the same park I certainly would have had trouble financing myself. I wondered where the money came from (the brides and their bridal parties did look absolutely stunning, however).
No discussion of Almaty is completed without mention of 19th century poet, writer and composer Abay Qunanbaiuly, who is one of Kazakhstan’s most important creative figures and a cultural hero.
He is generally regarded as Kazakhstan’s first modern writer and bears much responsibility as a culture reformer for shaping the country’s culture into what it is today. His significance in Kazakh history and culture is immense.
I will never forget this trip, and I can’t wait to go back! Maybe I will return during the late Summer or Early Fall, when they have all of these festivals that everyone told me I had just missed by a week or two and after I have improved my Russian a bit.
I cannot recommend traveling to Kazakhstan and the Almaty region enough, and I encourage you to do so on your own. This was my first real trip to anywhere particularly outside of my comfort zone, and I am forever a better person for having done it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my insights and photos!