Where is Almaty?
Or better yet, where is Kazakhstan? That was the question I asked when I was told this would be a stop on my whirlwind summer training tour this summer. When I found it on the map (it's hard to miss, it's huge) and read more I was shocked to find that it's the ninth-largest country and the LARGEST land-locked country in the WORLD. Who knew? And apparently it was even bigger before the whole Soviet Union split.
So I made the long, long journey to Almaty. I arrived in the middle of the night which always does wonders for your sleep cycle. I had some time to do a little exploring the next afternoon.
Almaty was originally the capital of Kazakhstan. In 1997 Astana became the capital. Several factors were cited for moving the capital. One was that the President wanted the capital closer to Russia, another was that Almaty sits on a major earthquake fault. Although not the capital, Almaty is still the financial and business center for all of Central Asia.
Many business people who made their money in oil, gas and natural resources have continued to add to the growth of Almaty. It is also a cultural center where they find great entertainment value. The downside is that Almaty, like most major cities throughout the world, saw real estate prices plummet during the economic downturn making it a struggle for businesses and residents alike.
Just south of the city are the Zhaiiskii Alatau Mountains, which are part of the Tien Shan range. The dramatic mountain backdrop adds to the charm and sports activities in Almaty. Many tourists descend in the winter time for wonderful skiing, ice skating and other outdoor activities.
View from the Rahat Palace Hotel, formerly the Hyatt Regency.
The Rahat Palace Hotel is in a great location in the business district and offers all the amenities that you would expect of a western hotel. The staff were extremely helpful suggesting restaurants and things to see as well as in making arrangements.
A good way to get a panoramic view of the town is to take the cable car to Koktubey. A quick ride takes you to the top of the hill. They say on a on a clear day you can see all the way to Siberia. Be aware that this is typically a family adventure, and there are rides and games aplenty on the hill as well as souvenir shops and a restaurant. The ride is 1500 tenge or about 10 US dollars.
The Republic Square has several buildings worth checking out, including the Presidential Palace, the City Administration building, the Independence Monument and the easy to spot blue-roofed Central Museum.
Taste of Kazakhstan
I had the chance to stop for a quick bite and sampled a few light treats. I ate at Tabeteuka, a restaurant which is along a small river in the business district. It has a lovely outdoor eating area as well as a beautiful indoor dining room. I tried some delicious eggplant skewers and funchesa salad, which is light noodles with carrots, bits of beef and a mild garlic sauce. I thoroughly enjoyed them both. I also tried the mutton-filled pastry item. The pastry was light and crispy while the mutton - as you can expect - is gamey. If you like that sort of thing you would love it.
Eggplant skewers & funchesa salad
Mutton in pastry
They eat horse meat in Kazakhstan don't they?
Yes, they do. Since the country has a rich history of nomadic pastoralization this should come as no surprise. It may make you feel a bit better to know that here some horses are raised specifically for eating while the others are for riding. When I asked my helpful hotel hostesses what I should try in Kazak they suggested me several horse specialties. Honestly, I'm not usually that adventurous but this time I thought I'd have to try it. Horse meat also is considered to be very lean and healthful, in the same vein as bison meat.
Horse sausage & horse milk.
I started with the horse sausage. It was a bit gamey and a little too fatty for me. It is traditionally served as an appetizer. I also tried the horse milk. I admit I was a bit surprised by the serving when it arrived. It was a served like a cereal bowl of milk. I gave it a slurp and, well, I simply did not like it. It was really gamey, much more so even than goat's milk. I tried a few more sips during my meal but never did warm up to it. My new Kazak friends warned me not to drink more than two servings because apparently horse's milk can give you a bit of a buzz. I, of course, did not have this problem.
Lastly I tried the horse filet. I have to admit that if you didn't tell me I might not have noticed the difference between this and a beef filet. It was extremely tender and had not one bit of fat or grizzle. It was so rich and filling I could only eat about half of the portion.
I wanted to bring back a few memories from Kazakhstan so I opted for slippers in the traditional felt of the region and since I wasn't going to make it into Russia I also picked up some nested dolls.
I wasn't in Almaty very long but I did enjoy my stay. The people are friendly and helpful. It is safe and the backdrop of the beautiful mountain setting made me think that I want to come back to visit the mountains and see what else lies in the vast space of Kazakhstan.
Here I am in Almaty, it was hot, in the 90s, the two days I was there so I was always just a little bit pink.
Have you been to Kazaskstan? Let me know what you thought.