We really thought that 10 days in Almaty would be plenty from reading reviews but it turns out we could have spent much longer just enjoying every day life here. Our apartment is in a great part of town, right next to some of the main attractions. The apartment itself is also great – you can check it out here. It is styled with interesting brown velvet brocade, paintings of Kazakhstan’s mountains and wild horses, and probably 100 LED ceiling lights in the shape of diamonds. Nu’s favourite part of the apartment is the spa shower, which looks a lot like a spaceship. It has a phone, radio, CD player, steamer, mood lighting and way too many jets to know what to do with.
We enjoyed our first Kazakh meal at a great restaurant called Zheti Kazyna. We had actually seen this place in a documentary about Kazakhstan when we were doing our research and saw the restaurant owner who was featured in the film on our way in. The place has amazing décor and of course all of Kazakhstan’s famous dishes. Sami bravely tried their specialty – horse meat sausage – and washed it down with a glass of kumys, which is a slightly fizzy and alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk.
Our first few days were spent in and around our neighbourhood. We visited the huge park right across from our place called Panfilov Park, where we saw several war memorials, let Nu chase hundreds of pigeons around and enjoyed the site of the beautiful candy coloured Zenkov Cathedral.
Right across from the park is the massive Green Bazaar where everyone goes to buy fresh produce. It’s so busy and popular that grocery stores barely stock any fruits or veggies. Here we got amazing strawberries and raspberries for about a dollar a kilo, and of course tons and tons of Kazakhstan’s amazing apples. We came to learn that the name ‘Almaty’ comes from both the Turkic and Kazak word for apple, and that Kazakhstan is the birthplace of apples. People seem to be very proud of this fact and there are numerous statues and images of apples around the city.
We took a couple strolls down Zhibek Zholy street, where there is a pedestrian area called Arabat. There are plenty of restaurants here and it seems to be the place to buy these paintings of Kazak mountain scenes, wild horses and Kazak warriors that you see hanging everywhere. There are also some interesting street performers, like the guy dressed up as Johnny Depp who just stands completely still, and who I was convinced was made of wax until the third time I saw him.
We also visited the City’s central park, which is a really beautiful place that is immaculately maintained. We took a tour of the park by a small train – this was Nu’s choice – and made our way to the end of the park where the Zoo is. We’ve taken Nu to many zoos because he loves animals so much but I really have mixed feelings about them, and this one in particular was pretty bad. We had to leave after seeing the poor polar bear in its terrible enclosure. I think we won’t be visiting a zoo again any time soon.
One of the great things about where we are staying is the constant smell of chocolate coming from the Rakhbat chocolate factory a few blocks away. We only had to follow our noses to find it and each day you can tell they were making another variation. We visited the factory and its outlet shop, which sells the more than 300 varieties of chocolate they produce. And of course we had to try some. Their most popular and classic bar is the Kazakhstan chocolate in its flag-like wrapper.
We took a trip up the long cable car to Kok Tube hill, where we had amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the city below. I was very proud of myself for not freaking out as much as usual as I do on these things!
We also visited the State Museum, which for the size of the building seemed to have very little inside. We did enjoy the ethnology collection where there were some beautiful antique carpets (I think I have a serious obsession with rugs) and interesting traditional dress. Unfortunately, lots of the signage was not in English so we really didn’t take too much away from this experience.
For our last few days in Kazakhstan we decided to rent a car and do a few side trips. Our first stop was Cheryl Canon, which is the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. It was a beautiful drive through the steppes and an awesome hike down into the canon. We were followed by crowds of Asian tourists who were obsessed with Nu in his backpack. We’ve seriously begun considering charging a small fee for these photos in order to fund our trip. It was like we were famous and they were the paparazzi chasing after us. We did also make a couple of friends along the way, who like everyone we spoke to in Almaty, were both shocked and extremely excited that we had come all the way to Kazakhstan just to see the place as tourists.
The next day we went to Big Almaty Lake, which is very close to Almaty but a very quick climb in elevation. The lake is bright turquoise blue and crowned with snow peaked mountains along its edges. We may have been more than 8,000 km from home, but this place reminded us a lot of our beautiful Canada.
Side note: Its been a while since we have blogged and that’s because freedom of speech is heavily restricted in Kazakhstan. We opted to err on the side of caution when sharing our experiences and impressions of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and so here we are in Korea sharing our blogs from the past two weeks.