Almaty was the perfect end to my trip to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is beautiful to simply walk around and is a great base for day trips. I spent a couple of days chilling in the city and here are some of the things I did, rearranged to a 2 day itinerary.
From Bishkek to Almaty
After all that spectacular trekking in Tian Shan, I was looking forward to relaxing days at Almaty. But first, getting back to Almaty involved a 5 hour marshrutka ride from Karakol to Bishkek, and another 5 hour ride from Bishkek to Almaty. Here’s more on the part from Bishkek to Almaty.
Bishkek Western Bus Station
At Bishkek’s Western Bus station, the buses to Almaty are not in the big main building, but at a smaller extension in front of it, towards the eastern end. Tickets are purchased at the counter seen below. Different counters sell tickets to different destinations. There aren’t companies to shop around for, so you’ll just have to find the counter for your destination. All cash transacts through the counter (400 som as of June 2018) and not the driver. No additional payment is required for luggage.
Look for the marshrutka parked nearby with a sign like the one below, which says Almaty in Cyrillic. Show the driver your receipt, wait for the bus to fill, and you’d be on your way!
The ride takes about 5 hours, with a stop in the middle where there are toilets, snacks and hot food for purchase.
Crossing the border
The process at the Kyrgyz/ Kazakh border is relatively straightforward, with some forms to fill, baggage checks, and a small receipt to drop in the box at the end of the processes. Keep all slips of paper handed back to you during the process to avoid complications further on.
Get all your bags off the marshrutka, clear one side of the customs, cross the bridge via foot, clear the second customs, and then look for your marshrutka driver waiting on the other side. Note the plate number of the marshrutka you came by to be able to board the same one and continue your journey. The marshrutka may sometimes be late, or in rare cases run off before you’re done, but in the worst case you should be able to continue on another marshrutka with a small fee.
With that, its time for Almaty!
Day 1: Republic Square, Central State Museum, Kok Tobe
A highly polished gem since Soviet times, Almaty is probably what most would not expect in Central Asia. Neat, tree lined boulevards, beautiful parks and relatively modern buildings. As mentioned, it was lovely to simply explore the streets, which might pass off as part of Europe. Here are some of the sights you might catch on the way to the first stop, Republic Square. If your hostel/hotel is in another direction, I’m sure you’d catch different but no less beautiful sights!
Art at the heart
Throughout downtown Almaty there are murals, statues and fountains that punctuate every couple of blocks and streets, which make Almaty even more pleasant for a stroll.
More on the monument/ Zhambyl Zhabaev here.
Republic Square and the Independence Monument
Let all that winding around lead you to the center of Almaty, to the Independence Monument at the Republic Square. Here, there are a couple of sculptures representing various aspects of Kazakh culture and history. Great spot to snap some shots, with the backdrop of the snow capped mountains as well as the old administrative buildings of Kazakhstan around the square.
Find out more about the Independence Monument here. There’s an underground mall beneath the Republic Square that was closed when I was in Almaty, might be worth a look if open.
Central State Museum (National Museum)
From the Independence Monument, walk in the direction of the mountains towards the left (when facing the imposing Almaty City Mayor’s Office). You’d first skirt around the Presidential Residence (of which little can be seen from the outside) before reaching the Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, also known as the National Museum. The blue domed building exhibits a wide range of artifacts and mock-ups from different periods of time throughout Kazakhstan’s long and colorful history, stretching back to prehistoric times.
English explanations are not always present/ comprehensive, and in sections the only English signs are the one telling you to keep your hands off, but it is nonetheless an interesting hour or two gaining an insight into the multiple layers and various timelines of Kazakhstan. Tickets to the museum is 500KZT. For those looking for another side to Kazakhstan beyond Borat, this may be just the starting point.
Auezov Theater Metro Station
Though the Almaty Metro was completed way after the collapse of the Soviet Union, construction began before the fall, and the system resembles some of those found in present day Russia. The exquisite Auezov Theater station is probably the best example, with chandeliers hanging from the arched ceilings and a detailed mosaic mural at one end of the platform, as seen below.
If it’s still early in the afternoon, take more time for a stroll or a slow tea break in the city, as Kok Tobe is best enjoyed in the evening, over sunset.
From the foot of Kok Tobe, you can get a cable car round-trip ticket for 2000KZT, or by bus at 500KZT each way. I went with the cable car option. The ride was quick, dropping low over houses before rising above the trees to the top of Kok Tobe, and of course, cool views all the way up.
While the view from one side undulates towards the snow capped Tian Shan mountains, the other side, of Almaty, so incredibly wide and vast and seems to stretches on forever. Quite a sight to behold.
Apart from the views, there are a couple of attractions at the top to the hill to keep you busy while waiting for sunset.
There are other small theme park rides, a small zoo with animals that look sad in small enclosures, food stalls, and the usual touristy things you’d expect on the top. At the magical moment of sunset, everyone gathers at the side looking over the city of Almaty.
Sunset and after dark at Kok Tobe
There are some restaurants on Kok Tobe where you can enjoy a snack or meal to go with the amazing views. The crowds stay till pretty late here. It is also a nice place to meet others with the chill atmosphere at the top. Gets slightly windier at night though, so a jacket might come in handy.
Day 2: Arashan, Arbat, Green Bazaar, Central Park, Park of 28 Panfilov Heroes
Arashan Wellness and Spa
Looking for a chance to relax those sore muscles before diving straight back to work, I couldn’t give up the chance to experience some Soviet era luxury at Arashan Wellness and Spa. The complex, built during the years of the USSR, is possibly the finest in Central Asia. Definitely not the cheapest of attractions (I spent close to 10,000 KZT over 3 hours), but worth it to experience the world behind those walls.
Everything you need can be rented (towels, slippers, sheet, etc) or bought, but it is recommended to bring a big bottle of water as water is expensive there and you’ll need to replace lots of water loss through the saunas. Prices are cheaper before 4pm. The price list can look confusing/ intimidating. Basically the baths (or saunas) are rated by the number of hours spent inside the complex, but if you purchase treatments over 5000KZT you just need to pay for an hour to stay there for the day. You can decide on that even after entering as the add-ons are paid on exit. Men’s and women’s sections are separate.
Experience at Arashan
I went for the steaming with broom as well as a full body scrub (or was it peeling?). It wasn’t my first time in a bath but the first time getting such treatment. The steaming with broom was hard to bear not for the hitting but because it was in the Russian bath which felt the hottest and most humid, though according to this page the Finnish one is the hottest. The scrubbing felt soothing and after that my skin felt like the softest ever.
After the treatments I spent the next hours alternating between the baths, getting to the lockers for more water, and just chilling at the lounge. I preferred the Finnish bath for the earthly smelling wood. More details about Arashan and the spa and treatment prices here.
All that freshening up should get you ready for more exploring! Not too far from Arashan Wellness and Spa is Arbat (Zhybek-Zholy street), a pedestrian street where you can find local artists and upmarket shopping.
The buildings looked fancy too on this stretch.
To the east of Arbat/ Zhybek-Zholy Street, a couple of blocks down, is another exciting place, the Green Bazaar (Zelyoni Bazaar). In this big building and a whole surrounding block you’d find almost anything. The photos here are from the fresh produce section though, the biggest of my interests.
Good idea to get anything at Green Bazaar?
The guys at the fresh fruits, dried fruits and nuts section were particularly pushy and may push a hard sell. In all that confusion of converging touts I ended up with a small bag of cherries which costed two or three times as much as they would outside the market, though still significantly cheaper than in Singapore. One tactic which I saw but fortunately escaped from, was the guy calling out to me and making eye contact, then immediately packing a bag of sweets and weighing them, insisting that I had to pay for it. Nonetheless the range of produce available is spellbinding. If you have to get anything, remember that prices are severely marked up in the bazaar especially for tourists. Know the right prices beforehand and drive a hard bargain.
If you’re stuff at one of these stalls outside the market, do note that their scales can be very suspect, so even if the price per kilogram looks cheap, check and gauge that you’re getting the weight you’re paying for.
You can also get some sweets and chocolates from Rakhat chocolate factory, to the north eastern side of Green Bazaar. It’s famous here, and you can also find their traditional chocolates and sweets in supermarkets throughout Almaty, thought it’ll probably be a little extra special getting them fresh from the factory.
Almaty Central Mosque and Raiymbek Batyr Monument
From the north western corner of the Green Bazaar block, head north along Pushkin St for about 400m. To your right is the Almaty Central Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Almaty. The mosque dates back over a hundred years old, but the current building is about 20 years old.
And less than 200m further north along Pushkin St is the Raiymbek Batyr Monument. According to Wikipedia, Raiymbek Batyr is a famous Kazakh warrior from the 18th century and other landmarks dedicated to him can be found throughout Kazakhstan.
Central Park (Gorky Park) Almaty
From Raiymbek Batyr Monument, walking in the south eastern direction for about half an hour will bring you to a huge park in Almaty, Central Park, which is also known as Gorky Park. I was actually here in the hours before sunset on my first day and found it a really nice place for a walk in the late afternoon. It was lively without being overly crowded, and there seems to be much going on inside.
Lots of theme park rides, fountains, statues, ponds and flowers.
Central Park (Gorky Park) is over 150 years old and there seems to hold some stories beyond what I could comprehend.
Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen
The other, probably more famous park in Almaty, the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, dedicated to an army unit from Almaty who fought valiantly in the Second World War against the Nazis near Moscow. Controversy surrounding their heroics arose in recent times but the naming of the park remains. Several monuments and statues can be found in this park, as well as some interesting wooden buildings.
Towards the eastern side of the park is a huge memorial and an eternal flame dedicated to solders from both world wars.
Next to the war memorial is a 100 year old wooden building, currently the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. I did not visit, but it looked interesting and is apparently home to over a thousand traditional Kazakh instruments.
Unfortunately. the Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral) was undergoing repairs when I visited and was mostly under wraps. This impressive 100 year old wooden building was built without nails and might be the second tallest wooden building in the world.
Almaty by night
Almaty is also an amazing city to explore at night. With the stately looking buildings and sculptures from Soviet times lit up, a whole new landscape pops up. Most of the time I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and some are not even named on Google Maps, but looked stunning nonetheless.
From Zhibek Zholy metro station (near Arbat, which might make a good walk at night too), walk south a little down Panfilov St and turn into AIteke Bi St, where you’d find that raw imposing facade above.
2 blocks down south is the Kazakh British Technical University. There is a park directly opposite it that is quite dark at night but nice for taking shots of the beautiful facade of the university. Also in the park is a nice sculpture below.
After that park, going slightly to the east will lead back to Panfilov St again, at a section that is relatively lively at night with a couple of bars/ restaurants, and the Abay Opera House at the southern end.
As you’d see later there’s lots of Abay (or Abai) in Almaty, referring to a famous poet/ composer/ philosopher who had made significant contributions to Kazakh culture.
Night shots near Kok Tobe Cable Car Station
The following few sights were on a different night, further down southwest, starting just outside the Kok Tobe cable car station.
You can see the Kok Tobe cable car station poking out from the right side.
Hotel Kazakhstan, one of the tallest buildings in Kazakhstan, is a famous landmark in Almaty and features on the 5000KZT note. The hotel is just to the left to the Abay Kunanbaev Monument (if you’re looking at the monument from the road).
While most of the other night sights had been chance encounters, the zodiac fountain was a deliberate find, after some friendly locals at Kok Tobe recommended it. There wasn’t a clear name for it so they spent quite awhile describing it, how this fountain is one of a kind and where it was located. Despite there being many fountains in Almaty, this stood out with all the animal sculptures in it. Near this fountain is also the Pushkin monument, the Shokan Valikhanov mounment and the Museum of Rare Books.
End of 2 days in Almaty
That’s about all I have from night scenes in Almaty, but there’s definitely much more to discover by just wandering around downtown. And that also concludes this 2 day itinerary of Almaty, a quick look at this interesting and historic city. If you’ve more time to chill here you’d surely find there’s more to the city than meets the eye. Next post coming up, possible day trips from Almaty and how to do them but first, a couple of other Almaty travel information.
Other Almaty Travel Information
Getting around by metro
The metro is a convenient way to get around the main sights in Almaty. Coverage is a little limited for now but sufficient for the key sights. Purchase a token (below) at the counter for 80KZT which will get you to any station.
Getting around by bus
Getting around by bus can be a little more challenging, but with the help of the 2GIS (free) app, taking the bus can be a breeze too, and can get you to almost anywhere you might need to go. Bus rides cost 150KZT by cash. There is an option to pay with your local phone card by SMS and the cost should be cheaper (can’t remember exactly but possibly 80KZT). For getting around 2GIS is very useful too in Almaty. Google Maps doesn’t seem to have much information for Central Asia.
Budget food options
Food in Almaty costs quite a bit more than in Bishkek, but you still can get a good hot meal for a fraction of the price of developed countries. Canteen style outlets which are popular in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and I suspect most of other former USSR countries are a good option to get to sample a range of different foods without spending a bomb. A popular chain in Almaty is Kaganat, seen below. Do note that some items can be expensive too, especially certain meat items.
If you’re in the Green Bazaar area, there are places to get affordable food at the Green Bazaar block, along Mukagali Makataev St. There are the canteens, pastries, shawarmas and more, some of the shops seen below.
And that’s all from the amazing Kazakhstan city of Almaty! Time to plan a trip to Central Asia?