Lots of things to like about Almaty

Trip Start Apr 26, 2012
Trip End Oct 31, 2012

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Where I stayed
Hotel Turkistan

Flag of Kazakhstan  ,
Friday, June 29, 2012

After our somewhat traumatic 23 hour crossing from China I was totally amazed what a decent sleep, a hot shower and a stunning view can do to improve your outlook. The sun streamed through our window at about 7am and I crawled out of bed for a loo visit. Bleary eyed I peeked out our window to see a bustling market overlooked by tall snowy peaks surrounding the city. Brilliant blue sky topped it all off. As cheap as it was the Hotel Turkistan met all our criteria…clean, comfortable and well located. The view and friendly staff were an added bonus.

As much as we would have probably liked to sleep till midday we hauled ourselves out of bed by 10 and organized money for a couple of days and ourselves to visit Stantours to pay for our Uzbek letters of invitation and our Iranian Permit applications and then try and get "Registered".

The first bit was easy once we found David's office up 3 flights of stairs at the back of a panel beater in the suburbs. He then pointed us in the direction of the correct trolley bus to get us close to the police building where we needed to “Register” our presence in Kazakhstan within 5 days. With the weekend coming up we were keen to get this all done before closing time just in case we wanted to head elsewhere first thing Monday.

The registration process was an interesting exercise in getting through bureaucratic hurdles in a completely foreign language where the process was not straightforward in the least. First we had to find the building we wanted and the relevant entrance. The Lonely Planet served us well here (despite the fact they use the new names for streets and all the locals still use the old Soviet ones) and with a determined effort by the Policeman on duty to join in our game of charades we found out we needed to come back at 3pm. No probs and we went and had a late breakfast at a delightful café near by. Yum…..Our first real meal of kebabs, pide and salad since our last visit to Turkey in 1999!

The next part was not so straight forward. First we lined up at window three with a heap of other people, none of which spoke English. About 10 minutes in and I realized they were all ducking out the door and coming back with forms….enquiries sent me out the door into another building with translation services (NOT to English!!), photocopies and above said forms…which…were all in Russian and Kazakh. Hmmmm….maybe all the papers lining the walls had examples in English….Nup.

So what to do? Solution….Tim charmed one office worker who spoke a few words of English to fill them out for us from info in our passports and a business card from our hotel…Sweet!

We then went off to another window where someone seemed to be “administering”. Here they took our paperwork and told us to come back at 5. Excellent…time for a walk around, buy SIM cards and sweeter…..find an icy cold Efes (excellent Turkish Beer) in a brand new street café. 5 O’clock on the dot we returned and were rewarded with our “Registration” papers for free. (We had been told it may cost up to $10 each.)

With the administrivia dealt with we were free to enjoy the city for the next few days and enjoy we did. Almaty is quite European with an interesting mix of Soviet and Islamic heritage. There is alledgedly 130 different ethnic groups here in this famous Silk Road city.

The weather for the 4 days we were there was brilliant, treating us to sunny blue skies with minimal humidity. The streets are wide and clean and lined with trees. The parks are shady and green well used by the locals which gives them a nice friendly atmosphere. There are street cafes everywhere and a doner kebab stores every half block or more. Ice cream sellers are even more ubiquitous and every second person is slurping on a cone. At less than 30c US, there’s no better way to cool down on a hot day, although swimming in one of the many fully-functioning fountains works just as well. There are modern shops and shopping centres interspersed with small corner shops, all of which are booming. The fashion scene is booming and gorgeous guys and girls strut their stuff in some of the latest summer styles.

Traffic rules are obeyed…meaning pedestrian crossings are actually functional…very disconcerting after coming from Vietnam and China. We thought they were just trying to tempt us onto the road the first few times a large expensive car screeched to a halt beside us.

Every car is a taxi if you can just work out how to communicate your destination and negotiate a price in Kazakh or Russian…This means you can get a ride almost anywhere in town in a new model BMW, Mercedes or Lexus for less than $5.

Almaty has good, cheap beer that can be bought almost anywhere. (In comparison to the pale and tasteless liquid with bubbles they call beer in China its GREAT beer.) In fact it’s hard to tell the difference between a café, restaurant or bar. All of them appear to let you sit down and have a beer without eating and women are free to drink in pubic too. The girls do, however, have a habit of drinking their pints through straws. I guess this is more feminine but it’s not a style I’m about to adopt. I did get some strange looks though as I politely removed the straw, wiped it on a napkin and placed it on the table beside my glass.

Meat is plentiful, cheap and usually served on large metal skewers on the BBQ or in a kebab. The smell of BBQ lamb or chicken permeates the air as the sun sets getting the gastric juices flowing. For far less than $10/head you can enjoy a belly full of meat, salad and bread plus a couple of icy cold beers in a garden café. With Doner Kebabs at less than $1 you can easy get by on $$10 per day on food, much less if you don’t drink alcohol.

One of the more noticeable things about Almaty is that people appear to be quite relaxed and there is very little loud shouting as we experienced in most parts of China. A four or five hour walking tour around the main tourist sites is a relaxing experience and you’ll be lucky to run into another tourist. Maybe it was our timing but we didn’t see one tour group at all. In fact the most common sight at this time of the year is wedding parties, travelling around the city in massive stretch Hummers having their pictures taken at all the important civic buildings. A couple of them must have thought we were stalking them as we arrived at the same time at three or four different places. All of these photo sites are very impressive. We can’t admit to having visited the insides of any but the large imposing structures, were on the whole, well maintained examples of Post War Soviet era grandeur.

Despite the fact that we spoke no Russian or Kazakh and there is very little English spoken, people were really, really helpful. You actually got the feeling you were very welcome here. The ladies at The Turkistan were especially wonderful. It sometimes took a little time but they persevered with us until all of our queries were sorted. I know it’s their job but our extensive experience in cheap accommodation tells us this is not always so and it was very much appreciated.

All in all, our first impressions of our first “Stan” country were very good. With more of Kazakhstan to visit then 4 more “Stans” to go, our expectations of having a great time in Central Asia were high…
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