If you’ve decided to take the path less taken in the travel world, one region you might find yourself exploring is Central Asia. Of all the nations that comprise this lightly treaded place, Kazakhstan is by far the largest in land area and population, making it a logical place to begin your quest.
When you do this, you’ll be flying to the former capital city of Almaty, which still retains the crown as the largest city in the nation. Sitting in the shadow of the spectacular Zailiski Alatau Mountains, your introduction to this nation will be a spectacular one, yet this city holds plenty of attractions on its own to make it worthy of at least a couple days of sightseeing.
From remnants of the days of the Soviets, to cathedrals and mosques, and of course, numerous opportunities to interact with the great outdoors that springs up all around this increasingly modern city, your experience with Almaty will likely shock you at how much an amazing place could ever remain so unknown to those outside this corner of the world.
Despite the fact that Almaty has a majority Muslim population, it possesses a remarkable Orthodox Christian structure known as Ascension Cathedral. Painted a brilliant yellow with green trim and standing before its visitors in an imposing manner, Ascension Cathedral has the distinction of being the second tallest wooden building that exists in the world. Incredibly well built, it survived a major earthquake in 1911 despite being built without nails (!).
Situated with one of the more stunning background in the Islamic world, Almaty’s Central Mosqueis one that religion’s more visually stunning halls of worship when one combines its architectural design with its natural surroundings. Despite the fact that it was only constructed in 1999, the blue domes, soaring minarets, the Turkish calligraphy and the overwhelming friendliness of the devotees inside make this a place to check out during your time in Almaty.
The long history of Kazakhstan is on display at the National Museum, where one can observe the evolution of humanity in this region from prehistory, through the days of the Mongols, Soviet times and right up to the present day. While the displays tend to be in Kazakh and Russian only, guides in English can be printed off from the web to enhance the experience of those that do not understand these languages.
As with much of the former USSR, Kazakhstan has suffered greatly through many bloody wars, especially in the last century. 28 Panfilov Heroes Memorial Park recognizes this, as it honours soldiers from this area that fought pitched battles against the Nazi war machine. The centrepiece of this park is an eternal flame where many locals love to get pictures with … help them take their photos and maybe they’ll return the favour!
Public communal baths are very popular across the expanse of Central Asia, and Almaty in Kazakhstan is no different. If the cold of winter is getting you down, or if the strain of engaging in physical activities during the summer has you aching all over, then a trip to the Arasan Baths could be just the ticket for you.
Those not used to gratuitous nudity should brace themselves though, as bathing and the treatments available is conducted in the buff. You’ll get over it quickly though, as the scrubbings, saunas, hot pools, cold plunge pools, massages, branch beatings (yup…), and après treatment drinks will have you completely relaxed and in a jovial mood after departing from an afternoon that will stay with you long afterwards.
If you desire to check out your first Central Asian market, head down to Zelyony Market, where strips of horse meat, a bewildering array of dried fruit, a cornucopia of vegetables, and fresh cooked to order meals will have foodie travelers rubbing their hands with glee! It may not be Central Asia’s most impressive market overall, but it is a great place to pick up provisions for that eternally long bus ride that you are dreading!
Outdoor lovers may find a reason to stick around here longer than other travelers, as there are world class skiing facilities nearby, an Olympic class skating venue, and hiking experiences that will stoke your desire to go deeper into the hinterland of Kazakhstan. The ski resorts and skating oval have figured prominently in bids for the winter Olympics (they have vowed to try again for 2022), and the hiking in the same terrain in the summer yields awe-inspiring views of craggy mountains, remote and peaceful lakes, and patches of snow that hang on well into the summer months.