Almaty: Cultural Crossroads Beneath Tian Shan

The Ascension Cathedral stands gracefully in Panfilov Park
The Ascension Cathedral stands gracefully in Panfilov Park. Teh Chin Liang photos

Intriguing Almaty: Visiting the Canyon and the Green Bazaar in Kazakhstan

By Teh Chin Liang
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

“Chin, see how cold it is outside? You need something warmer than what you are wearing!”

My Kazakh friend didn’t seem impressed with my windbreaker when we met in Almaty, the largest city in southeastern Kazakhstan. Despite it being early spring, I arrived at the city unexpectedly blanketed in fresh snow.

Arrived in the Brutal Wintry Weather

Outside, a heavy overnight snowfall dumped several inches of snow on the sidewalk. Snow perched in heavy clumps to the branches of the trees, like cotton wool balls, occasionally tumbling down in a soft synchronized symphony of thuds.

“This is unusual weather,” my friend said with a sigh. “We don’t get snow at this time of year. But it will be warmer in the next few days.”

Fresh off sweltering through the worst heatwave of the year in tropical Malaysia, the sight of snow was a welcome change.

Veiled by tall, bare pine trees, the majestic Ascension Cathedral stood ethereal, bathed in the serenity of the glistening snow and the crisp air. The clip-clop of the horse’s hooves echoed and broke the silence. The scene was nothing short of a fairy tale come to life.

Almaty covered in snow after overnight snowfall
Almaty covered in snow after overnight snowfall

City of Apples

Almaty, nicknamed the “Apple City,” gets its name from the Kazakh word “alma,” which means apple, and the city is believed to be the birthplace of the first apple tree.

At Tary, a traditional Kazakh restaurant, my friend ordered a platter of Kazakh delights elaborately filled with Zhent (a dessert made from millet, sugar, crushed cottage cheese, butter, and raisins), honey-glazed pastries, homemade waffles, and cookies. We washed them down with a pot of hot tea.

In Kazakhstan, hot tea is traditionally served in a small bowl. My friend downed it in one go. The hot steam swirled around his face, misting his glasses. His eyes motioned for the tea sitting cold on the table.

“Chin, your tea is cold.”

I took a gulp, indulging in the Kazakh way of tea drinking.

Don't miss the Kazakh delights platter when in Almaty
Don’t miss the Kazakh delights platter when in Almaty

Green Bazaar – Your Gateway to Exotic Flavors

The Green Bazaar, also known as Zelyony Bazaar, is a veritable treasure trove of exotic goods, ranging from spices, herbs, teas, dried fruits, nuts, dairy products, and meats from across Central Asia and beyond.

Samsa, savory pastries filled with minced meat (usually lamb), and Bauyrsak, a staple deep-fried dough treat from nomadic tribes, were a common sight on sizzling trays throughout the market.

As my curious eyes scanned from one stall to another, the vendors were eager to hand out samples of their food for me to try. By the time I reached the last, I was full enough to skip lunch.

Heads Up for The First-Time Kumis Drinkers!

My friend suggested that I try ‘kumis’—fermented horse milk. A video that I had watched not long ago, showing a bunch of guys running for the bathroom after drinking it, flashed before me. I turned to my friend. I must have looked worried.

He sensed my worry right away. “Don’t worry, there are plenty of bathrooms in this bazaar!” he said with a teasing grin.

One sip and it hit me hard. Strong and milky. Definitely not what I expected at all. An acquired taste for sure. Next came a cup of camel milk – much smoother and milder than the kumis. The vendor continued to hand over samples. On a paper plate was a small slice of meat.

A vendor at the Green Bazaar
A vendor at the Green Bazaar

“That’s Qazy,” my friend said, nudging me towards a horse sign in the meat section. “Horse meat, in case you are wondering.”

Leaving the bazaar, an amalgam of flavors lingered on my tongue.  The kumis did not send me sprinting to the bathroom, but my stomach was gurgling with gas for the rest of the day. Well, a small price to pay for such a unique taste of the region!

Awe-Inspiring Natural Wonders

The following day, I joined a group tour to visit nature sites outside of Almaty. The tours vary in duration and prices, ranging from 13,000 to 25,000 tenge ($30-55) depending on the itinerary and transportation.

The tour company may ask you to pay at a Kaspi terminal, a widely used payment kiosk in Kazakhstan. The kiosk is in Russian only, make sure your tour company provide clear English instructions to guide you through the payment.

My full-day tour covered Moon Canyon, Black Canyon, Kolsay Lake, and Charyn Canyon. Each stop was hours apart, starting at 6 am and wrapped up back in Almaty at 9 pm.

The breathtaking Moon Canyon
The breathtaking Moon Canyon

Breathtaking Canyons and Glacial Lake

Moon Canyon, named for its moon-like landscape of unique rock formations and rugged terrain, stands in stark contrast to Black Canyon, where dark mineral deposits paint the rocks a dramatic black.

The bus wound through a labyrinth of valleys hemmed in by the never-ending snow-capped mountains before arriving at Kolsay Lake. A long, sloping staircase led to the lake.  We carefully trod over the slippery ice and reached the lake’s edge. Zen and calm set in as we were greeted by a vast sheet of ice blanketing the lake, framed by the pine-tree covered hills.

The amazing Kolsay Lake
The amazing Kolsay Lake

One look at the lake, and you will understand why the lake is touted as the ‘Pearls of Tien Shan’. Standing at the edge of the frozen lake, the timeless beauty swallowed me whole. I lost track of time, the world dissolving around me. The bus driver had to blow the horn to get us back on the bus.

Our last stop, Charyn Canyon, was a geological masterpiece. This 80-mile marvel along the Charyn River, with its spectacular rock formations, is often called the “little brother of the Grand Canyon” due to its resemblance, but on a smaller scale.

The author, Teh Chin Liang, explores Charyn Canyon
The author, Teh Chin Liang, explores Charyn Canyon

Follow the trail with towering rock formations on either side, some look like colossal animal statues carved by the hand of time. At the end of the trail is a viewpoint overlooking the Charyn River.

Don’t feel like walking? Then hop on a tourist jeep that rumbles to life, whisking you through this otherworldly landscape. A plume of red dust trails behind as the jeep bumps down the potholed trail.

Pedestrian-friendly City with European Flair

The abundance of pedestrian walkways makes Almaty safe and comfortable to explore on foot. Parks are spread throughout, and benches are everywhere. You never have to worry about finding a place to take a break.

Tourist crowds are rare here. The mix of European, Soviet and Kazakh buildings makes the city interesting to walk around. But overall, it almost feels European, easily taking your mind off the fact that you are in Central Asia.

Right in the heart of Almaty is Panfilov Park, a sprawling urban oasis. But this vast park holds more than meets the eye.

Urban Greenery at Every Turn

Within the park looms the Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox cathedral is entirely made of wood, without the use of any nails.

Surrounded by tall pine trees swaying in the breeze and the gentle clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, the church’s setting adds a fairy-tale-like charm to the already romantic atmosphere. Inside, intricate frescoes and icons coalesce to create a breathtaking masterpiece.

A short walk from the church is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to soldiers who fell in World War II, commemorated with an Eternal Flame. Around the corner, a beautiful carved wooden building in Russian architectural style houses the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, showcasing Kazakhstan’s rich musical traditions.

Almaty Metro is a hidden gem of art
Almaty Metro is a hidden gem of art

Art-filled Metro Stations

Almaty’s metro stations are a hidden gem for art lovers. For only 100 tenge (about $0.20), your ticket not only gets you a ride on the only network line, but also allows you to explore an underground art gallery, adding a touch of elegance to your commute.

The opulent chandelier’s light illuminates your way to the platform. Every time I took the metro, I would linger, fascinated by its Soviet-style grandeur, to the point of even missing a train.

Panoramic Views at Kok Tobe

Kok Tobe, overlooking Almaty, offers sweeping cityscapes embraced by the splendor of the Tian Shan Mountain range. Accessible by cable car, bus, or a brisk 30-minute walk, the hill is a popular family getaway destination.

Even on a cold day during my visit, the park was packed with families bundled up for walks around the mini zoo, amusement rides, and gazing up at the towering TV Tower.

The Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ faintly played in the air, an ironic contrast to the cloudy, freezing weather. Following the music, I came upon life-sized statues of The Beatles. A testament to their timeless music, the monument shows their impact lives on even in a distant city like Almaty.

Luxury Spa in Soviet Architecture

Before leaving Almaty, I visited the Arasan Baths, Central Asia‘s largest bathhouse complex built in 1982. With separate areas for men and women, the bathhouse offers a unique aquatic escape at affordable hourly rates. One hour is probably enough for first timers, though you can choose to stay for up to three. I went for two hours.

I started with a shower then headed to the pool and saunas – Finnish, Russian, and Turkish. The Russian sauna is best for those who enjoy intense heat, while the Turkish hammam is enveloped in thick steam. The Finnish sauna, with its gentle heat, was my favorite way to warm up after taking a quick dip in a cold-water barrel.

Some people used birch leaves to lightly massage their backs. The leaves are believed to have benefits for circulation and skin health.

Note: While most patrons wear swimsuits at the bathhouse, nudity is common. Be mentally prepared for this before your visit.

Almaty? Absolutely!

The bath renewed my senses and provided me a new lens to look at Almaty in a whole new light. The streets, the buildings, the parks, and the beautiful people – the captivating mix of Kazakh and Russian cultures, unfolded against the backdrop of the jagged peaks of Tian Shan – drew me in even deeper.

All the reviews about Almaty being boring and unsafe had me worried, but guess what? They were way off! This underrated city is a must-visit.  My earlier worries now seem silly and unnecessary. In fact, I fell in love with Almaty the moment a snowflake kissed my cheek, and the powdery snow crunched under my shoes as I stepped into the rich cultural world of Kazakhstan.

A little girl in Kazakh clothing enjoys the view at Kok Tobe
A little girl in Kazakh clothing enjoys the view at Kok Tobe
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