I was lucky enough to be on the first direct flight from Hong Kong to Almaty in late August. Air Astana have been in operation for about 10 years, and this year won the Skytrax Best airline award for Central Asia and India. The airline flies direct twice a week – on a Tuesday and a Friday. Perfect for a long weekend, and in only a short 6.5 hours, you are in Almaty. Most passport holders do need to get a visa, although HK passport holders can travel visa free for 14 days.
The City – Almaty
Almaty used to be the capital city until 1997 when the Republic moved the capital to Astana. The city is in the mountain range so is the climate does vary. In the end of August, the mornings and evenings were cool (about 15 degrees) but the days were about 26 degrees. The city itself is a real mixture of old and new. Since Kazakhstan declared itself an independent country in December 1991, there has been more of a European influence in the architecture, alongside older Soviet-style infrastructure.
We were lucky enough to have a city tour the first morning we arrived and got to tour past the old Parliament buildings and tree lined streets. If you can get a guide for the day through your hotel, I highly recommend visiting the Museum. While it’s quite old already and exhibits do not have any English translation, it offers interesting facts, and a great way to learn about the city and its vast history.
One of the highlights of my trip was the visit to Panklov Park and Zenkov Cathedral which is the second tallest wooden building in the world and is the most vibrant of colours – they repaint it every year! Only a short walk from Panklov park is the Green Market and Chocolate Factory. The Green market is where the locals go to buy their meat and preserves. The Chocolate Factory is amazing! The quality of chocolates is up there with the best in the world yet doesn’t cost an arm and a leg (I paid about HK$67 for 6 gift packs)!
The Mountains – Medeo and Chimbulak
Only 15Km from the city centre is Medeo which has the highest ice skating rink in the world at just under 1700m above sea level. Unfortunately, the rink is only open during winter. Medeo is where the first of the gondolas start to head up the mountain to Chimbulak Ski Resort. The ride was about 20 minutes over sweeping hills. By the time we reached Chimbulak, we were at about 2200m above sea level. There is a ski village with one small resort and some nice cafes and restaurants – a great spot to hang out for a while. During the summer, this area is great for hiking; and in the winter, it is a great ski resort. The lifts head up the mountain as far as about 3200m above sea level. Even at the end of August, there was still ice/snow at the very top of the mountain.
The following day, we ventured out to the other side of the mountain to visit the breathtaking Big Almaty Lake which is 2500m above sea level. The lake is crystal blue and is surrounded by lush green hills, and I imagine in the winter with the snow would be even more amazing. You can’t get close to the lake as it is one of the town’s main water supplies and because of the altitude, it is around freezing temperature. Only a few cars are allowed up each day to limit pollution so this is a popular place for locals to come and hike and camp out.
Almaty has a wide range of food, and we got to try everything from Chinese, Russian, Uzbek and Kazak food. The locals eat a lot of mutton, and for special occasions – horse meat. Specialty drinks also include the obvious, vodka, as well as camel’s and horse’s milk.
Alasha is an Uzbek restaurant that provides good entertainment with locals dancing. The last night we were in the city were also lucky enough to eat at a place called Kazak Aul which was a local restaurant in the mountains which had 3 yurts (local houses) set up for diners.
For those who don’t like to be too adventurous, they have the good ol’ favourites like KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut – but NO McDonalds.
For those keen on shopping, we went to a new mall full of high street fashion brands like Top Shop, Nine West, Aldo and Karen Millen – and it was cheap! I purchased a wallet and 2 necklaces from Aldo for HK$250 – worth going just for the shopping!
As the country is opening up they are starting to attract more tourists. So if you like to travel off the beaten track, think about heading there sooner rather than later before the city is crawling with tourists!
By Katie Millar