Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sept. 7: Almaty

When I arrived in Almaty (AKA Alma-Ata) for the second time I marched straight out of the station to avoid attracting unwanted attention. As soon as I exited the building the enormous snow-capped mountains that loom over the city came into view. As I walked from the station to the hostel my impression of the city was much more positive than it had been on my first visit: partly because I now had the chaos of Shymkent and Turkistan as points of comparison, and partly because it was now a Sunday afternoon, Almaty's tree-lined boulevards and plentiful cafés now seemed tranquil and appealing. Almaty's population is very diverse due to Soviet-era migration and deportation (51% Kazakhs, 33% Russians, 6% Uyghurs, 2% Koreans, 2% Tatars, 1% Ukrainians, 1% Azeris, 1% Germans, 1% Uzbeks, 1% Dungans), and since independence its cosmopolitanism has only been enhanced due to the formation of a significant ex-pat community and as a result the city enjoys an affluent, almost European atmosphere.

After checking into my hostel and then spending a couple of hours walking around the city, seeing it with new eyes, I got on a bus that took me south out of town, past glamorous hotels and luxury resorts, up into the mountains as far as Medeu, at 1700m. At Medeu there isn't much other than a huge ice skating rink, but from there I climbed another couple of hundred metres to a spot with amazing views of the mountains to the south and the the city to the north. This is however a popular spot for tourists and locals alike and my enjoyment of the mountain scenery was somewhat diminished by being surrounded by people.

Although I'd heard that Almaty was a good place to try Uyghur and Dungan cuisine (both are ethnic groups whose homelands lie in China, and their food has strong Chinese influences), I actually found it really hard to find any affordable restaurants at all. Kazakh restaurants appeared to be completely absent. The streets were full of pricey Italian, Japanese and French restaurants. The only affordable options that abounded were mediocre döner kebabs, though I did eventually find a decent Uzbek restaurant serving delicious shashlyk (barbecued meat on skewers) of various varieties, including goat's heart (a lot better than it sounds).

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