Silk Route Spotlight: Apples of Almaty, and 7 More Things I Love About This Kazakh Town
MIR’s long-time Tour Manager Michel Behar loves all things Central Asian. Here he describes a few of his favorite things in one of his favorite cities: Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Here’s what I love about the place:
I love the apples of Almaty. Once the capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is now the capital of apples – yes, the “Big Apple!” Almaty’s name means “Father of Apples,” and the town’s nickname is “City of Apples.” It’s believed this is where apples originated on earth, with some 27 species in Almaty alone. That’s pretty serious genetic diversity. At 3,500 feet, Almaty’s elevation offers excellent conditions for growing.
Favorite apple in Almaty? That would be “Aport,” a gigantic apple that often weighs more than 2 pounds. It’s so desired that in Soviet times state-run orchards would set aside “Kremlin plots” where Aport apples were given special attention, then sent to Moscow for state banquets.
2. Medeo outdoor speed-skating rink, near Almaty
The original 1950s rink was replaced in the 1970s – and what a difference it made! More than 120 world records have been broken at this historic training center, home to Olympic athletes of the former Soviet Union.
Medeo is famous for its high-quality ice, in large part because the rink’s elevation is more than a mile in the sky – the world’s highest – along with a highly sophisticated ice-making system. Medeo hosted the 2011 Asian Winter Games; Almaty was also in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics at Medeo and nearby Shymbulak ski resort.
3. Kök Bazaar
I love Almaty’s vast Kök Bazaar, the covered market in the old part of town. “Kök” means “green” in Kazakh – the color of the building. The dried fruit section is especially colorful. Meat is essential to Kazakh cuisine, so it’s not surprising that this section of the market is mammoth, divided into long rows of vendor booths for sheep, beef, pork, and horse. Yes, horse. It’s believed to lower blood pressure, and horsemeat is sometimes wrapped around broken bones to speed up the healing process.
I also love the market’s pungent Central Asian cheese balls, as well as kimchi and other Korean dishes sold by and for Almaty’s Korean minority. Jewelry is a popular souvenir; favorites are giant silver rings set with semi-precious stones like carnelian or turquoise, and worn on three or four fingers.
4. Ever-evolving architecture
Almaty is changing rapidly. It’s a surprising mix of authentic wooden czarist-era public buildings, like Zenkov Cathedral, along with Soviet-style apartments and ultra-modern skyscrapers against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Often travelers on my tours think of Central Asia as only deserts, steppes, and oases, and are surprised not only by the modernity of Almaty but by the raw beauty of the nearby Tien Shan Mountains, which are part of the Himalayas. The roads are fun to watch as well: simple Soviet Ladas have been replaced with fancy BMWs and Mercedes.
5. Kastayev Museum of Fine Arts
This place has it all, loaded with more than 20,000 artifacts in its collection. They range from felt tapestries and Soviet-era paintings (many once banned) of pastoral life and Soviet industrialization to contemporary sculptures of nomads, horse riders, and even replicas of balbals (medieval stone figurines) watching TV. It proves there can be humor in art and in history – both found at the Kastayev Museum.
6. State Museum of National Musical Instruments
It’s housed in a century-old Russian wooden building, filled with more than 1,000 musical instruments from all parts of Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and around the world. What truly fascinates me is the kobyz, an ancient Kazakh wooden string instrument made of horsehair so sharp it can make your nails bleed! It’s believed that the kobyz and its music are magical, banishing evil spirits and warding off disease and death. Kobyz are on display at the museum, and you can also see or listen to kobyz at lunchtime concerts in Medeo.
7. “Interbrew” Belgian Pub
When my tour groups head back to civilization in Almaty, I love to surprise them with an authentic Belgian pub that serves up dark draft beers, like Leffe brand, along with tasty barbequed kebabs. There’s even a replica of the Eiffel Tower outside the “Interbrew” pub. My MIR travelers love this place – it’s so unexpected – and to me it represents the diversity of experiences in Almaty.
I just had to throw this one in. I really don’t like bears, but once in a while you’ll see one near Medeo’s mountain resort. It’s a good photo opportunity, if you’re lucky enough to spot a rare wild bear. I’m including bears here because to me they’re a symbol of the Kazakh wilderness, open space, woods, and fresh mountain air – and still so close to urban Almaty.
Travel To Kazakhstan with MIR
MIR has 30 years of travel experience in Kazakhstan, and has an accredited office in Central Asia. MIR has a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
MIR’s expertise can get you to challenging places hampered by fluctuating flight routes, complicated visa regimens and ever-changing border requirements.
You might also be interested in:
You can visit Kazakhstan with MIR a number of ways:
- Small Group Tours
- Rail Journeys by Private Train
- NEW! Persia & the Silk Road by Private Train (Westbound)
- The Silk Route by Private Train (Westbound)
- Jewels of Persia & The Silk Route by Private Train (Westbound)
- Iran & The ‘Stans by Private Train (Eastbound)
- Essence of the Silk Road by Private Train (Eastbound / Westbound)
- Essence of the Silk Road & Beyond by Private Train
- Caspian Odyssey by Private Train
You can also book a custom private journey to any or all of the five ‘Stans. MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.
(Top photo credit: Ana Filonov)
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2014