Silk Route Spotlight: Apples of Almaty, and 7 More Things I Love About This Kazakh Town

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.

MIR's Michel Behar in a favorite setting: Central Asia Photo credit: Michel Behar

MIR’s Michel Behar in a favorite setting: Central Asia
Photo credit: Michel Behar

“Big Apple” CapitalI’ve lost count of the number times I’ve been in Almaty. I was there when it was the capital of Kazakhstan (it was switched to Astana in 1997) and the population was half what it is today – about 1.5 million. Even as it changes, Almaty remains a city of history, business, culture, and stunning natural beauty. With any luck, the world will know more of Almaty if it’s chosen for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Here’s what I love about the place:

Open space among buildings in Almaty, Kazakhstan <br>Photo credit: Ana Filonov

Open space among buildings in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

1. ApplesI 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.

Almaty apples include <i>Aport,</i> from Kazakh orchards to Kremlin tables <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Almaty apples include Aport, from Kazakh orchards to Kremlin tables
Photo credit: Michel Behar

2. Medeo outdoor speed-skating rink, near AlmatyThe 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 is also in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics at Medeo and nearby Shymbulak ski resort.

Historic Medeo Sports Complex near Almaty, Kazakhstan <br>Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

Historic Medeo Sports Complex near Almaty, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

3. Kök BazaarI 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.

Meat vendor at the Almaty Kök Bazaar in Kazakhstan <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Meat vendor at the Almaty Kök Bazaar in Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

4. Ever-evolving architectureAlmaty 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.

Almaty's Zenkov Cathedral is one of a handful of wooden cathedrals in the world<br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Almaty’s Zenkov Cathedral is one of a handful of wooden cathedrals in the world
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Juxtaposition of old and new buildings in Almaty, Kazakhstan <br>Photo credit: Liz Riley

Juxtaposition of old and new buildings in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Liz Riley

5. Kastayev Museum of Fine ArtsThis 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 InstrumentsIt’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.

Kobyz, a traditional Kazakh musical instrument <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Kobyz, traditional Kazakh musical instruments 
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Traditional Kazakh musicians <br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

Traditional Kazakh musicians
Photo credit: Michel Behar

7. “Interbrew” Belgian PubWhen 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.

8. BearsI 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.

Tien Shan Mountains. near Almaty, Kazakhstan <br>Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

Tien Shan Mountains near Almaty, Kazakhstan
Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

By the WayFinally, Kazakhstan’s president caused quite a stir when he proposed  to what he considers a catchier one – “Kazakh Eli” – to distinguish his oil-rich country from what he calls its poorer ‘Stan cousins, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It just doesn’t have the same ring as “Kazakhstan.” What do you think?

Regardless of such oddball name changes, what’s enduring are a few of my favorite things in Almaty, a city that will always be one of my favorite places in the world.

Travel To Kazakhstan with MIRLearn more about MIR tours that travel to Kazakhstan, where you can explore this dynamic “Big Apple” city and its history. You can also book a custom private journey.

(Top photo credit: Michel Behar) 

PUBLISHED: June 11, 2014

Related Posts

Share your thoughts

3 thoughts on “Silk Route Spotlight: Apples of Almaty, and 7 More Things I Love About This Kazakh Town

  • Happy Silk Road Traveler

    It’s true. Almaty had some beautiful apples in their open air markets.

  • Great blog! We will be following this closely! Keep it up guys!!!!
    Best wishes
    Fred and Sharon Lundahl

  • Svetlana Dylevskaya

    Dear Michel,

    It was a big pleasure to discover that you like Almaty as I am.

    I am originally from Kazakhstan where I lived for 11 years (yes, of course, in Almaty :-)). Currently I reside in El Paso, TX.

    As a journalist for more than 25 years for different newspapers and international organizations in Kazakhstan, I also have visited the neighboring Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, and countries throughout Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. However Almaty, in my opinion, is a magical city. Many of my foreign friends like to come back to Almaty again and again.

    Yes, you are right, the pungent Central Asian cheese balls are very tasty. We also have traditional Kazakh cheese balls, which we call “kurt” (it is deliciously salty; good as a beer accompanying snack; it is prepared by pressing thick sour cream, and is dried then).

    Traditional Kazakh musicians on your picture stay behind the traditional Kazakh nomad’s house (“yurt” in Kazakh). Yurt itself is very interesting construction. It is a portable, bent dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia as their home.

    The Kazakh traditional instruments women-musicians handle are dombra and kobyz (modern version). Tourists can listen to kobyz not only at lunchtime concerts in Medeo but also in the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments and on concerts in the concert halls (Almaty has a few).

    The beautiful a century-old Russian wooden building on your picture is the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments.

    The State Museum of Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan named after A. Kasteev has the collection of Dutch and Flemish Art of XVI-XVIII centuries (painting and drawing), among others.

    Yes, the silver jewelry is a popular souvenir from Kazakhstan but we have much more to offer – for example, souvenirs made of camel wool (I gave a pair of very warm slippers made of camel wool to my friend who lives in Canada; he absolutely loves them).

    Almaty has a subway which is interesting to explore because they call it “the youngest metro on the world”. It is also was the most long-running construction – works began in the Soviet time in 1988, then resumed in 2005. All 7 stations are nicely decorated and different. You can see movie about a rocket launch on a big screen on the station called “Baikonur” (Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility).

    Good luck with your trips to Central Asia!

    It would be my pleasure to help you to discover new and fascinating things in Almaty.

    Svetlana Dylevskaya,

    Freelance Journalist, Photographer
    El Paso, TX