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Almaty
Kazakhstan’s Cultural Capital


By David Witherspoon


Almatygood place to start exploring Almaty is Panfilov Park, at the intersection of Dostyk Avenue and Aiteke Bi Street. Its centerpiece is the stunning, multistoried, all-wood St. Ascension Cathedral designed by architect Andrey Zenkov in the early 20th century (see separate story).

The park also features a war memorial known as the Monument to the 28 Heroes. It salutes a unit of Kazakh troops armed only with light weapons, who helped prevent Nazi tanks from rolling into Moscow in 1941. The memorial depicts rippling-muscled Kazakh troops shielding a map of Soviet territory with their bodies. A few yards from the monument is an eternal flame honoring the dead from the Russian civil war of 1917 to 1920 and from World War II.

Zenkov CathedralOn the edge of Panfilov Park is one of Almaty’s best museums: the Museum of National Musical Instruments. It’s in another distinctive building designed by Andrey Zenkov, creator of the Cathedral. The museum, at the corner of Pushkin and Mametova Streets, boasts more than 1,000 items. Among the 60 instruments are several lute-like dombra, a symbol of Kazakhstan. Visitors can sometimes cajole the staff into strumming tunes for them.

Also near Panfilov Park is the Green Bazaar, Kazakhstan’s biggest. It offers a vast array of meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, spices and other food, plus clothes, shoes, cosmetics, souvenirs and sundries. Like bazaars everywhere, part of the fun is haggling with vendors over prices. Visitors will see sheep heads looking dolefully up at them in the meat section. Kazakhs consider the soft flesh on a sheep’s face a delicacy – and it actually is delicious.

A 30-minute walk up Dostyk Street from Panfilov Park is Kok-Tyube, a hilltop amusement park you reach by aerial tram. The base of the tram is behind the Hotel Kazakhstan near the intersection of Dostyk and Abai Avenues.

The park offers a sweeping view of Almaty. There’s also a mini-zoo that includes birds of prey, deer and smaller wild animals, plus rabbits and sheep for petting. Kok-Tyube has an excellent Kazakh restaurant. It looks like a traditional nomad’s tent – hence its name, Yurt.

Not far from Kok-Tyube, at 44 Furmanov Street above the Republic Square, is the National Museum, Kazakhstan’s main repository of archaeological treasures. The biggest draw is a replica of the Golden Man, a Scythian warrior prince, who lived between the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Archaeologists found the warrior in a burial mound north of Almaty. His raiment of 4,000 pieces of thin gold leaf indicated he was a prince or other member of the nobility.

The National Art Museum, housing Kazakhstan’s largest collection of art, is near the National Museum at the intersection of Satpaev and Baizakov Streets. It features Kazakh, Russian and Western European pieces. Some are by artists banned during Soviet times. Two of Russia’s famed art museums—the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow—gave Kazakhstan dozens of works during the 1930s, around which the National Art Museum built its collection. In 2000, Kazakhs streamed into the building by the thousands to see an Andy Warhol exhibit.

Almaty

Winter sports fans will find a paradise a few minutes’ drive southeast of Almaty in the Tian Shan Mountains. Chimbulak is a world-class ski resort with slopes for aces and beginners. One of Chimbulak’s claims to fame is a heavy snow covering, all the way from November to April. Instructors are on hand to teach both skiing and snowboarding.

Below Chimbulak is Medeu, the largest high-altitude sports complex in the world – about a mile above sea level. Its showcase is an Olympic skating rink.

Both Chimbulak and Medeu have never been in better shape, with Kazakhstan renovating them recently for the 2011 Asian Winter Games.

If you’re into city life rather than the outdoors, Almaty has it all great eateries, cafes, discos, jazz clubs, opera and ballet.

You can find good Kazakh and Russian dining on almost any corner. Three terrific ethnic-cuisine restaurants are Sumo-San, Namaste and Pomodoro.

Sumo-San, at 159 Baitursynov Street near the intersection with Timiryazev Street, is one of the best Japanese restaurants you’ll find outside Japan. The owner, Nailya, fell in love with Japan years ago and spends several months a year there. She always comes back with new dishes to teach to her staff. That means Sumo-san offers a full range of fare, not just the sushi plus a handful of other items found at many establishments. And the taste? A clue is the throngs of Japanese expatriates who hang out there.

Namaste is an Indian restaurant at the corner of Satpaev and Baitursynov Streets that also offers Thai food. Indian and Thai chefs ensure that both are excellent. Namaste creates the right atmosphere with Indian paintings and artifacts, waitresses in saris and Bollywood musicals playing on an overhead TV. Namaste draws as many Indian clients as Sumo-san does Japanese.

Pomodoro, which means “tomato” in Italian, is an Italian place at Panfilov and Kirova Streets. The owner, Giorgio, is from the old country, married to a Kazakh. He serves up delicious pasta, meat and other Italian favorites and loves chatting with the customers.

If you want entertainment with dinner, try the dinner floor show at the Alma-Ata Hotel at Panfilov and Bogenbay Batyr Streets. Singers belt out Kazakh, Russian and other tunes at the start of each hour while you’re dining. Then a half-dozen gorgeous young dancers hit the floor, swirling and twirling. They change their colorful costumes with every routine to depict the ethnic groups whose choreography they’re reflecting at the moment, including Kazakh, Uzbek and Azeri.

Given the great food and entertainment, and all the rest that Almaty has to offer, you shouldn’t miss taking the 90-minute flight from Astana to explore this gem of Central Asia.

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