Wednesday, January 3, 2018


We flew from Urumqi to Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday, October 4, 2017. I was a little anxious about what we might find in the uncharted territory (for us) of the Stans. 

Almaty, located near the Kyrgyzstan border and not far from the China border, is the largest city in the country. There are 1.7 million people in Almaty, which is 9% of the entire country's population. Almaty also served as the capital during the time Kazakhstan was part of the USSR (1929-1997). The capital was moved north to Astana in December of 1997. Note that Kazakhstan's largest border is with Russia:
Map from here
And there I had a significant Aha! moment: The Stans were part of the USSR! I'm sure I knew that at one time--or did I? I couldn't have even placed them on the map prior to this trip, which is crazy considering that Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, area wise. I could place every other country in the top ten list on a map before this trip, so why not Kazakhstan?
#1: Russia
#2: Canada
#3: United States of America
#4: China
#5: Brazil
#6: Australia
#7: India
#8: Argentina
#9: Kazakhstan
#10: Algeria

Maybe it's because although Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, the US has never had access to those resources. Maybe it's because there has been almost no US tourism to this region until recently. Maybe it's because out of the ten countries on the above list, Kazakhstan has the smallest population (17.8 million). The United States is about four times larger than Kazakhstan, but has seventeen times the population, which gives you an idea of how sparsely populated Kazakhstan is. Why should we care about them, right?
Map from the CIA website
Anyway, Kazakhstan was the last of the Stans to sign the resolution to withdraw from the USSR. They were understandably concerned about economics. These days Kazakhstan appears to have good relations with other countries in the area. They have strong economic ties to the European Union, China, and Russia, in that order, showing that they have successfully broken away from Russia. In addition, they are gradually shifting from the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet to the Latin alphabet (what we use).

After we arrived in Almaty, we went straight to the Royal Tulip Hotel, one of the best hotels of our trip. Yes, it was very Dutch.

It is located on the edge of the city, right up against the magnificent Tian Shan Mountains:

View from our hotel room window:

A scale model of the hotel:

Beautiful lobby:

Marble hallways:

Gorgeous room . . . yeah, we'd stay here again in a heartbeat.

Next time we'll have to take a dip in their pool:

We had a nice view of the city the next morning from our window. It looks very European:

The name "Almaty" is translated as "full of apples" or "father of apples," depending on which source you consult. ("Alma" means "apple" in the Turkish language.) The region is thought to be the birthplace of the apple and is known for its wild apple forests in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains. 

There is a oversized concrete apple monument on one of the town roundabouts:

Our first stop was the Central State Museum, a distinctive building that houses one of the largest collections of historical, archaeological, and cultural artifacts in Central Asia:
Unfortunately, we had a very negative experience there. Our tour company had hired a really terrific local guide who started giving us a tour in the museum. Other than our group, the museum was pretty much empty. However, after just a few minutes, the museum authorities stopped her narrative and told her that we had to have one of the "official" museum employees give the tour. They substituted a young man for our tour guide who was a nice person but an awful tour guide. His English was very poor and he was incredibly boring. He also focused on minutiae that we didn't care about and moved much too slowly through the exhibits. On top of that, we were not allowed to take any photos. Bummer. Gradually, most of us drifted away to explore on our own, and he was left with only a few faithful tourists. I felt a little bad for him.

On our way out of the museum, we saw this colorful display. Almaty claims to have been founded in 1016 AD, making it 1001 years  old.

We made our way to Republic Square, a public gathering place created by the communists in 1980 during what the Kazakhs call "the Soviet period." A 91-food-tall obelisk, the "Statue of the Golden Warrior," stands in the center of the square.

The height of the obelisk and the time of day made it hard to get a good picture, so I borrowed one from here. Depicted are a native nomad warrior and a winged leopard. The statue is based on the skeleton of an 18-year-old Scythian warrior clothed in gold-plated armor. It was  recovered in 1969 from a burial mound 40 miles from Almaty and dates back to the 3rd or 2nd century BC. The winged leopard is a symbol of Kazakhstan:
A copy of this statue is on the front lawn of the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Figures representing a family encircle the the obelisk. There are two statues of children riding bareback on horses. They represent hope for the future:

Two more statues symbolize their father and mother:

In front of the obelisk is an open bronze book representing Kazakhstan's 1995 Constitution. That hand print belongs to the man who was then--and still is--President, Nursultan Abishuly Nazabayev. Probably millions of visitors have literally put their hand in his hand as they read the words in four different languages on the facing page encouraging them to make a wish. (The English words, not exactly a great translation, read "Choose and be in bliss!")

Behind the monument is a screen created by ten bronze reliefs that show the history of Kazakhstan:

Our local guide, the one silenced in the museum referenced above, did an excellent job of quickly explaining each panel. Unfortunately, I didn't take notes, so use your imagination.

I found this panel particularly interesting, partly because one of those four people in the center is the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who lived in Kazakhstan for five years. The person sitting is a woman, the man in the center is dressed in a military uniform, and the guy on the left looks Chinese, so I'm guessing Dostoevsky is the man on the right:

I also really like the camels and yurts in the background:

This one must refer to World War I. Note the Russian writing on the banner, the gas masks on the soldiers on the right, and the shovels on the left:

The final panel shows President Nazabayev with his hand on the Constitution (hence the bronze sculpture of the Constitution with the hand print on it), declaring Kazakhstan's independence. Behind him the shadowy faces of his people and some Kazakh buildings form a map of the country:
While this all looks happy and democratic, President Nazabayev has been in office for over 21 years and Kazakhstan has a terrible human rights record.

This is one of two Soviet-era buildings that flank the square. New-ish billboards float above the buildings like halos, but we aren't deceived, right?

Like Big Brother, the powerful Tian Shan Mountains are ever looming over Almaty:

In Apples are from Kazakhstan: The Land that Disappeared, Christopher Robbins recounts his often funny, sometimes sobering, always interesting journey through Kazakhstan. He discovers a society on the move, both literally and figuratively, and a country with much to offer the world. During part of his journey he is accompanied by none other than the first (and to date only) president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

I loved this passage at the beginning of the book that highlights how little most people know about Kazakhstan: Even people who might be expected to know something about the place--journalists, world travelers, people who thought they knew a thing or two--became vague and muddled when asked. Was that the country where the president boiled his enemies alive? No, that was the reputation of the Uzbek president south of the border. Was it the place where the president had golden statues made of himself and placed on revolving platforms to lead the sun? No again, that was next door in Turkmenistan. It was an anarchic, narco-state, wasn't it, embroiled in permanent civil war? No, that was the fate of poor, blighted Tajikistan. Somebody told me they had recently attended a fascinating lecture on the country--but then sent me an email to say, sorry, it had been Azerbaijan. 

This book is a great read for anyone who wants to see the country through honest and yet still sympathetic eyes.


  1. I really liked Almaty, although I felt the museum was only so-so. The mountains were spectacular and the hotel was terrific. Kazakhstan, the unpopulated part, is a place I would like to spend more time.

  2. I was wondering if you were ever frustrated at the itinerary's constraints and just wanted to go off on your own, exploring, when you told the story of the museum. I'm sure after the mummy museum, anything would be boring!

    1. Yes, many times.Judy hung with the tour in the museum longer than I did. I ditched it early on with the transition of the tour guides. We also skipped many of the group meals and went out on our own. Those were some of our most fun experiences.

    2. Actually, in this particular museum, I skipped out down to the very small gift shop and bought a table runner. And yes, the large group had its benefits (it was ONLY our group on the train) and its pitfalls (awful group dinners). Most of the tour stuff was wonderful because our tour company hand-picks local guides that are very good and had divided us up into smaller groups of 30. We had a lot of experiences we could never have done on our own. But the mass meals. UGH.