Compared to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capital city where we’d spent our last couple of days) Almaty feels like a megalopolis. It has a young fashionable vibe with long boulevards lined with towering trees, a cosmopolitan scene and plenty of alfresco drinking and dining. Spending a week here whilst sorting out our Russian visa wasn’t going to seem all that bad.
As mentioned in our previous blog we spent several weeks between Bishkek and Almaty due to visa runs and found that Almaty (or all of Kazakhstan for that matter) was more expensive than its Central Asian cousins, though it’s still cheap by European standards. We managed to find some cheap and free ways to spend our time, including a couple of jaunts into the very accessible nearby mountains. So sit back, relax and enjoy a run down of our time in Almaty.
‘If you thought the streets might be paved with gold you’d be wrong. If you thought they’d be paved with weed than you’re spot on’
Yeah we couldn’t believe it either but out in the far eastern ends of the city where our hostels were located the streets were filled with lush green weeds. Just be careful come harvest time…you just know the dodgy Kazakh cops are scoping you out.
Again there’s not an amazing amount of sights here and those that do exist aren’t going to bowl you over. You can start the ones below in order from the north, walking in a mostly south direction, and can easily cover them in a day. Remember the city is easily navigated by finding out which direction the southern mountain ranges are.
The Green Market
A reasonably priced place for fruit and vegetables it’s also a great place to just wander around and get lost. Loaded with locals make sure you check your prices before ordering. There’s a covered area selling fresh meats, flowers and dried fruits and nuts with a central block of upstairs restaurants serving cheap local fare, the loagman soup (noodles and meat in a tasty broth) is a good choice. You can get some good birds eye view photos of the action from up here. While eating the heavens opened up (again) and the rain started to pour in through the upper windows which only seconds ago where providing ventilation. Watching the poor bloke whose job it was to scuttle across the rooftop to close them was indeed comical.
The Central Mosque
The golden domes on the boringly named Central Mosque glisten impressively in the midday sun, though it was closed for prayer time so we didn’t get to see the outside.
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen
A large park in the middle of Almaty with statues in commemoration of WWII soldiers you’ll find locals rollerblading, taking horse drawn carriage rides and people of all ages chilling in the shady grounds. Within the park is the Zenkov Cathedral, a fairy tale style decorated wooden structure that is the second tallest in the world. Just try and resist trying to take a bite of the church that looks a bit like a gingerbread house. Also check out the wooden Folk Instrument Museum nearby, even just for the exterior.
For views over the city this is the easiest place to get to. On top is a small amusement park, a terrible zoo holding pen for some pretty miserable looking animals, live music concerts and best of all…Daytona! It’s a ritual for us when we see a Dayton arcade machine (which back in the late 90’s we’d all play down at the local bar after blazing a joint or two) to jump in and go. Yes Matt won, again, though only due to some dirty tactics.
After this we found a fun way to thrill ourselves for a good 60 seconds. There’s a toboggan ride that whizzes you back to your childhood all for the cost of KZT1,500 (USD$4.50) for two people. If for nothing else you should head up here just for the toboggan ride…and make sure for ultimate speed don’t use the brake!
Getting there is easy enough, just take bus number 95 from opposite Hotel Kazakhstan to the last stop. From here you can walk the rest of the way to the top or take the frequent shuttle for a small fee.
Medeu to Butakovska village
If you’re looking for a half day hike this one isn’t a bad option. It’s not overly strenuous but gets you out into the forest and if you’re here at the right time of year (for us June) stunning meadows of multicolored wildflowers and nobody else around. We started the hike from Medeu, location of the highest ice skating rink in the world, and even though it was raining lightly most of the day it was still great to be out of the city for a few hours. Upon reaching the village we started the long walk back down the tarmac road to town and were lucky enough to hitch a ride with a passing van which we mistook for a marshutka. Turns out it was a wedding party from California with the bride (Kazakh) and groom (American) set to get hitched tomorrow. Thanks for the lift guys! Bus 12 leaves every 30 minutes from opposite Hotel Kazakhstan will drop you right at Medeu. The bus gets packed on weekends.
Another easily accessible hike that’s more challenging is Kumbel Peak. With Kamil, our Polish mate we’d met hiking in Kyrgyzstan, in tow we headed out to conquer the 2,896m peak. The trail starts a mere 20 minutes from the centre of Almaty (take the bus to Medeu and get off three stops before the end at Prosveshchenets) and is easy to follow using trails on Maps.me. Not for the fainthearted it take around four hours of walking practically straight up hill at varying degrees of difficulty and depending on the weather you’ll also have mud to contend with.
If you like flowers and you’re lucky enough to be here in June/July you’ll have plenty to keep you stopping for photos, which you can probably all guess Sarah did, repeatedly. Finally we reached the rock formations known as the Three Brothers and realised we were still a way from the summit. We were out of shape and it showed, even at this altitude. With clouds keeping a veil over the peak and thunderstorms rolling in from the distance we figured we’d cop the rain for sure (it was starting to become a theme when in the presence of the bad luck Polish, sorry Kamil). Luckily the rains held back as we ascended the top and the views over Almaty and beyond had been worth the arduous four hour trek. Rolling thunder clouds behind made for dramatic views in the opposite direction and we caught a small hail storm as we headed back down.
The walk down had a few tricky slippery sections due to the rain and steep incline as Matt soon found out as he went rolling ‘commando style’ down one of them. His claim?
‘I was just practicing’
Shortly afterwards it’s Sarah and Kamil’s turn to bum slide down with Sarah managing to end up covered in an impressive amount of mud. Unfortunately trying to stay on two feet took precedence over photos so we don’t have any of the hilarious decent.Don’t worry there’s a nice clean creek at the bottom to wash yourself off before catching the return bus back to town.
Whilst we are on a budget that doesn’t afford too many meals out there are cheap places for shashlik and beers throughout the city. We even stumbled across a Georgian restaurant that served our favourite, khinkali! Lucky for us all the ones we’ve mentioned here were located super close to our hostel making the hangover walk that much shorter.
Shashlik on Kirova (Shashlychnaya Na Kirova)
Address: Bogenbai Batyra St., 70
One of the best places in town to eat shashlik which is always super packed with locals. With a huge outdoor seating area with umbrellas it’s no wonder why. Cheap draught beer make leaving this place difficult as we discovered more than once.
Cost: Cold draught beer from KZT300 (USD$1), shashlik from KZT400 (USD$1.30).
Address: Kabanbai Batyr Street, just up the road west from Hostel Dom
Having spent several weeks in Georgia we’d become absolutely smitten by khinkali, the famous Georgian dumplings. Central Asian dumplings just don’t compare to these little parcels of delightful filling and who doesn’t love that unexpected spurt of juice that rolls down you forearms and leaves your elbows dripping. Well good news, this place has all your Georgian favourites. Inside they do a good enough job of khinkali while the bakery out the front churns out warm loaves of fresh traditional bread that will instantly transport you back to the heavens of Georgia.
Cost: about USD$3 for five khinkali. Yes it’s a little expensive compared to Georgia but when you have that craving…
Jumping Goat Coffee
Ok so not exactly a place to eat by we stumbled across two tiny places serving up this amazing coffee while in town and couldn’t skip spreading the word. Run by an American guy named Chris and his Kazakh wife, they roast their own beans and serve up steaming cups of strong espresso based brews. You can find them inside Baikonur subway and inside the foyer of the shopping mall nearby.
There’s plenty of places to drink in Almaty that will suit all budgets and clientele. We didn’t, and usually don’t, go clubbing. Along with these places Shashlik Na Kirova (above) could also be classed as a place to laze in the sun and sip a few cheap draught brews. Most of the beers here are your stock standards. A note must be made some of the Russian craft IPA’s which you can find in the larger supermarkets for a decent price if you’ve been missing that extra hoppy goodness through Central Asia.
Address: Auezov St 32
This place was a little difficult to find though we finally managed it and it’s really not that hard to get to as it’s on a main road in a quiet part of town. A brew pub that had been open for just six months we had a travel buddy mention this place for the IPA. Whilst it was a little sweet tasting the Hefeweizen was deliciously buttery and the Brun had a nice mildly burn malt flavour. Though being our first real IPA in months we weren’t complaining. There’s a plethora of dried fish snacks available too if you’re into that kind of thing.
Although quiet when we first got there the barman took the time to try and converse with us until a few of the after work crowd joined in with us.
Address: Furmanov St 152
We stumbled across this place while looking for another bar and it was a great find. Excellent craft beer, long bars with eclectic and sociable people and all the vape accessories you could need. It hasn’t been open long but we predict it may become a local favourite.
We stayed at three different places during our several visits to Almaty as we spent so much time there we thought it wise to mix it up a little to avoid that over stayed feeling.
This was the first place we stayed at and the last we’d recommend to anyone. Basically it’s so cheap that you get many long term lodgers here that either study or, strangely enough, are having medical treatment and therefore get a discount! Yeah weird.There’s only one shower that’s in constant morning use and with 20 plus beds you’re waiting, a lot.
One day we bought back a beer each and were told by the owner that we could not sleep inside the house if we drank it on the property, and instead were told to sleep on the tapchan (outdoor day bed style platform). Which we did, and it actually turned out to be more comfortable than the cramped crowded dorm rooms.
You can see our review here.
Hostel Almaty Dom
Address: Sarsen Amanzholova Street 42-3А, 050019 Almaty, Kazakhstan
Around the corner from Om Hostel, Hostel Almaty Dom was a breath of fresh air after the stuffy atmosphere of Om. Here the atmosphere is communal. With many other travellers to talk with the owners keep a festive vibe with traditional food nights and getting people involved. The mattresses may be a little thin but the rooms are huge. We met a bunch of other random tourists and ended up going on a two day tour out to Altyn Emel National Park, organised with the help of the hostels young friendly owner Shakhir. The space was previously a kindergarten and some of the decor still remains, which we think adds a unique happy touch!
TIP: Back out on the main road and to the left and across the road there’s a beer shop that sells 20 odd different varieties. Pick one and they’ll fill up a 2 litre (smaller ones also available) straight from a tap in the wall. With planty of beer snacks spread out throughout it’s a one stop shop for your boozy evening. Gentleman, there’s a super hot beer maid for you to gawk at whilst you wait. You can thank Matt later.
Address: Kurmangazy Street 107, 050022 Almaty, Kazakhstan
Without taking anything away from Dom Hostel as we love it there, Sky was by far the best place we stayed whilst in Almaty. We wanted to be in a different location and with Sky situated centrally and on the 11th floor of one of the tallest buildings in the area the views here are spectacular. The mountains to the south bathed in the late afternoon sun as storms roll in from the north means hours spent soaking it all in from every direction. The high vantage point also gave us a chance to witness a massive freak lighting strike that appeared from nowhere without a storm cloud in sight. Impressive!
The dorms are spacious with an en-suite bathroom, the large kitchen is communal and the roof top patio is awesome, though the common lounge areas need a little redesigning. Check out the video below for a 360 view from the rooftop. And try to get yourself out of bed in time to catch the sunrise, the views onto the mountains are the clearest we had all day. As a bonus every Friday the lovely ladies cook up some traditional baursak, a fried dough that’s totally addictive.
View from Sky Hostel
Getting a Russian visa in Almaty
We applied in June 2016 and the process was relatively easy, though a little time consuming. You cannot receive the same day with the only options being an extra fee for a two day turnaround or a one week wait. We were applying for transit visas for ten days for both an Australian and UK passport which lucky for us happens to have the same requirements, only different costs.
You will need copies of ALL of the following documents, if you don’t have copies the consulate will send you away to get them. Make sure first and foremost that you have a flight or train ticket booked out of the country, or as we did a flight ‘reservation’ from a local travel agency. There’s plenty around Almaty who can do this for you. If you are travelling onwards to Mongolia be certain you acquire your Mongolian visa first.
- Onward country visa (if required)
- Onward country travel reservation
- Travel Insurance showing the level of medical cover provided and confirmation it’s valid in Russia
- Accommodation reservations (this wasn’t entirely necessary though as you cannot stay more than three nights in one place on a Transit visa we provided a couple of Booking.com reservations to show this…you can always cancel them!)
- Financial status showing sufficient funds for your travels
- Two passport photos
The guy at the window is super friendly and helpful. We visited earlier just to get some information from him to be certain we had the correct documents and when we arrived with everything in a neat little pile he couldn’t have been happier and processed everything super fast.
You’ll be given a slip to take to the cashier window within the Consulate to pay the visa fee. Make sure you have the money in Kazakh Tenge! They DO NOT accept USD, EUR or any other currency. When we first visited the man quoted us the price in USD so we assumed that the payment could be made in that currency…it can’t. Hold on to the bank receipt as you’ll need it to collect your passport later. And it’s as simple as that!
The address for the Russian Consulate in Almaty is Zhandosov Street 4 Zhandosov St., corner Manas St, website almaata.mid.ru.
Visa office opening times are Tuesday 9:30 – 12:30 and Friday 15:00 – 17:00.