Three days in Almaty and there was a lot to love about it. Now, much of the story was just about recovery from the bike trip. We were both a little exhausted, I was still recovering from dehydration or whatever hit me in Bukhara, and there were little chores to do like laundry and replenishing my lost drug supply.
On that last note, the only really important drug I needed replaced was my blood thinner. And I’ve experienced this before but I’m starting to recognize that this may be universal, at least in poorer countries: not only do I not need a prescription – I just tell them the name of the drug and the dosage – but it’s massively cheaper outside the U.S. than it is at home. Even with my Medicare Part D subsidy, I paid about one-third the cost per pill as I pay in the U.S. That’s crazy. And I may never buy it at home again. Why not just travel to Mexico or the Caribbean (or Almaty) once or twice a year and stock up?
Now, back to Almaty. Three things in particular stand out: the food, the weather, and the views. Let’s take the last first. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton on the edge of town as part of our recovery regimen. When the yurts in Uzbekistan weren’t as comfortable as we might like we would say “Just four nights until the Ritz!” It really lived up to the Ritz reputation but the special part was that we had amazing views of the Tian Shen mountains from our window. No photos – there was too much glare and reflections in the windows when I would try, but trust me, the views were great.
(Pro tip: If you’re on your way to Russia or Central Asia, there is an Uber-like shared ride app called Yandex that makes travel so much easier. And insanely cheap – a 15- or 20-minute ride from our hotel to the center of the city would typically cost no more than $4 USD. Not bad!)
As for the weather, apparently spring is the time to be in Almaty, just wonderfully warm but not hot and lots of fresh greenery. Just about perfect.
And then the food. Almaty is something of a bustling city these days, much more so than what I remember from a couple work trips some 20 years ago. Kazakhstan is a big oil and gas producer and that’s generated a lot of wealth, at least for the elites. And you can see the results all over the city: chic restaurants, luxury hotels, glistening new office towers. I’m pretty confident that the area where our hotel was located wasn’t remotely in the city 20 years ago. So we ate at a very nice Georgian restaurant, a stylish Italian place, and buzzy international cuisine place. Good wine, good drinks, great food. And after two weeks on the bike trip the chance to pick our own restaurants was pretty special!
Oh, and one other way you can tell Almaty is thriving. About a quarter of the younger, hipper, westernized women you see out and about have these crazy medically enhanced big lips. Sometimes it looks like a porn convention must be taking place as these women parade around with these big puffy lips. Very weird.
So, what is there to actually do or see in Almaty? Not a lot, at least for those who were more into recovery and errands than being serious students. There is one major park in the middle of the city that was our favorite hangout. Leafy, green, cool – perfect. In the middle of the park was a beautiful wooden cathedral – the largest wooden orthodox cathedral in the world – that I remember from earlier visits. Built without nails, it’s a fun visit. The park also included just about the most serene, perfect coffee shop I’ve ever visited, just comfy and relaxed.
And that was Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city though not it’s capital. That’s Astana, which we’ll be visiting later. For now it’s off to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. How often do you get to say “Oh, I’ll be in Tajikistan tomorrow…”?