The ancient Silk Road once ran through Kazakhstan’s mountain passes and across its near-endless steppes. Today, the nation is enjoying new found fortunes and is proving once again to be a fascinating cultural crossroads for intrepid travellers. By Nick Walton
It’s mid-morning and within the incense smoke-laced confines of Almaty’s Ascension Cathedral worshippers pray silently to gilded saints that tower high above. Resolute against Kazakhstan’s harsh winters and scorching summers, the cathedral, the world’s second tallest wooden structure, remains a beacon for the faithful of the nation’s former capital, an ancient trading city wreathed by jagged mountain ranges and the emptiness of the Taukum Desert.
Almaty is a fascinating place; the largest city of Kazakhstan and home to many of its 18 million inhabitants, the commercial capital is a cultural melting pot like no other. A gateway between the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia and the Far East, Almaty proudly preserves its rich legacy as a vital way station on the ancient Silk Road.
The tsarist-era church, also known as the Zenkov Cathedral, is a multi-generational meeting place. Old, stooped Babushkas, bundled in layers of brightly coloured fabric despite the last of the summer warmth, and young couples in jeans and t-shirts worship before a magnificent golden iconostasis painted by Nikolai Khludov, lighting candles as a bushy-bearded orthodox priest watches from a corner. It’s a serene and timeless scene, save for the occasional chirp of errant smartphones, as residents step through the entrance arch and make the sign of the cross, heads bowed solemnly, before finding a pew or an alter and some welcomed respite from the bright morning sunshine outside.
It’s into the sunshine I wander, leaving the faithful to their prayers, emerging into the dazzling colours of the city’s Panfilov Park, one of Almaty’s many green belts. The park is popular with both locals and visitors, who take selfies before the candy-coloured cathedral, wander the manicured gardens and visit the moving, Soviet-styled memorial to the Panfilov Heroes, 28 soldiers who died outside Moscow fighting the Germans. At the heart of the park an eternal flame burns for the soldiers of past battles, their faces, depicted beautifully in molasses-hued marble, illustrating in detail the myriad ethnicities that call Kazakhstan home.
In many ways Kazakhstan is also emerging into the light of a bright future. A fascinating country of contrasts and contradictions, Kazakhstan has one foot in its rich and often turbulent past and the other stepping towards new prosperity as its many natural resources are tapped and hard currency begins to chase away the shadows of the Soviet era.
This new era for the country can be seen all over Almaty, where new hotels and commercial towers reach for pale blue skies and the streets are packed with Land Rover, Mercedes and Porsche SUVs. There are luxury country clubs and housing developments, and a sleek new Ritz Carlton hotel will soon be joined by other big brands as investment flows in. The new look Kazakhstan can also be seen in the national carrier, Air Astana, which has already reached the coveted heights of the SkyTrax four star airlines, joining the likes of Air New Zealand, British Airways and Qantas as it opens up the country to the world beyond.
Not that Kazakhstan is a stranger to visitors, both voluntary and otherwise. From the days of the Silk Road to Stalin’s forced relocations, Kazakhstan has offered welcomed respite to people from across Asia and Europe, from ethnic Russians and Chinese, to Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Bulgars and Tatars, and Almaty’s diversity is best seen at its Green Markets, a fascinating food emporium at the heart of the city, where the vital ingredients of many regional dishes can be sourced direct from the producers.
Surrounded by stout, Soviet-era apartment blocks and tree lined boulevards (Almaty is one of the greenest cities in the world, with expansive green belts like the Park of the First President breaking up the urban crawl), the markets have the architectural ambiance of a Communist-era public swimming pool, with green hued tiles and beams of bright afternoon sunshine reaching from high skylights to concrete floors polished with the passing of generations of hungry shoppers.
The sprawling market is divided into various sections; there are butcher aisles where horse steaks, a national favourite, are prepared alongside fresh lamb sausages, and deli counters where cured meats and caviar are presented in towering piles. In the vegetable section pomegranates and the largest apples I’ve ever seen gleam in the sunshine (Almaty is the ancestral home of the apple), and in the dried goods corner nuts from Persia and Afghanistan are piled high next to dried figs and apricots from the steppes. There is also a long line of Korean stalls selling authentic delicacies, from vibrantly-red kimchi to ddukbokkie rice cakes, evidence of the many ethnic Koreans who have called Kazakhstan home for generations. Nearby spice stalls are ablaze with colour as the flavours of the Far East continue to migrate west as they did on the Silk Road. For the intrepid, the Green Market is also a great spot to try some of Kazakhstan’s more daring delicacies, from kymyz, fermented horse milk, to shubat, fermented camel milk.
As the sun begins to settle in the sky and the lights of the weathered Ladas and gleaming new Land Rovers come on, I head to Gakku, one of the city’s leading Kazakh restaurants, to see how all that mouthwatering produce can be employed. Seated in a traditional Kazakh yurt I’m protected from the evening winds, which whip down from the mountains as the light drains from the sky. It’s the perfect chance to feast on a host of authentic local dishes, from besbarmak, slow-cooked mutton and horse meat with long silky noodles, the national dish; to assyp, a lamb’s heart, lungs and rice, wrapped in fat and steamed in a Kazakh take on haggis, and cheburek, parcels of pastry stuffed with beef that proved the perfect snack for ever-moving nomads.
For a better perspective on Kazakhstan’s new fortunes I head the next morning to the Zaiilisky Alatau mountains and the Shymbulak ski resort. We climb steadily away from the city, the suburbs of Almaty quickly replaced by dense forests, the towering peaks growing larger in the windscreen. The modern cable car that climbs the peaks soars over the top of the Medeu, an iconic outdoor speed skating and bandy rink located in the valley below the resort. First built in 1949, the stadium, as well as the alpine resort high above, were revitalised in time for Kazakhstan’s hosting of the 2011 Asian Winter Games. The Medeu also welcomes the annual Voice of Asia music festival during the summer months.
Two-thirds of the way up the craggy peaks, Shymbulak could be in the Italian Alps or on the flanks of Canada’s most popular runs. There are chic international restaurants with fusion menus and old and new world wine lists, and clutches of well-heeled locals and tourists basking in the sun at al fresco tables, enjoying views that reach far down to the new skyscrapers of Almaty.
Despite the flow of new money into Kazakhstan, or perhaps because of it, preserving the region’s traditional culture is in vogue. In the alpine valley below the resort Kazakhstan’s rich nomadic hunting culture is maintained at Sunkar Falcon Farm, where Pavel Pfander, a Kazakh-German falcon trainer, thrills visitors with the hunting displays of his falcons, griffin vultures, and massive golden eagles. He explains the breeding and training process, and the traditional use of birds of prey by the nomads for hunting, before unleashing the birds, some the size of small children, on a series of mock hunts, the birds taking turns to swop from the heavens, their feathers dusting the heads of the crowd as they pass.
Further down the mountain I stop in at Alasha, a traditional Uzbek restaurant capped with glistening blue domes favoured during the day by the city’s idly rich and at night by its power brokers. We dine on horse meat salad and plov, a traditional dish of rice, lamb and raisins cooked over open fires, amidst beautiful Timurid architecture that smacks of Arabian Nights. With billowing curtains protecting us from the afternoon sunshine, teenage girls with raven hair and dark brooding eyes drink tea, smoke shisha and gossip in hushed voices in the booths that line Alasha’s terrace. It’s a far cry from the perception of Kazakhstan abroad, one of a backwards nation that’s still mired in its Soviet past while struggling towards modernity.
But that’s the beauty of Kazakhstan; it’s balancing its rich culture while navigating rapid progress, and much of that new prosperity can be seen in Astana, a short flight north. The city, which was renamed and thrust from town to capital status in 1997, couldn’t be more different from the mountain-ringed trading city of Almaty; mirage-like, there is the shimmer of new commercial towers and apartment blocks; wide, proud boulevards planned by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa that stretch towards the horizon; and grand palaces and monuments, including the Norman Foster-designed pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and yurt-shaped Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center (home to an indoor beach), as well as the Central Concert Hall, one of the largest in the world, designed to resemble a dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument. Everything is shrouded by the hesitant silence of a newly minted park.
A City of Peace recognized by UNESCO, Astana is preparing for its time in the spotlight; the city will host the 2017 World Expo, welcoming an estimated three million visitors, many from far beyond Kazakhstan or its surrounding Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) neighbours. The theme of the expo will be ‘Future Energy’, with a focus not only the future of energy, in which Kazakhstan will play an increasingly important role thanks to vast oil, natural gas and coal deposits, but also on the energy of this emerging, captivating destination.
From the top of the Bayterek, an observation tower at the city’s centre themed on the mythological Tree of Life, it’s as easy to see how far the city has come as it is to imagine how far its ambitious first president Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose palm print is set in gold within a giant gilded orb atop the tower, might take it. At the nearby, world-class National Museum of Kazakhstan visitors can journey through the country’s often tumultuous past before watching Astana grow from the floor in a fascinating light and sound display. But for now, from the city’s highest point, billiard table-flat steppes wreath the sparkling new city and sprint into the distance, bringing a sense of Kazakhstan’s nomadic heritage to its bright new future.
Air Astana (https://airastana.com), a four star Skytrax airline, offers direct flights between Hong Kong and Almaty, with business class fares from US$2,200 per person return.