The ancient trading city of Almaty and the country's bold new capital, Astana, just might be the hottest destinations in Central Asia for the year ahead
From the mountains to the Steppes in Kazakhstan
With the sing-song pronouncement of prices, the cacophony of haggling, and the pounding of butcher’s blades, a visit to Almaty’s Green Markets, known locally as the Zelyony, is a chance to step back to the heyday of the great Silk Road, which once weaved commerce and culture through the fabric of Central Asia.
Although the official market has its origins in the late-1800s, when a great ‘guest yard’ was established by local merchants, historians say trading has taken place here since the time when caravans first wound through the high passes of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains from the great deserts of Xinjiang province, or the lakelands of eastern Mongolia en route to all points west.
Almaty is a fascinating place; the largest city in Kazakhstan and home to most of its 18 million inhabitants, this ancient hub has long been a gateway between east and west.
Today, with China’s bold new Belt & Road Initiative reshaping the fortunes of the region and Kazakhstan shrugging off much of its Soviet-era persona, there’s never been a better time to explore this once vital way station, a city with one foot in the past and the other firmly in the future.
The Green Markets are a great first stop for visitors to Almaty. The faces of the stall holders – Korean, Uyghur, Tartar, Uzbek and Russian – tell the stories of Kazakhstan’s rich heritage as a melting pot of cultures, some there by choice, others by exile, while their wares trace a spider’s web of trade that reaches from the saffron fields of Persia to the date plantations of Yemen and the rice paddies of eastern China.
Under vaulted, teal-hued ceilings that give the market the ambiance of a Communist-era public swimming pool, there’s everything from dinner plate-sized horse steaks (a Kazakh staple), fresh Turkish pide bread, and candied nuts from Afghanistan, to vibrant kim chi, mounds of Caspian caviar; plump persimmons and tamarillos from Darjeeling, and piping hot cheburek, parcels of pastry stuffed with beef that proved the perfect snack for ever-moving nomads.
I’ve visited before and keep one eye out for the ‘fruit and nut police’, the market’s camera-shy security guards, and am welcomed by stallholders, who offer strips of dried and salted chechil goat’s cheese, and sips of silky koumiss, fermented mare’s milk.
Some stalls are run by three generations of the same family, giving a timelessness to a destination that’s never been readier to change.
I emerge from the markets into the sunshine of mid-summer in the mountains, and make my way through Panfilov Park, one of Almaty’s many green belts.
At its centre is the Tsarist-era Ascension Cathedral, crafted from Tian Shan spruces, where stooped babushkas, bundled in layers of brightly coloured fabric despite the warmth, and smartphone-toting teens in jeans and T-shirts pray before a magnificent golden iconostasis painted by Nikolai Khludov.
The second tallest wooden structure in the world, the cathedral has stood resolute against Kazakhstan’s harsh winters, scorching summers, and its turbulent history, and remains a beacon for the city’s faithful.
Beyond the serenity of the park, the boom of foundations being laid for a new skyscraper echo off ranks of weathered, Soviet-era apartments and ricochets down birch-lined boulevards.
“There’s something comforting about Almaty and its ability to change and yet remain the same,” says Miras, a sociology graduate I meet walking Panfilov’s leafy walkways.
“We all see Kazakhstan changing, the new buildings, the new wealth, but it’s important to remember where we come from, to not lose our identity in the face of prosperity.”
He thrusts a brand new iPhone at me and poses for a photo with his smiling fiancé, the ancient egg yolk cathedral aglow in the morning sunshine beyond.
Change is a constant theme throughout the City of Gardens, with its Soviet-styled grids of wide avenues, its pristine parks, and its veil of snow-capped peaks, where the very first apples were harvested.
Kazakhstan’s middle class has grown from nine percent of the population to over 30 per cent in less than a decade, and now sleek showrooms showcase the latest SUV models from Porsche, Bentley, Land Rover and Rolls-Royce, while behind towering gates, the city’s wealthy tour show homes and tee off at glamourous new country clubs.
Lavish summer homes line the ridges surrounding the Shymbulak ski resort, on the city’s outskirts, and at Almaty’s leafy heart, al fresco restaurants, minimalist art galleries, and cavernous new malls, including the US$450 million (Dh1,650) Esentai, home to the likes of Saks Fifth Ave, Burberry, Gucci and Fendi, are slowly replacing the gloomy Soviet architecture that has dominated the city centre for generations.
This is just the beginning; a new city plan has been drafted that will encourage the development of pedestrian areas in the heart of the city, trading congested streets for more green spaces in an effort to make Almaty more human-centric. A second airport, located 30 kilometers outside the city, is also in the works to help bolster Almaty as a regional hub and a gateway between worlds, much like it was during the Silk Road era.
Much of Kazakhstan’s new-found fame is thanks to its national carrier, Air Astana, which won almost every award a boutique carrier can as it rapidly extended its network beyond Central Asia since its inception in 2001.
The Skytrax four-star airline, run by ex-Cathay Pacific and BAE management, now welcomes visitors from as far off as the UAE, Delhi, London and Hong Kong and is ranked beside the likes of Air New Zealand, British Airways and Qantas, giving an international credibility to a destination that’s only just making its mark.
It’s with Air Astana that I travel to see the other side of Kazakhstan. Under siege by the seemingly endless steppes of central Kazakhstan, Astana was until 1998 a sleepy rural town called Aqmola, on the banks of the Ishim River.
A former garrison for the Siberian Cossacks, Aqmola was the centre of many ambitious Soviet-era land reforms. Today, it’s the country’s bold new capital, a billiard table-flat metropolis envisioned by Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, punctuated by fascinating, and often outlandish architecture from the who’s who of the design world.
Mirage-like, Astana shimmers with new commercial towers and luxurious apartment blocks, and is crisscrossed with wide, proud boulevards planned by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.
Between these six-lane avenues are world-class arts institutions, the Khazret Sultan Mosque (the second-largst mosque in Central Asia), grand palaces, and towering monuments, including the Norman Foster-designed, pyramid-shaped Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, where the Syria peace talks are presently underway, and the eye-catching, yurt-shaped Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, a mall with its own monorail and members-only indoor beach.
The country’s new prosperity isn’t just a chance for Kazakhstan to come in from the cold, but also for its people to look out at the world beyond.
On the outskirts of the city centre, the government built the site for the first expo held in a post-Soviet state, a futuristic, glass-encased city where more than 100 countries gathered to welcome the expected masses.
Official attendance figures for the expo, which concludes this month, leveled out at two million, down from the original predictions of five million visitors. Even so, the futuristic expo city, which is wrapped around a huge glass sphere – the Nur Alem – like something out of a Michael Crichton novel, is impressive in its vision; said to be completely powered by water and air, in keeping with the expo’s theme ‘Future Energy’, the complex came with a price tag of US$3 billion, but is also symbolic of Kazakhstan’s prosperity and its willingness to disentangle its destiny from its fossil fuel reserves.
A part of that disentanglement will be tourism, from other CIS countries and from further aboard. Despite its modern, eye-catching architecture, Astana has retained its traditional Kazakh hospitality and everywhere you go in the capital, from the new Mega Silk Way luxury mall to chic al fresco restaurants like Ali Baba, where waitresses dress in traditional costume and millennials dine on horse carpaccio, people are proud and excited that visitors have come to experience Kazakhstan for themselves.
At the impressive National Museum of Kazakhstan, which opened in 2014, travellers can journey through the country’s formation, before watching Astana, present and future, grow from the floor in a fascinating light and sound display. Nearby, the Central Concert Hall, one of the largest in the world, was designed Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti to resemble a dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument, and draws arts lovers from far and wide.
An easy walk away, down blissfully-empty sidewalks, Kazakhs and tourists alike line up to ride the elevator to the viewing platform inside the Bayterek, a gilded observation tower themed on the mythological Tree of Life, where they can place their hands in the golden imprint left by President Nazarbayev and make a wish.
From this lofty view, it’s easy to spy the city growing, from the new Ritz Carlton and St Regis hotels under construction, to the 500,000-square-metre US$1.6 billion Abu Dhabi Plaza, home to chic apartments and even more luxury shopping.
“There’s no doubt that Borat put us on the map,” says Aldiyar, a volunteer I meet outside the Latin America expo stand while we wait for a calypso performance. He’s quick to point out most of the ‘Kazakhstan’ scenes from the controversial comedy were filmed in Romania. “Now we have our foot in the door and hopefully people will want to come and see the real Kazakhstan. After all, we’ve been welcoming people for centuries.”