During my travels last year, I discovered the joys of “free walking tours” in many of the cities I visited (a particular highlight were the Cusco by Foot walking tours I did in Peru). Almaty also had a free walking tour available, but I decided to go a different route and head out with Dennis, of Walking Almaty, an expat American who has studied Eurasian culture, who has an awesome website, and who I thought could offer a slightly different perspective. I decided to try his “Golden Quarter” tour to begin with.
I met with Dennis at the Statue of Abay – Kazakhstan’s favourite son – and, indeed, I think Dennis offered a different perspective than a standard walking tour would. For example, one of our first stops was the old Geological Institute where he explained that although many of the buildings in Almaty adhere to Russian architectural trends, many of them are actually made out of local stone – either granite or limestone – rather than concrete. The Geological Institute, for example, is a fairly brutal architecture, but is made out of limestone, and you can still see fossil shells (or where they were before “smokers picked them out in their boredom” as Dennis put it) within the materials making up the edifice. How cool this this?!
Then there were the aryks – water channels that run throughout the city that direct the meltwater from the mountains to water the trees within the city. All gravity fed.
Then there was the Academy of Sciences or “Centre of Knowledge”. A massive structure where the brightest minds of Kazakhstan congregated during the Cold War.
Because of this, it was a prime target for US missiles, and so had a series of underground bunkers surrounding it. This one is now an underground, gay nightclub – underground in every sense of the word.
A lot of these large governmental buildings are painted in pastel colours – the theory being that it brightens up the city during the long winter that they endure here – a practice adopted from St Petersberg. And although the architecture is Russian, a lot of the embellishments on the buildings use Kazakh symbiology – particularly variations on rams’ horns.
We also visited this cool Eastern Calendar fountain that is styled for the eastern zodiac. However, several of the animals we classically associate with eastern cultures have been replaced by Kazakh versions. For example, the tiger is replaced by the snow leopard, and the dragon has been replaced by a snail??!!
Vladimir Tverdokhlebov (the designer) depicted most of the creatures with wings (even when wings are not appropriate) and with their heads twisted back to look over their bodies. This was inspired by the animal style jewelry of the Scythian people – an important part of Kazakh culture.
One of the really neat things about the design of Almaty is the alleikas, quiet “streets” within the residential areas of the old town that are really lovely ways of getting around the city while avoiding the main thoroughfares. Almost like parks – they offer peace and tranquility in the heart of quite a large city.
Why are the bases of the trees painted white you might ask? Dennis actually has tons of answers to questions like these on his website 😊. If you are ever planning on visiting Almaty – I recommend reading his stuff beforehand!
The other thing to note in these residential areas are the filled in balconies of the apartments. Originally the Russians gave these apartments to people so they would have a place to live, but they could not make any modifications to the buildings. Ultimately, with the departure of the Russians, the people ended up owning these places for themselves and many of them elected to close in the useless (remember it is bloody cold in Kazakhstan for the majority of the year) balconies to form what are called loggia – I just love all the different unique and personalized styles!
Many famous people lived in these apartments and each building proudly displays a plaque announcing who it was that graced the premises, and between which years. This is helpful to figure out when the edifice was built, as it is generally the initial year of residency of these famous people.
Kazakhstan is quite big on its tile mosaics and Dennis was giving me the rundown of a couple of particularly awesome pieces on the hotel across the way from the Opera House. The Enlik Kebek Mosaic is laid out like a comic book – the blue delineations are like the different panels in a comic – and tells one of the most famous epic stories in Kazakhstan. Yes, it is about rival men battling it out to see who gets the girl.
The other mural depicts the Silk Road – in the image below you see only 2/3rds of it, showing the olden days of Kazakhstan and camels walking towards the new Kazakhstan (which you can’t see – but which shows the iconic Almaty hotel etc).
We then caught the metro – always an interesting thing to do! Almaty’s metro has taken 20 years to build, but only had 9 stops! You pay your 80 Tenge (AUD$0.34) in exchange for a token, which then goes in the barriers.
The stations themselves are so deep underground that you almost get vertigo from the escalator!
They are all absolutely pristine and each is decorated differently. Can you spot the odd thing out in the top image, which depicts the Silk Road in one station?
Finally, we headed to one of the most important churches in Almaty – Zenkov’s Cathedral. Because it was Easter Sunday, there were loads of people, and the priests (what are they called in Russian Orthodox?) would come out periodically and bless the “Easter Bread” that people had bought to the church for just this reason. There were plenty of smiles and plenty of holy water being thrown around in the process!
All in all, this was a really interesting walk through the streets of Almaty. I still suspect it is quite a different take on a typical walking tour, which would undoubtedly just visit all the key landmarks and explain their history. I found this insight into the more “everyday” features of Almaty much more interesting – so thank you to Dennis!
I’d definitely recommend Dennis’ Golden Quarter walking tour for something a little different. Dennis is a great guide and very easy and interesting to talk to.
Time: 2 hours