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Some Travel Tips

Almaty is one of central Asia's most expensive cities and the prices here keep fluctuating. The currency is Tengge and it is wise to carry cash (and not credit card as it is still not accepted in many places) You can easily exchange dollars anywhere as it is unauthorised to trade in dollars.

Be wary of officials - policemen, custom officials etc. Officials can just stop you by road and ask questions and all of them look for bribes. Carry your passport all the time (even if you go out to throw garbage!)

As soon as you enter the Almaty airport, you have to declare all the things that you bring into the country in a Customs Declaration Form and make sure you declare everything from the money you carry to the jewelry you wear and the same things are cross checked while you are leaving as you have to declare everything again. Any discrepancy will lead to fine or more likely to bribe in dollars!

Most importantly, don't flash money in Almaty -you will either be robbed or duped!

Almaty - good-hearted people and lots of greenery!

Enter Almaty- the land of apples and the former capital of Kazakhstan (a part of the former Soviet Union). The first impression when you come to this city is striking. It comes as a pleasant surprise especially when you come with many apprehensions. The city is full of good-hearted people and lots of greenery.

It is an ordeal to get to Almaty as it is not really well connected by air or by road. There are direct flights from Delhi all through the year except winter (between November and March) There are other European flights that take you to Europe and back to Almaty. Flying is the best way to get here though there are some long distance trains from China and Moscow. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world with three time zones! It has Russia to its north, Caspian Sea to its west, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan to its south and China to its east! Almaty is to the south east corner of Kazakhstan and is a few kms away from China and Kyrgystan.

Almaty was founded in 1854 and was the capital of Kazakhstan till 1997. This cosmopolitan city has many things to offer from warm hospitality to wild trekking! The city's design and plan has the unmistakable imprint of a modern young city with long straight roads and huge gardens. Walking in this city is an experience with rows of blooming plants and the unmistakable Russian architectural buildings! Although Almaty is aping the west, it is distinct in its own way - the streets, the avenues, the gardens, the people and the shops - all still bear the Soviet influence. This city is also the hometown for many foreign students, traders and diplomats and you will be amazed to see their numbers increasing every day.

Almaty is very clean but the locals complain about its air (which is definitely better than that in India!) The Zailiysky Alatau mountains rise like a wall to the south and on a clear day you can get a very good view of these lovely snow capped mountains. There are also many parks in Almaty. The Panfilov Park is noteworthy for its beautiful and bright cathedral. This is the Zenkov cathedral, one of the few czarists - era buildings to survive the 1911 earthquake. The cathedral is built entirely by wood and without nails!

The republican square in Almaty is in the heart of the city. This beautiful square faces the presidential palace and is the primary attraction for all national festivals - the Republic day (Oct 25th), Independence Day (Dec 16th), Labour Day (May 1st) and Victory day (May 9th - commemorating the end of WWII). On these days, a great number of people get here and celebrate in true spirit - like that of a fair in India - with games, eateries, and loads of people braving the weather to watch men, women and children dance and sing to some lilting Kazak music.

Kazakhstan is also famous for ballet and some of the best ballerinas come from Almaty. In fact, there are many good ballet schools and theatres in the city where ballet is performed. The International ballet festival was held here with many countries participating. Ballet is still a connoisseur's art and people here take pride in watching, understanding and performing this wonderful art.

There is also a ropeway to go up the mountains to the south of the city. Once on top, you get an excellent view of the city especially in spring - a la Switzerland - with slopping greenery and cattle grazing in these slopes and thatched houses adorning these open fields. There are restaurants that treat you to tasty Shashliq and vast green parks where you can walk and sink into Mother Nature's arms.

If this is not all, Almaty is surrounded by Nature's best gift to mankind in the form of snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes, Canyons and vast lands of poppies and tulips.

A lot of people go to Medeu and Shymbulaq during weekends. These are in the foothills of Zailiysky Alatau and are 15km from Almaty. Medeu has one of world's largest speed skating rinks. Between October and May this place booms with many people whizzing round the rink. Shymbulaq is a further 500m away. This is one of the best skiing spots. Here the non-skiers can go up on the ropeway and freeze in the peak! This is definitely one of the breathtaking experiences of my life. Further in the foothills is one of the best picturesque virgin tourist spots! It is the Big Almaty Lake. This lake surrounded by snow capped mountains, reflecting their images is one of the best scenic spots you can ever come across.

A few Kms away from Almaty is the Cherin Canyon. This is a beautiful place filled with red soil, structures, ups and downs and slipping soil. A good guide and a master trekker are a must for this trip. Getting around in Cherin is a mystery. A good guide can take you to different spots to view the various forms nature has created in course of time. You can listen to Silence and also to the sound of gushing water here. Good trekking shoes and comfortable clothes are highly recommended. If you haven't seen the Grand Canyon, Cherin is a must!

Trekking and mountaineering are particularly the favourite activities many people enjoy doing here. There are many agencies that offer trips to places where you can trek/ski/mountaineer. Medeu, Shymbulaq and Cherin are the favourites. If you are a fan of trekking, then, this is the place for you.

Almaty, as I said earlier, is a cosmopolitan city and religion is not a major force. Kazaks are Muslims but the women are by far the most confident and least restricted. The people in general speak Russian but Kazak is the official language. The biggest name in Kazak culture is Abay Qunanbaev, a 19th Century poet. This man is known for his literary works. You can find many books in the market that bear his works. A statue of Abay can also be seen in Almaty.

Kazaks also believe in community living. People get together and clean courtyards and lawns. Also, people here celebrate Lenin's birthday by cleaning roads and gardens!

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