Located less than 300 miles from the Chinese border, Almaty Is the largest city, as well as the major cultural and commercial center of Kazakhstan. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Almaty lost its status as the capital city in 1997 to Astana; however, if you took a course in World Regional Geography in the sixties, you probably learned the capital of Kazakhstan as Alma-Ata, its previous name. With a population of about 1.5 million people, Almaty remains the most developed, and the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in Kazakhstan. It is located in the mountainous southeastern part of the country and is surrounded by the Tien-Shan mountain range. When I first saw the surrounding mountains, they reminded me of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. The Central Tien-Shan is located on the border between China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Our tour directors remained loyal to the late arrival – early wakeup schedule until the last city on the tour. The one hour flight from Karaganda to Almaty had an estimated time of arrival of 11:59 p.m. on October 17th. The airport personnel in Karaganda literally had to turn some of the lights on when our bus arrived for check-in at the airport. There are not that many flights departing or arriving, especially at that time of night.
We departed on time and landed before midnight, but by the time we claimed our baggage and got checked in at the Intercontinental Hotel, it was almost two in the morning ensuring we had another short night since we had school visits on Friday morning. I should mention that “intercontinental” applies to Kazakhstan as it did to Istanbul, since part of its territory lies west of the Ural River and is thus in Europe, while part lies east of the river and is considered part of Asia.
We had a similar schedule in Almaty as in the other two cities with three visits to high school on Friday and a four hour fair on Saturday afternoon in our hotel. Saturday morning we were treated to a three hour guided tour of the city. The most impressive structure we saw was the Zenkov Cathedral which has a seating capacity of 1500 people. A beautiful Eastern Orthodox church built between 1904 and 1907, it is constructed entirely of wood, but without the use of nails. It is the second tallest wooden building in the world. The Cathedral was one of the few buildings that withstood, in good shape, a devastating earthquake in 1911. Known also as the Ascension Cathedral, after the Russian Revolution the cathedral was used to house the Central State Museum of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The first radio transmitters in Almaty were situated in the cathedral’s belfry. In May 1995 control of the cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, and after additional restoration work it was reopened for religious services in 1997.
The cathedral is located in Panlifov Park, a very large green area in the central part of Almaty. The park is dedicated to and named after the Panfilov Heros, 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting the Nazis outside Moscow. Ivan Panfilov was the name of the General commanding the division which, in spite of suffering heavy casualties, managed to significantly delay the enemy’s advance on the capital. In all three of the cities we visited there were a number of war memorials in honor of the Russian soldiers who died in World War II.
Afterwards we spent about an hour in the Central State Museum. We received a fairly detailed but concise introduction to all things Kazakh. The museum houses the most significant collection of Kazakh historical, archaeological, and modern cultural and political artifacts. When first established in 1931, the museum was located in the Zenkov Cathedral. It moved to its present facility in 1985 and is one of the largest museums in Central Asia.
Our last stop was at the Green Market or Green Bazaar. The market advertises itself as central to the everyday life of the local people because in the past it was the traditional place to buy and sell local produce like vegetables. There are other similar markets in Almaty, but it is the most famous and sells the widest range of goods. Denise was able to get some much needed shopping time, making sure that the grandson would not be bereft of souvenirs from Kazakhstan. That is a circumstance I would rather not consider!