Apples come from Kazakhstan. Almaty is named for them. So there’s pictures of apples everywhere you look. Almaty can also lay claim to being Kazakhstan’s big apple. It’s Kazakhstan’s commercial capital and, at two million people, its biggest city.
It feels a world away from China. In particular it feels European. The foods in supermarkets are more familiar, and the muzak playing as we shop is Western pop. We use words to describe the countryside around Almaty that we’d normally associate with Austria: woods, meadows, wildflowers.
Only half the residents identify as Kazakh. One third identify as Russian. Their light skin and fair hair is pretty easy to spot after seven weeks in China. The rest is a mix of Central and East Asian and European. Different peoples have ended up in Kazakhstan for all sorts of reasons, and many of them are quite recent migrants. Our hosts’ grandparents, of Korean and German ancestry, met here in a small village. They’d been moved there from their Russian homes when world war two broke out, for fear their ethnicity implied sympathy for the enemy.
It feels very calm and quiet here. The suburbs feel like they could be part of a sleepy beach side community. You come straight off the motorway on to streets without footpaths, with sunlight peeking through overgrown trees. The apartment buildings have a kind of socialist austerity to them. Many are looking a bit disheveled these days but in the sense of a batch that doesn’t need to be spick and span, rather than anything that’s actively falling down. It probably helps our beach analogy that the climate feels a lot like a summer at home. I suspect things would feel different if we were here in the winter when it’s routinely -20 degrees.
Almaty doesn’t really have a clear centre, nor a list of ‘must see’ tourist attractions. It would be a tough place to be a tourist if you didn’t have any local connections. We’re lucky we’ve been hosted here this week so we’ve just been able to take in the mountain air, and get to grips with somewhere very different from China. My suspicion is that Almaty will feel quite different from the rest of our Central Asian travels too. As one guidebook says, it’s best understood as a Russian city.