At the end of my summer program in Bishkek, a friend of mine and I wanted a weekend getaway from Bishkek and decided to visit Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, Almaty, which is just over the border. A few other students had already gone and encouraged us to check it out.
Almaty lies at the foothills of the Trans-Ili-Alatau Mountains, the northernmost section of the Tian Shan Range. The striking contrast between the leafy cosmopolitan city and stunning snow-capped mountains in the background makes Almaty a weekend destination that’s hard to pass up.
Almaty has also attracted a great deal more investment than Bishkek, meaning that you can find more western brands here if you are feeling a bit homesick and really want a McDonald’s or Starbucks fix. In fact, the city just feels very different from Bishkek, which is remarkable given the two cities’ close proximity. This short, affordable trip shows a whole other side of Central Asia and is thus highly recommended.
Before you Go: Phone Service and Reservations
Before you leave Kyrgyzstan, make sure that your roaming is turned on. It probably won’t be automatically available. You’ll also want to make sure that you have enough money on the phone to last you maybe a GB of data for a weekend trip. If you aren’t sure how to do this, visit a local mobile store or ask your SRAS coordinator for help.
You can also pick up a local SIM in Kazakhstan pretty easily, spending about 1,500 tenge (about 3 USD) for a minimum package of 1GB. There is a small kiosk just outside the bus station in Almaty, between the station’s main entrance and the road opposite, where you can buy a local SIM. However, you’ll definitely want roaming on just in case the kiosk is not open or something else happens.
As far as booking a hotel in Almaty, you can stay at the Grand Hotel Tien Shan, which is located within walking distance of Panfilov Park. We spent about 70 USD per night, but given its location, pool, and superb complimentary breakfast, Tien Shan is a great choice, especially if you are splitting the cost with friends. You can book your stay on booking.com.
If you are looking for just a place to sleep, MyHostel offers a very comfortable experience with curtains for their bunks and a large communal area with a kitchen and coworking space. Spots currently go for about 10-12 USD.
Also, as an SRAS student, always make sure to tell your SRAS coordinator of any travel plans well in advance.
Getting to Almaty from Bishkek
Bishkek-Almaty is a well-developed route, so you have a few options. You should plan for most overland routes to take you 5-6 hours, with 1-2 of those hours spent crossing the border. It is also theoretically possible to fly for about $100-150, if you plan well ahead of time and get lucky. However, the overland route is much cheaper and, in the end, usually faster, as you don’t need to wait around at the airport at all.
For the cheapest way, go to Bishkek’s Western Bus Station and purchase a bus ticket for about 500 som (about $6). Buses are scheduled to leave five times a day, currently at 8, 10, 12, 16, and 18. The bus will take you to the border, but once there, you’ll need to get out and walk through border control. The bus will meet you on the other side. The buses get a special lane that let them get through fairly quickly. It should easily beat you to the other side. As you exit into the Kazakh side, turn towards the large brown arch (left from the exit). The bus is usually parked on the side of the road about a five minute walk away just past the gas station. make sure you can recognize the bus, the driver, and ask the driver where he will park before getting off. Make sure you can recognize the bus, the driver, and ask the driver where he will park (just in case) before getting off.
A common, more flexible, and still pretty cheap route is to take a taxi the Kordai border crossing and then a marshrutka once you cross the border. The line of cars waiting at the border is usually substantial, so the taxi will need to stop as much as a half mile away and you’ll need to cover the rest on foot. The taxi costs about 500 som and takes about 30 minutes to get to the border. After passing through Kyrgyz and Kazakh border control, you can walk until you find a marshrutka going to Almaty, which will cost about another 500 som. They will still take Kyrgyz som despite being technically in Kazakhstan.
If you are a student in Bishkek and have a student visa be sure to bring this along with your passport. Be prepared to answer questions in Russian about the purpose of your stay in Kyrgyzstan (study) and visit to Kazakhstan (tourism). Summer programs will often fall under Kyrgyzstan’s visa-free regime, which allows Americans to stay up to 60 days without a visa, including for study abroad. You may also need to wait for the guard to double check the actual requirements for study under the visa-free regime, but just stay calm while this happens.
No matter which overland route you take to get to Almaty, your last stop will most likely be the Sairon Bus Station. Once over the Kazakh border, it will take about 3 and a half hours to get there. You should not plan on having stops.
Money and Transport in Almaty
The marshrutkas from Kordai to Almaty take Kyrgyz som, so you can wait to withdraw Kazakh tenge from an ATM in Almaty, rather than deal with the usually lower exchange rates in Kyrgyzstan. You can also use a credit card for most purchases since Almaty’s economy is not heavily reliant on cash like Bishkek’s. Make sure you tell your credit card company and bank that you’ll be in Kazakhstan, so that they can flag your account and won’t try to block it when it shows up in a new country. Keep in mind any foreign transaction fees that your bank or credit card company might be charging you.
Credit cards are generally more convenient, particularly as there seems to be a coin shortage in Almaty, making cash transactions using tenge complicated at times. Especially taxis often won’t have change.
Currently, one dollar equals about 475 tenge. So, an easy rule of thumb for discerning prices is to times the tenge figure by two and drop three zeros to give you the dollar value.
Once you have local currency, you can pick up an Onay card, which will allow you to use Almaty’s pretty good bus system. Looking up routes on 2GIS or Yandex maps should give directions with public transport that you’ll need. The cards cost for 400 tenge (less than $1) and provide one ride. To top-up the card you will need to pay an additional 80 tenge (around 20 cents) for each bus ride at a Qiwi payment terminal (which are common around the city). The cards themselves can be bought at the bus station or around the city at any metro stop, and at many newsstands, and cell phone stores.
Almaty also has a one-line metro, but is handy at times and is an attraction in itself. You can buy tokens inside any station for 80 tenge per ride.
Taxis between most destinations in Almaty are likely to only cost $2-4. Especially if you are traveling with a couple of friends, taxis can be a quite affordable way to get around as well.
Food in Almaty
Almaty has a vibrant food scene with lots of small, independent cafes and coffee houses that deserve to be tried!
Fans of healthy, hearty breakfasts should try Breakfast Bar at Satbayev Street, 2. Breakfast is served all day and will set you back, with coffee, about $7-12.
Like many places in the former USSR, there are also many great Georgian options in Almaty. Dinner at Salamuri, at Al-Farabi Ave., 116/22, cost us about 20 USD. We shared a khachapuri, a traditional dish of cheese-filled bread. I can also recommend the Ojakhuri, a Georgian meal consisting of lamb, roasted potatoes, dill, and onions.
American students visiting from Bishkek, however, are often most infatuated with the ability to get western brands available in Almaty. Here you can find Starbucks, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Hardee’s – all of which do not exist in Bishkek.
What to See: Panfilov Park and Surrounding Area
Panfilov Park is centrally located in Almaty and is host to a number of monuments and structures to visit. Panfilov was Soviet General that helped lead the defense of Moscow in WWII. Although today it is widely known to be a fictionalize account created by Soviet media, there are many areas in Central Asia named for the 28 soldiers of multiple nationalities that he supposedly led in a valiant and ultimately suicidal attack on German tanks. Today, this park named for the general and his legendary men is a popular place for walking or relaxing on a shaded bench. At the east end of the park is the “Memorial of Glory,” where an eternal flame and large-scale statues of soldiers commemorate the Soviet soldiers of the Great Patriotic War.
Located near the memorial are the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments and the Military History Museum of the Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan. When we walked to the memorial, an older man was playing old patriotic Soviet songs on his speaker that echoed throughout the park for visitors and sightseers to listen to.
In the middle of the park stands the Ascension Cathedral (also called Zenkov Cathedral). Built in 1907, without a single nail, the Orthodox cathedral is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside. The interior boasts ornate icons and magnificent depictions of Biblical scenes. Its architect, Andrey Zenkov, used several pioneering, original methods to protect the structure from earthquakes, of which it has since survived all with only minor damages. Especially if you are visiting in summer, Panfilov Park is a great way to find shady spots to escape the heat.
What to See: Kok-Tobe
Kok-Tobe is a family attraction on a hill overlooking Almaty. To get up to Kok-Tobe we each paid 3,500 tenge for a round-trip ticket on a gondola. The view of the city and the mountains at Kok-Tobe is breathtaking and well-worth the gondola ride, which can be slightly unnerving for those wary of heights. The park has a number of attractions such as a small zoo, rides, and free showings of cartoons, which are obviously more intended for families with small children, but we still enjoyed strolling here and looking out over the city and mountains as the sun set.
What to See: Green Bazaar
The Green Bazaar in Almaty offers sprawling passageways and open markets with a wide assortment of clothing, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, local sweets, and cheeses. Most overwhelming was the large indoor area where vendors sold a variety of meats, arranged by row according to type. Vendors also sold fresh squeezed juice, herbs, dried nuts and fruits, and medicinal treatments in this section. Atop it all is a small coffee shop where you might bring some of the local sweet cheeses to eat with a cup of coffee while looking down on the activity below.
Most interesting to me were bottles of oil made from anything from sea buckthorn to bear and squid oil. Some vendors in the dried nuts and fruits sought to get our attention by shouting at us; however, most vendors left us alone to browse silently.
Transportation Back to Bishkek
To get back to Bishkek you again have options.
First, you can head back to the Sairon Bus Station. There, there is a clearly marked door that says “Bishkek.” Just inside that door is a kiosk where a woman can sell you a ticket back for 2500 tenge (about $5). Buses leave regularly at 9, 12, 14, and 16. Again, you will have to get out at the border and walk through passport control. However, the bus will meet you on the other side, just up the road past the SIM card sellers. Again, make sure you can recognize the bus, the driver, and ask the driver where he will park before getting off. The bus will arrive back at the Western Bus Station in Bishkek.
Or, you could also take a taxi to Altyn Orda Bazaar in Almaty. There, marshrutkas are gathered a few hundred feet past the bazaar, so you might ask your taxi driver if he knows just where to find them. Otherwise, you can ask the locals at the bazaar itself. The marshrutka will cost 3,000 tenge (about $6) each and took us back to the Kordai Border Crossing in about 3 hours. After crossing the border back into Kyrgyzstan we hailed a taxi to take us back to Bishkek which cost 800 som. Our taxi from the border cost much more than a because most Yandex taxis are based out of Bishkek and it would have cost the same for that time of day (and taken an additional 30 minutes to get home) to call a taxi from Bishkek to drive out to the border and take us back home.
Despite the somewhat stressful journey to Almaty, I would recommend taking a weekend trip to those studying in Bishkek for a change of pace and a taste of home. Almaty feels very much like a large American city with American fast food chains that may help you stave off homesickness on your semester abroad.
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