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Almighty Almaty, Kazakhstan

The faces of Central Asia can be seen throughout Almaty

Ascension Cathedral, Almaty

Ethnic Korean women sell kimchi at the Green Market
by Nicholas Walton

No longer the official capital, the ancient trading city of Almaty continues to welcome visitors to the new Kazakhstan.

The beauty of the Ascension Cathedral emerges from the darkness as I blink away the bright sunshine of Almaty’s Panfilov Park and step inside the candle-lit Russian Orthodox church at its centre. As my eyes adjust, I’m greeted by the gilded magnificence of the second tallest wooden building in the world, a cavernous space of worship far from the chaos of the modern city beyond. Also known as the Zenkov Cathedral and built in 1907, the church, with its yellow and cream façade and gleaming onion-like domes, is a symbol of one of Central Asia’s most fascinating destinations; Almaty, wreathed by towering mountains and vast deserts, is an ancient trading city that’s enjoying new fortune as Kazakhstan finds its place on the world stage.

The ambiance inside the church is serene; incense smoke is thick in the air, and a bushy bearded priest gives council in one corner as worshipers of all ages quietly arrive, make the sign of the cross and kneel before a beautiful golden iconostasis painted by Nikolai Khludov. It’s an enchanting yet solemn scene and one at contrasts with the extensive park outside, where families play and teenagers take selfies in the fleeting autumn sunshine. But that’s Kazakhstan: a fascinating country of contrasts and contradictions, one with a rich and often turbulent heritage, a nation state with one foot planted in its past and the other stepping into a brighter future. You could be forgiven for not even being able to point to Kazakhstan on a globe, despite it being the 9th largest country in the world (and its largest landlocked). Traditionally populated by nomads, its expansive steppes, towering mountains, and desolate deserts are home to only 18 million people, many of whom live in Almaty or the new capital which replaced it, Astana. However, independence and investment has led to prosperity; new hotels are opening in Almaty and Astana to the north, and the nation’s airline, Air Astana, is opening access to the rest of the world with routes to the likes of Bangkok, Hong Kong and London. In fact the tiny carrier from a far off land is now regarded as one of the best in the world, winning numerous awards and receiving SkyTrax’s coveted four stars, joining just 37 other carriers from a pool of almost 500. Everywhere you look there is change, prosperity and hope.

But Kazakhstan is more than just a nation looking for its way forward; it’s an ancient cross road, a place where east and west meet, and where cultures blend, from the majority Kazakhs, to Russians, Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Bulgars and Tatars. This couldn’t be more evident than at the nearby Green Market, a fascinating food emporium at the heart of the city, where the vital ingredients of many regional dishes can be sourced direct from the producers. Surrounded by stout, Soviet-era apartment blocks and tree-lined boulevards (Almaty is one of the greenest cities in the world, with expansive green belts like the Park of the First President breaking up the urban sprawl), the markets have the architectural ambiance of a Communist-era public swimming pool, with green hued tiles and beams of bright afternoon sunshine reaching from skylights to concrete floors polished with the passing of generations of hungry shoppers.

The sprawling market is divided into various sections; there are butcher aisles where horse steaks, a national favourite, are prepared alongside fresh lamb sausages; there are deli counters where cured meats and caviar are presented in towering piles; a vegetable section where pomegranates and the largest apples I’ve ever seen gleam in the sunshine (Almaty is the ancestral home of the apple); and a dried goods corner where nuts from Persia and Afghanistan are piled high next to dried figs and apricots from the steppes. There is a long line of Korean delicacies – from kimchi to ddukbokki rice cakes – evidence of the many ethnic Koreans who have called Kazakhstan home for generations, and nearby spice stalls are ablaze with colour as the flavours of the east continue to migrate as they did on the ancient Silk Road. For the intrepid the Green Market is also a great spot to try some of Kazakhstan’s more daring delicacies, from kymyz, fermented horse milk, to shubat, fermented camel milk.

As the sun begins to settle in the sky and the lights of the weathered Ladas and gleaming new Land Rovers come on, I head to Gakku, one of the city’s leading Kazakh restaurants, to see how all that mouthwatering produce can be employed. Seated in a traditional Kazakh yurt, I’m protected from the evening winds that whip down from the mountains as the light drains from the sky. It’s the perfect chance to feast on a host of authentic local dishes, from besbarmak, slow-cooked mutton and horse meat with long silky noodles, the national dish; and assyp, lamb’s heart, lungs and rice, wrapped in fat and steamed in a Kazakh take on haggis; to cheburek, parcels of pastry stuffed with beef that make for the perfect dish for ever-moving nomads past, present and future.

If You Go*
Turkish Airlines offers the shortest routing, best cost option from the U.S. From JFK with a connection in Istanbul, starting at around $1300 round-trip, economy class, in spring 2016.

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