Almaty

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Almaty
Population: 1.5 million
Main industries: finance, food products, light industry
Founded in 1854
Interesting fact: A large portrait of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev used to be festively carried out and hung on the walls of a local party school during holidays. Brezhnev had a famous hobby of awarding himself with medals for heroic valor, which had to be regularly drawn into the portrait. When he got his fourth medal, Kazakh authorities issued an order to expand the General Secretary's chest so that the medal could actually fit there. Unfortunately, the color of the paint on the new chest and arm varied from the original, so for the rest of the time that Brezhnev's portrait was unveiled to the public, it was noticeably asymmetrical and, some claimed, unattractive.
Sister cities: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Daegu, South Korea; Istanbul, Turkey; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Kazan, Russia; Kiev, Ukraine; Moscow, Russia; Rennes, France; Riga, Latvia; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Tel-Aviv, Israel; Tucson, Arizona; Urumqi, China; Vilnius, Lithuania
Helpful contacts: Zhumabek Zhanekulov (chairman of the Kazakh Entrepreneur Association (+7-727-251-6620; info@kazka.kz); Almaty Business Association (+7-727-245-5183; info@aba.kz); City Hall department on small- and medium-size business (+7-727-272-0291).

ALMATY — A taxi dashes madly through the streets, skidding on the wet road and barely dodging passing cars and motorcycles. Through all this, the local driver doesn't once lose his cool in his mission to get the client from the airport to the hotel as quickly as possible.

"As long as you stay on the right side of the road, it's all good," he said after speeding ahead of the fourth jaywalker in the past 20 minutes.

Starting with the journey from the international airport, Almaty sweeps its foreign visitors into a non-stop whirlwind of surprises. The city's very energy seems to defy the stereotypes that have stuck to it since the Soviet period. Traffic jams of luxury cars, high-fashion boutiques and oil magnates' wives dripping in jewels have become the antithesis to the steppes, horses and huts of Kazakhstan's nomadic past, and nowhere are they more visible than in Almaty.

The country's former capital at the foot of the picturesque Tian Shan mountains is the transport, economic and social heart of the region.

It is quite fitting then that Almaty could even challenge New York in terms of the ambitions and hopes it inspires among its new arrivals. The city's name literally means "apple town" and it lives up to this Big Apple status to the fullest.

"The city is actively developing and providing many opportunities for profitable investment," said Saule Kishkimbayeva, deputy chairperson of the state-controlled Halyk Bank. "In terms of gross regional product, Almaty is in first place among the country's regions. Almaty's share in the republic's budget in 2012 was 17.8 percent."

Major Businesses

LG Electronics (2 A Molodyozhnaya Ulitsa; +7-327-266-5757; lg.com/kz) opened its factory in Almaty in 1998. The factory produces televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and other home appliances. Considering one of the leading examples of foreign investment, the factory has hosted visits by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and has ambitious plans to expand beyond its 50 square meters.
Founded in 1935, Almaty Ceramics (123 Ulitsa Karasay Batyra; +7-727-399-8839; almatyceramics.kz) is the only factory in Kazakhstan that produces ceramic items. The craftsmen specialize in making ceramic souvenirs and home decorations. Some of them have received training abroad, such as in Italy and France.
Rakhat (2A Ulitsa Zenkova; +7-727-258-4711; rakhat.kz) is one of the largest confectionary producers in Kazakhstan. The factory traces its roots to 1942 when it was part of a wartime food production complex that also manufactured liqueurs and vodka.

Almaty was originally a Russian frontier fort named Verny, a pit stop on the Silk Road that the invading Mongol army later laid to ruin. The city became the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1927 and experienced rapid development during World War II as factories were moved there along with Slavic and Korean laborers.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since 1989, moved the capital to Astana in 1997. Despite the downgrade in official status, Almaty remained the financial center not only of Kazakhstan but of Central Asia.

Sometimes it seems that the city was destined to be rich.

Historians believe that the Almaty area could be the burial place of the great warrior Genghis Khan, who died trying to get to China. Since Mongol customs required that a leader be buried not only with his horse but also a good part of the riches that he earned during his lifetime, the burial mound would be a treasure chest for anyone who finds it.

Another treasure hunt tale, which Almaty has plenty of, claims that Leon Trotsky left secret documents and a bag of gold under the floorboards of a hotel where he lived while in exile. The Marxist revolutionary arrived in Almaty in 1928 with his wife and son. Not content with a meek existence, he reportedly spent a year engaged in secret correspondence. Josef Stalin eventually found out about this activity and ordered his political rival to be shipped to Turkey.

But in Almaty, wealth is not only measured in ancient coins, oil barrels or bags of gold that might lie under hotel floorboards. Instead, the number of children a family has can indicate its wealth. Wealthier families can afford to have more children and some boast as many as 10 or 15 all living under the same roof.

For MT
Lucas Marchand,
managing director, Chimbulak Ski Resort
Q: What sort of people visit Chimbulak?
A: Most visitors are still very much from Almaty and the region. We are waiting for interest to broaden and reach the rest of Kazakhstan. But already this ski season we had 20 percent more skiers than last year. People are more and more inclined to start skiing or to learn to ski.

Q: Is it a goal to have Chimbulak compete with world-class ski resorts in Europe?
A: We're not trying to compete with them at the moment. Kazakhstan as a country still has to do a lot to pull in more tourists — relax the visa regime, develop transportation networks. But in the future, maybe. We are not trying to be like the resorts in the Alps but we want to cater more to visitors from Kazakhstan, Russia, China, maybe India. We would like to become a regional tourism attraction, similar to Turkey.

Q: What was the most difficult thing for you when adjusting to life in Almaty as a foreigner?
A: I've been here for three years now. When I first came, it was a big change. Getting used to the language was the most difficult. I didn't have any background in Russian or Kazakh when I came.

Q: How important is it to learn the local languages?
A: The working language here is Russian. It is a must. You have to learn it to get a clear understanding of what the other person wants. I still hesitate when I speak it, but I am speaking.

Q: What advice would you give to a foreign manager who plans to settle in Almaty?
A: Learn the language. Don't come in with too many prejudices. Be really open-minded. Kazakhstan is still a bit of a mystery and you have to be open-minded to see all the opportunities that exist here.

— Lena Smirnova

"The bigger the family you have, the richer you are," the taxi driver said. He has four kids while his father had six brothers. The challenge now, he added pensively, is what maneuvers he will have to take to marry off his sons and daughters.

What to see if you have two hours

If you have arrived in Almaty in the morning, wake yourself with some boisterous haggling at the Zelyony Bazaar (53 Prospekt Zhibek Zholy). Parisian sketches were used to build the bazaar's structure in 1875. Soviet architects added their own details 100 years later, but the selling activity has not changed much. You can buy fruits, vegetables and a wide variety of dried fruits and nuts here. The highlight, unless you're vegetarian, is to go to the meat stands where you will be confronted with the staples of Kazakh cuisine, including horse meat and tangible pig body parts.

A block north of the bazaar is Panfilov Park (between Ulitsa Gogolya and Ulitsa Kazybek Bi). The park is named after 28 local soldiers who allegedly died in 1941 fighting off Nazi tanks in a village near Moscow, though some historians believe the event to be fiction and a Soviet myth. The Panfilov Heroes are depicted in a war memorial east of the park's Zenkov Cathedral. The colorful cathedral is also an interesting attraction. It was built entirely from wood, including wood nails, and functioned as a concert hall during the Soviet period before it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995.

Further north you'll find the takeoff point for the cable car that will take you 1,727 meters up to the Kok-Tobe hill (104A Prospekt Dostyk; +7-727-320-1201; kok-tobe.kz). There is a fantastic view of Almaty from the top as well as some neat statues, including one of a big apple and another of the four Beatles convened around a metal bench. The hill is also home to the 372-meter Almaty television tower, the city's highest structure and one of its symbols. The tower can resist earthquakes of a 10 point magnitude.

As you stroll through the city, admire the many trees you see along the way. The greenery has become a constant feature of Almaty courtesy of Russian general Gerasim Kolpakovsky, who watched over the territory in the 19th century and ordered locals to plant more trees and shrubs. The planters received pennies for their work, but their motivation was still strong due to the promise of punishment if Kolpakovsky's orders were not obeyed.

What to do if you have two days

A trip to a foreign country won't be complete without a trip to at least one museum. Fortunately in Almaty, even one museum will be enough to give you a sweeping introduction to the nation's heritage. The Central State Museum (44 Samal-1 district; +7-727-264-5577; csmrk.kz) showcases Kazakh history from the times of Bronze Age burial mounds to modern-day rocket launches. The museum holds replicas of the nomadic houses Kazakhs lived in before the Soviet period, their horse gear and folk costumes.

One of the central exhibits in the museum is the large replica of the Golden Man costume, which has become a national symbol since it was discovered in 1969, about 60 kilometers from Almaty. The warrior's costume was crafted by the nomadic Saka people, which roamed through southern Kazakhstan in the fifth century B.C. It is made from more than 4,000 individual gold pieces, many of them decorated with intricate designs.

For MT
Saule Kishkimbayeva,
deputy chairperson, Halyk Bank
Q: Halyk Bank is now considering development options in Russia. Should we expect to see more Kazakh companies on the international level in five to 10 years?
A: The Russian market is attracting companies from Kazakhstan with its scale and opportunities. In addition to that, the governments of our countries are working hard to facilitate cooperation.
Russian and Kazakh investors, first of all, want to know how effective this cooperation will be and what legal protection they can expect for their investments.

Q: Why should investors pay attention to Almaty?
A: The city administration has defined the basic directions for social and economic policy. Apart from developing tourism and recreation, the city will grow as a research, education and technological innovation center, a regional financial center and transport and logistical hub.
All of this confirms the broad investment opportunities of Kazakhstan's southern capital. The city has modern infrastructure. And, due to the historical factors and traditions of Kazakh people, Almaty — like the rest of Kazakhstan — is tolerant and friendly. So from the point of view of investment attractiveness, I think that Almaty, thanks to the efforts of the city government, has sufficient potential.

Q: What advice would you give foreign businessmen that want to invest in Almaty?
A: First of all, use common sense and logic. Don't be superstitious. Almaty is an amazing city in a good sense. None of the foreign colleagues that I am constantly in touch with, visiting either for business or tourism, have been disappointed with it.

Q: Now the capital of Kazakhstan is Astana. What continues to make Almaty a unique city?
A: Almaty is a city with its own sprit and rich history. It is one of the largest business centers in the region. Therefore, I am confident that with time Almaty will only solidify its unique status.

— Lena Smirnova

Despite its esteemed age, the costume has become the center of some controversy lately as some experts claim that the Golden Man might not be a man at all. The skeleton was damaged too much to determine the costume owner's gender definitively.

Another must-see in Almaty is Medeu (465 Ulitsa Gornaya; +7-727-386-9533; medey.kz). The most famous skating rink in Kazakhstan is located 1,691 meters above sea level and has an ice surface of 10,500 square meters. Built in 1972, the ice rink has hosted numerous competitions in hockey, speed skating and figure skating. Many champions have also trained here.

Higher up the mountain from Medeu is the area's best known ski resort, Chimbulak (640 Ulitsa Gornaya; +7-727-330-9051; shimbulak.kz). The skiing season lasts from November to April with February being the best month to pay a visit. A daily lift pass on the weekend costs about $45. Almaty had an unsuccessful bid to host the 2014 Olympics so a visit to Chimbulak can also fuel imagination about the games that could have been.

What to do with the family

The Almaty National Reserve (Akku neighborhood, Talgar; +7-727-743-0241; fhc.kz) is located an hour's drive from the city, about 25 kilometers to the east. It has mountain scenery, hiking trails and promised sightings of sheep and gazelle.

But if you're worried that a long walk will tire your children, settle for a tour of Almaty's Central Park (1 Ulitsa Gogolya; +7-727-382-3082) and its adjacent zoo. You might experience some deja vu since it is still best known under its Soviet name, Gorky Park, and in some ways is very similar to its Moscow equivalent. It also has Soviet, as well as more modern adventure rides and boat rentals.

What sets the Kazakh park apart are the legends about resident ghosts. There used to be a psychiatric hospital in the lower part of the park and visitors have claimed that they saw shadows walking in the area after the hospital was closed.

Nightlife

If you think your nerves are more conditioned than those of Genghis Khan, head to the Kazakh State Academic Symphony Orchestra (35 Kaldayakov Ulitsa; +7-727-291-8048; fil.kz). The venue hosts symphony, chamber, jazz and organ music concerts, but it is particularly interesting to visit it on the nights when traditional Kazakh music is played. National instruments can then be heard, including the two-stringed fiddle, called the kobyz. Genghis Khan reportedly started crying when he first heard it played.

Opened in 1934, Abay State Opera and Ballet Theater (110 Ulitsa Kabanbay Batyra; +7-727-272-8445; gatob.kz) is one of the city's top cultural destinations. The theater shows classics like Swan Lake and Aida, but you can also catch performances of the rarely seen Kazakh operas Abay and Abulay Khan.

A late-night visit to the Arasan Baths (78 Ulitsa Tulebayeva; +7-727-390-1010; arasan-spa.kz) is the foolproof way to relax after spending several hours in a theater chair. The complex includes Russian, Finnish and Turkish saunas and, considering its 440-person capacity, you are bound to meet someone to chat with and share impressions of Almaty. Bring your own bath gear or buy some in the lobby shop.

Where to eat

Kazakh food may not be the best thing you've tried, but it will surely be memorable. The traditional diet centers around meat, dairy and bread, and is also rich in dried fruits and nuts.

Horse meat sausage is of the most unusual dishes you can try while in Almaty, although you can also opt for the local variation on the more familiar, popular Central Asian shashlyk, kebabs made out of marinated or fresh mutton or beef. Other traditional foods include lagman noodles, steamed manty dumplings and greasy pilaf, which is followed up with an artery-unclogging green tea.

For MT
Joe Ghayad,
general manager of Almaty's Ritz-Carlton hotel, which is set to open in mid-fall
Q: Why is Almaty a prime location for a luxury hotel?
A: Almaty is an emerging market. There are a lot of visitors from the oil and gas sectors, as well as the banking sector. All are waiting for a luxury hotel to appear. There is a lot of potential here for a business like ours.

Q: What are your recommended strategies for managing local employees?
A: Kazakhs are very warm and generous. You just need to get to know them to work with them. Luckily, doing that is never a problem. Even when I got to restaurants, and I don't know much about local food, I find that people are hospitable and they help me out.

Q: What advice would you give a foreigner who wants to settle in Almaty?
A: People need to understand that they will have to go out of their comfort zone when they come here. They need to adapt instead of trying to change the system.

— Lena Smirnova

Kumys, fermented mare's milk that also happens to be mildly alcoholic, is available in the spring and summer months. It is said that the drink can cure any ills though it has also been known to cause indigestion among tourists, so drink with caution.

The restaurant complex Pirate (209A Ulitsa Tole Bi; +7-727-239-8448; pirate.restoran.kz) offers a menu that is a mix of adventurous Kazakh dishes and safer European options. As its name suggests, the restaurant has swashbuckler-themed decorations, and there are also billiard and sauna halls to round out the eating experience. A Caesar salad, fish soup and pork shashlyk cost a total of $26.

If you are hungry for more adventure, head 25 kilometers out of Almaty to the nearby small city of Talgar. You can fish at the local tourist complex Talgarskaya Forel (Ulitsa Abaya; +7-727-307-3075; forel.kz) and then have professional cooks prepare your catch for your meal. An assortment of horse meats, fried trout on rice and a pot of tea will cost you just $25. The restaurant also serves European cuisine.

Where to stay

Kazakhs led a largely nomadic lifestyle before the Soviet period, living in portable homes made out of wood and felt, called yurts. You can still find some decorative yurts near Almaty, but the city also offers some more modern options for overnight stays.

The Rahat Palace Hotel (29/6 Ulitsa Akademika Satpayeva; +7-727-250-1234; rahatpalace.com) was the first five-star hotel to open in Central Asia. It is located in the city center and most of the rooms have mountain views. The hotel also has a restaurant and fitness facilities. A standard room with a king-size bed costs about $250 per night while a luxury room with a separate living room and dining room is $516 per night.

Sitting opposite the Presidential Palace, the InterContinental Almaty (181 Ulitsa Zheltoksan; +7-727-250-5000; ihg.com) is another drop of luxury in the Kazakh city. A room with a king bed costs $280 per night and the executive suite is $640.

The Royal Tulip Hotel (401/2 Ulitsa Murata Ospanova; +7-727-300-0111; royaltulip.com) looks over the Tian Shan mountains and has an expansive fitness and spa complex. A double room is $452 per night and a suite is $712 per night.

Conversation starters

Almaty stands in a tectonically active area so earthquakes are a topic that is almost as relevant as the weatherman's daily announcements about impeding rain or snowfall. Though speaking about potentially deadly seismic events might not seem like the most light-hearted conversation topic in the beginning, locals are actually notoriously nonchalant about this geographic disadvantage.

Older Almaty residents still remember the last big earthquakes that shook the city in 1967, 1970 and 1971. Inquire how the locals prepare and react to earthquakes and you might be surprised by how casual the responses will be.

In one telling clip, the television comedy show "Nasha Kazasha" showed how different nationalities react to earthquakes. The Almaty residents, woken at night by seismic vibrations, just turned to the other side and murmured a short prayer.

Helpful hints

If you are fearless and want to get the full local experience, make the offbeat trek to the infamous Almaty flea market (Severnoye Koltso, 7 km). You might not buy anything, but that's not the point. The market is a hotbed of Central Asian culture and a place where haggling takes on the competitive aura of an Olympic sport.

Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Chinese and other merchants huddle by the endless lines of pavilions, containers and tables selling any imaginable things fishing equipment, gold accessories, furs, pickled cabbage and fake designer accessories.

There were plans to move the market to a neighboring city once, but they never materialized, likely because it is a workplace for so many people. According to estimates by the Almaty Entrepreneurs Association, there were 20,000 merchants working at the market in 2007 and four times as many people were indirectly connected to its operations.

How to get there

Flights to Almaty leave several times a day from Moscow's Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo airports. The main flight operators on the route are Air Astana, Ukraine International Airlines, Transaero and Turkish Airlines. The flight lasts about four hours and the price of a return ticket starts at $415.

Once in Almaty, make sure to test out the new metro, which opened in December 2011. There are now only seven stations so the trip takes 16 minutes from one end of the line to the other. The metro makes up for this relative lack of functionality with its bountiful sightseeing offerings.

Each of the stations has a unique look while the sparkling granite floors hint at the underlying wealth of the city. Teatr Imeni Mukhtara Auezova is one of the more interesting metro stations with its large mosaic panel that depicts a marriage scene from a theater performance, decorative medallions on the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

Baikonur is another interesting pit stop along the metro line. Its high-tech, futuristic design gives visitors a taste of what it would be like to stroll through the Soviet-era cosmodrome. Sixteen video screens on the walls show footage of the different launches from Baikonur's history.

Contact the author at e.smirnova@imedia.ru