Bright pink, green and blue tiles cover the cathedral. Golden onion domes tower over us. We are in the Park of the Twenty-Eight Guardsmen and the pastel yellow Zenkov’s Cathedral is one that survived the iconoclasm at the beginning of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it never reached as far south as Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan.
Lining a path through the park are plinths bearing the names of the thirty-eight guards, who went to Moscow to fight for the Red Army. All of them died in 1941 halting an attack by the Nazis on Moscow.
At the opposite end of the park from the church huge soviet statues show the guards charging into battle. An eternal flame burns for the rest of the dead.
This park will become our base for the next few days. It is just south of Almaty’s Turkish quarter and where we go to eat our corn-on-the-cobs, fresh cherries and ice creams from the market beside our hotel. One thousand five hundred kilometres south of Astana it is much warmer here and the trees provide cover from the sun.
We begin to wander through the city with a vague plan in mind. First we aim for Tsum, a grand shopping centre built in every major Soviet city. On our way we discover another park full of fountains and dedicated to the women who fought in the Second World War. Two chihuahuas are playing the park and they make Anička weak at the knees.
Tsum is a far cry from the grandest of the old malls that sits just off Red Square in Moscow. Shop fronts sit empty beside a small selection of western brands, but on its third floor we find some souvenir shops that we plan to visit before we leave. We might not buy a fox-fur ushanka but the traditional slippers and toy yurts have caught our eyes.
Iced coffee and virgin mojito in hand we walk further south along Seyfullin Avenue looking for another ancient church. Either our map is wrong or we have made a mistake, but we can’t find it so we nip through another park and try to find somewhere for a late lunch.
Food has been relatively difficult for us in Kazakhstan. We will walk into a restaurant or cafe and ask if there is anything without meat. The response can often be one of shock. “Without meat?” they ask. “No.” Sometimes there will be potato dumplings along with the meat filled ones. Often Anička ends up only eating mashed potatoes or rice.
Today we are lucky. We come across a cute pastel blue cake shop. Anička devours a huge red velvet macaroon and home made strawberry lemonade and I have a tower of honey pancakes and cream with an apple lemonade. It is expensive for Kazakhstan – we spend six pounds.
Stuffed, we arrive at the Monument of Independence in Republic Square. The old column is a bit underwhelming and the old Soviet complex that sits behind it is in need of repair. The old residence of the president, now a city hall, is across the road and in much better condition. The steps leading up to it are lined with roses.
The capital was moved from Almaty to Astana in 1997. At the time Astana was, at best, a village that happened to be situated in the middle of Kazakhstan. Nursultan Nazerbayev thought it would be best to rule from the centre of the country rather than so close to the borders of Kyrgyzstan and China. In case of war, it meant that thousands of kilometres of steppe had to be covered, it allows him more control over his people, and it gave him a blank slate to build Astana to his liking.
Past the fountains and across the road from the city hall is the State Museum. We ignore it and walk through its park instead. We appear to have arrived in Almaty’s financial centre where all the country’s oil is bought and sold. Black Range Rovers roar past. There are shiny skyscrapers and posh hotels everywhere.
When we arrived at our hotel in the dark last night, we could see a tower lit up above Almaty from our balcony. The train had been stuck for hours in the heat of the steppe, so we went to bed instead of doing our research. Now we’re trying to keep the tower in sight. We want to go up it, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.
As we walk past a huge modern shopping mall we decide that cake might not have been enough for lunch. Knowing there’ll be something in the food court that Anička can eat we pop in. After our dinner in a cafe pretending to be traditional, we discover the time.
Somehow we have been wandering almost aimlessly for six hours. We decide that we shall spend the next day at the tower and rest tonight. The train hell left us with little sleep.
Like Astana, Almaty has surprised us. It is not as new, or as well kept, but it is clean, full of green space and tree-lined avenues. As cities go it is a nice place to spend some time and there is enough to see to keep you entertained for a day or two.
Back at the hotel the pedometer on my phone tells me we have walked twenty-four kilometres through Almaty today, it can’t be accurate. We take a seat on our balcony and plan a picnic at the tower. Every so often we distract ourselves by watching the policeman at the corner of the street. Bored, he is trying to pull over every car that drives past with mixed results.