Thursday, April 23, 2015

Almaty.

Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral.

We had two full days in Almaty. It started yesterday with a half day city tour.  The first thing on our agenda though was to get money and we had time to do this before meeting back up with our guide.  We had no tenge on us and we knew we had to pay for our meals today.


On our walk yesterday afternoon, we had spotted a few currency exchanges.  We decided to go back and check them out. We compared the rates, that were posted outside each place, and headed inside the one that offered the best conversion rate.  Pat and I had roughly figured out how much tenge we needed.  Inside, there was a woman seated behind a windowed counter.  I slipped a couple of $20 bills into the metal trough.  One was an unused bill and the other, I would describe as barely used. Unfortunately, the barely used bill had some sort of a black mark on it and so she refused it.  Before, I could take out another unused bill, she waved us off and went away.  What the ???

So, we had no choice but to leave.  We went to the next currency exchange and this time, I just presented unused bills and we got our tenge.

Our guide, a very young and scruffy looking young man named Yeleman, met us in the lobby at 9a. Our van and driver was waiting for us outside. 

We immediately plunged into the morning rush hour traffic, making our way to our first destination. Almaty is a very modern looking city.  While it has its share of Soviet style buildings, it also has its share of modern steel and glass buildings.  There are parks scattered here and there to break up the sea of man made structures.  Cars are plenty and many are high end makes - BMW's, Audi's, Benz's.  There seems to be good public transportation here - plenty of buses shuttling folks around and there's a subway as well.  Of course, what's a modern city without a few US fast food restaurants - I easily spotted at least one KFC and according to Yeleman, there are plenty of KFC places in the city.  Seems that Kazakhs love fried chicken as much as Americans do but compared to local cuisine, KFC is an expensive meal here.  Yeleman loves it but wishes it was cheaper.   Who doesn't? :-)

It was a very short drive before our driver, who's name I cannot remember, dropped us off.  We walked with Yeleman.  He seems a bit awkward but nice.

I caught sight of the golden spired domes of the church as we neared it.  Zenkov Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church that was built in 1907.  Looking at it, it's not obvious that it is a wooden church but  it is.  I love bright colors and intricate architectural elements and was immediately drawn to the cathedral. 



Outside the cathedral's front entrance was a small square and beyond that, a park.

Cute little boy trying to catch a pigeon.

The door was open and we headed inside.  We covered our heads, with our scarves, before entering the nave.  Photography was not allowed so I have no photos of the interior of the church which in all honesty looked similar to many of the other small Russian Orthodox churches I have been to on my travels.  The nave was devoid of any seating.  Icons filled the walls by the sanctuary.  In the middle of the sanctuary was a small altar.  A few people were quietly praying so I walked, with soft feet, around.  We were inside the church for only a few minutes.

Back outside, we walked around the church and I snapped a few more photos as I walked along.






Behind the church, we took a garden path to our next sightseeing stop.



The path took us to the back of the Panfilov War Memorial which was built in memory of the 28 soldiers from Almaty, of the Panfilov Division, who died in battle against Nazi tanks near Moscow in 1941.



The War Memorial looms over an eternal flame, burning at one end of a very large, rectangular slab of polished marble.




Flanking the eternal are two memorial walls and sculptural groups.  One commemorates the Russian Revolution - 1917-1921.


The other memorializes World War II - 1941-1945.


Today, soldiers were rehearsing for an event. 


We paused, for a few minutes, to watch them march.



Located near the War Memorial complex was a small wooden building that looked like a cottage you would find somewhere in the countryside.  It looked so out of place but it also looked like new construction so it was deliberately built in this style for this location.  After Yeleman told us that the building housed the folk music museum, architecture made sense to me.  I thought we would be going inside but we just walked on by.  I told Pat we had to come back on our own and she agreed so that's we we did today.  More on that later.  Back to our walk with Yeleman.

Kazakh Museum of Folk Instruments.

Our young, scruffy guide, who reminded of the character of Scruffy in the Scooby Doo cartoons, took us through the park that surrounds both Zenkov Cathedral and the War Memorial complex.

We crossed paths with another sculpture which Yeleman told us was a memorial to the medical personnel who have served in wars. 



We had somehow walked a circle, eventually meeting back up with our car and driver.  Our next destination would take us a short distance outside of the heart of downtown Almaty.  As we drove along, I snapped photos of the world passing by outside my window.  Along the way, Yeleman pointed out buildings of note.  Unfortunately, I don't remember any of them.  For these sorts of things, you really need to visit on foot.

I loved this sign.  Don't need to be able to read Kazakh to know we were near a school.

The streets are full of cars but it's well behaved traffic.

No matter where you are in Almaty, you always have a view of the mountains.

The modern part of the city is truly modern!

Our drive took us through a neighborhood of mansions, shielded from view by tall walls and gates, nestled among tall trees.  Soon, we were zig zagging our way up the mountain.  It was incredible that we were only about a 20 minute or so drive from downtown and we were in the heart of Mother Nature.


We made our way up to a vantage point.  From there, we could barely see Almaty - the city view was pretty much obscured by the mountains.  But, we did have a full view of Medeo Stadium, an ice skating rink, which was built starting in the fall of 1949.  The first ice skating competition took place at the stadium in February 1951.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the costs to upkeep the arena was too expensive for the newly independent Kazakhstan so the rink fell into disrepair.

In 2011, Kazakhstan hosted the Winter Asian Games and in preparation for that event, poured money into the renovation of the stadium. I didn't notice any activity there today (we did drive by the stadium on our way up the hill) but apparently, it does function as a skating rink and is open to the public all year round.


Looking towards the beautiful snow capped mountains, we saw a cable car.  It wasn't in use at the time but when it is, it shuttles people up to a popular ski resort.



I guess not too many people come up here at this time of year.  The only tourists were a group of men from China - they were not looking at any view.  They were looking at souvenirs :-)  Better bring something back for the wife and kids!!


The view point must be popular with locals.  We saw a row of pine trees adorned with ribbons which are typically tied around branches as symbols of wishes.


Our driver actually had to pay and entry fee and drive through and armed gate to get to our next entry.  What kind of special place were we going to that we had to pay an entry fee? I never got the name of the place but it was an odd complex of theme park and small zoo mixed in with Kazakh fast food eateries, a high end restaurant and a sculpture of the Beatles - all tucked in a hillside, nestled among trees.

The best thing about the place was the view of the city.  We had a wonderful view of downtown Almaty.  Unfortunately, it was a hazy view.



I didn't count but the zoo only had a few animals and most didn't look happy....except for this male peacock who was the only bird in the enclosure so he was obviously showing off for me.  I'm flattered but he's not my type :-)


The zoo enclosures on the right, amusement park rides on the left.

Great place to bring the kids.

A group of Beatles lovers donated the sculpture.


It was lunch time when we were walking through the amusement park/zoo and we asked Yeleman about stopping for lunch.  With this in mind, pointed out a fast food place that was open.  Ironically, they were cooking up burgers and dogs which I was not at all interested in having.  So, we then went to check out the higher end, sit down restaurant.  The menu was typical Central Asian food but the prices were high!  I was surprised.  Unfortunately, we didn't have enough cash on us to cover a meal plus neither of us felt it would be worth the money, so we left.  We told Yeleman, we would eat somewhere downtown.

So, from here, we headed back downtown, backtracking our way down the mountain.  Our next stop was for lunch at a local restaurant, serving local food.  Lunch for me was another stir fried lagman dish like I had in Bishkek.  It wasn't bad but nothing memorable either.

At lunch, we got to know Yeleman a little better.  Like so many guides we've met along the way, guiding helps to pay the bills.  Remarkably, this young man speaks fluent Spanish and occasionally works translation documents from Spanish to Kazakh. Someday, he hopes to visit Spain.

Yeleman and Pat.
From the restaurant, it was a short walk to Almaty's Green Bazaar, which is the city's most well known bazaar.

The Green Bazaar building is painted to match its name.  You can't miss the place!

The Green Bazaar got its name back in the day when it only sold produce but today, it sells pretty everything you need to cook a meal with along with other household items as well as clothing.  A popular place for tourists, you can find plenty of souvenir shops here as well.


We headed inside the main pavilion.  I didn't notice the sign but apparently, photography is not allowed inside.


I managed to only snap a few photos before the guard informed Yeleman to have me stop.....which of course, I did.  What was for sale here was pretty much what we had seen in all the other bazaars except for.....

.....horsemeat!  Inside the main pavilion, there was an entire section dedicated to meat.  Signs, posted above, indicated the type of meat being sold.  You could tell, just from the number of vendors, which were the popular meats.  On the top of the list were the lamb meat vendors, followed by beef and horse.  You could count the number of pork vendors on one hand.  In a separate area, located nearby, were the chicken vendors.  There were quite a few of those!

I was tempted to surreptitiously take a photo of the meat section but there were too many eyes on me - the downside of a being a tourist who is obviously standing out despite the fact that I look as Asian as most of the people here!

Spices.

Smoked and dried fish.

Dried fruits and nuts.  This friendly vendor told us he was from Uzbekistan.

As we walked by the produce vendors, a basket of mangosteens....yes, mangosteens caught my eye.  I asked Yeleman if he knew what the fruit was and he shook his head.  I told him it comes from the country that I was born in and I urged him to try one.  He was willing and so he forked over the equivalent of about $2 USD for one mangosteen.  I instructed to take a deep bite into the rind and then to peel it back to reveal the white fruit.  Like many a person trying something new for the first time, he was a bit cautious.  He gently licked the white flesh and when it tasted okay, he took a bite.  I told him to spit out the seed.  He actually enjoyed it!  It's good to try new things every now and again!

We pretty much breezed through the bazaar.  Our city tour was over after this.  Yeleman and our driver dropped us off back at the hotel.  We thanked them and tipped them both before saying goodbye.

That was a whirlwind city tour!

We rested a bit in our room before heading back out.  We decided to make another attempt at getting to Arbat.

We walked around the corner from the hotel, passing by the shopping mall along the way.  I had to pop inside to what was there and yep, lots of small stores.  Nothing interested so I just came back out.


We walked to the train station, Almaty 2.


It's a small station, filled with hurried travelers.  There was no one stopping us so we actually went out to the platform....just to see what was there.


Our curiosity satisfied, we left. 

Statue in front of the train station.


Along the way, we passed lots of shops, a few Soviet style apartment buildings, some parks and the Theatre of Young Spectator, a theatre offering performances for children.

Theatre of Young Spectator which offers performances targeted at children.

It probably took us close to 30 minutes to walk from the hotel to Arbat.  It was a very warm day.  The weather here starts out cool in the morning, gets warm by mid morning, is hot by lunch, borders on close to unbearably hot by early afternoon and begins to cool down by mid afternoon.  On our walk, it was warm but not uncomfortable though I would have welcomed a cold drink!

It wasn't hard to figure out when we had arrived at Arbat - it was the first and only pedestrian only area we had seen.



There were stores and restaurants.  We just wanted to stroll, take in the sights and people watch.

We paused to watch a guy installing a window pane. 

We tried our hand at some puzzles.  The young folks out did us!

I was tempted to get a coffee from the mobile espresso truck but the vendor was nowhere in sight!

Korean food is very popular here.

I had melon, yes melon, popsicle.  It wasn't what I expected - it was like melon flavored cream.

We found a bench, in front of a school and watch the world go by, commenting on how people looked, dressed, walked.  We watched happy kids, romping alongside their parents, sucking on popsicles.  We're not the only ones who love ice cream!  We watched one adorable little boy riding his tricycle, as if it were a high speed motorcycle, up and down a small ramp.   We even spotted a man, setting up a high powered telescope - perhaps for a few tenge, he would allow you to look through it to gaze at the stars above.  Nearby, was a street musician and some young men skateboarding up and down steps and ramps near a dry water fountain.  We watched the school kids being let out of school and being picked up by their parents.  It was a time for us to just relax.

Our dinner spot.

By the time we decide we were ready for dinner, it felt like a warm summer's night - perfect for dining al fresco.  So, that's exactly what we did - we found a restaurant with at table outside.

Her laugh says it all.  We were enjoying our downtime!

Pat enjoyed some pork chops and I indulged in the Kazakh version of stuffed grape leaves.



Flash forward to this morning.  We kick started our day with a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant.  Both yesterday morning and this morning, the dining room was filled with women. They were all dressed for office work so my guess is that they're here for a conference of some sort.  The hotel we're staying in is a popular business hotel.

My last Central Asian breakfast.  Except for the olives and the butter, it looks like all the other breakfasts I've had.

Today, we were on our own.  The first thing on our agenda was to get money.  We went back to the area where we had spotted all the currency exchanges.  We compared the rates, that were posted outside each place, and headed inside the one that offered the best conversion rate.  Pat and I had roughly figured out how much tenge we needed.  Inside, there was a woman seated behind a windowed counter.  I slipped a couple of $20 bills into the metal trough.  One was an unused bill and the other, I would describe as barely used. Unfortunately, the barely used bill had some sort of a black mark on it and so she refused it.  Before, I could take out another unused bill, she waved us off and went away.  What the ???

So, we had no choice but to leave.  We went to the next currency exchange and this time, I just presented unused bills and we got our tenge.

Pat navigated us to our first destination - we wanted to go back to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Instruments.  We made our way back to the park where our driver had dropped us off in the morning.  From there, we managed to make our way to Ascension Cathedral.  Recalling our way with Yeleman, we found the path leading to Paniflov Memorial.  Once we saw the sculpture of the soldiers, we knew exactly how to get to the museum.

Great day for a field trip!

Within easy earshot, we heard the loud chatter of school children.  Determined to beat to entering the museum, we picked up our pace.


We got our entry tickets and entered the first gallery. The school children were right on our heels - their happy voices announced their arrival :-)  The museum's displays were all very nicely down with descriptions in Kazakh, Russian and English. 


It was fascinating to see the variety of Kazakh string instruments.



In addition to string instruments, they also have wind and percussion instruments.  When we entered the 2nd exhibition room, we realized there was already another group of school children visiting the museum.  We were sandwiched between two groups of kids!  The group, ahead of us, was just large enough that they made it  hard to get close to the displays so we actually had to wait for them to leave a room before we entered.


The museum has displays on notable Kazakh musicians as well as interactive kiosks where you can listen to traditional Kazakh folk music. I can see why this would be a popular place to bring school children to.

In addition to Kazakh instruments, the museum also has a small collection of folk music instruments from other countries.


After the museum, we went back to the Green Bazaar, wandering through a few sections that we did not go through yesterday.  We spent most of our time outside the main pavilion.



The deli counter.  I could live here!

The smoked chicken caught my eye!  I've been making my own applewood smoked chicken for over a year now, inspired by my trip to the Baltics.  I have to say my chicken is damn tasty but I was curious how the Kazakh version would taste. Unfortunately, the vendor was much too busy with a pair of customers to pay me any attention. I guess we could have waited but I left thinking we would find this in another store but no luck.  Too bad.





For lunch, we headed back to Arbat.  We had Korean food.  Pat's lunch was a bowel of ramen and a glass of local beer.  I wanted the patbingsu and I got a huge bowl of it!  The ice was more chipped than shaved but it was still refreshing and just enough to fill me.  Perfect for cooling off in the heat.


I have to admit that by the time we made it to Almaty, we had lost steam as tourists.  Sitting and watching the world go by was as about as strenuous an activity as we wanted to do and I didn't really even care to go back and see any of the city's historic or cultural landmarks.  I feel a bit guilty about but perhaps, it's also a bit of an excuse to come back one day.  Truthfully, we really didn't see any of Kazakhstan except for a wee bit of Almaty so a return trip needs to be in order :-)

After lunch, we retreated back to our room to escape the heat but returned back to Arbat for a late afternoon people watching session and dinner.  While we sat and took in all that was happening around us, we polished off the packs of sunflower seeds that we had bought in Uzbekistan!

We had enjoyed our meal last night so we decided to go back to the same place.  It was the perfect meal to end our trip with.

After dinner, we went back to one of the currency exchanges to exchange our remaining tenge back to USD.  Tonight, we have to pack.  Tomorrow, a car and driver will be coming by before the crack of dawn to pick us up and take us to the airport.  We are flying home.

I cannot believe that it's been 25 days since we arrived into Tashkent and began our trip.

It's been an amazing trip!!

Goodnight from Almaty!