Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, was formerly known as Alma-Ata, “the Father of Apples” and in the 19th century as Verniy. During the Soviet era it served as capital of the Kazakh SSR, but the northern city of Astana, twelve hours distant by train, is now the capital of independent Kazakhstan.
Almaty remains the country’s most developed, most sophisticated and most diverse city, and is home to a high proportion of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.
On arrival, a first sightseeing tour reveals a cosmopolitan city at the foot of the mighty Zailiyskiy Alatau or northern Tien Shan Mountains; a modern metropolis positioned not in Russia but in Central Asia. Almaty shows off its tree-lined boulevards, typically lined with century-old Imperial Russian mansions, palaces and civic buildings. Parks and street cafes are numerous. The sights include the imposing Zenkov Russian Orthodox Cathedral built entirely of wood – said to be the world’s fourth-largest timber building – the Wedding Palace, the Almaty Circus and the Central Mosque. That evening you might try dining in a traditional Kazakh yurt, but Russian, Korean and Uzbek eateries may also prove tempting.