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Introducing Almaty

pop 1.3 million

Kazakhstan’s economic prosperity is most palpable here in its biggest city, where at times you could almost believe you are in Europe, such are the numbers of glitzy international shops lining the streets and of Mercedes, Audis, Volkswagens and BMWs negotiating the peak-hour jams. This leafy city with a backdrop of the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau (a spur of the Tian Shan) has always been one of the most charming Russian creations in Central Asia. Today Almaty’s fast-growing middle class also have expensive suburban housing, well-stocked 24-hour supermarkets, Western-style coffee lounges, fine restaurants, chic bars, dance-till-dawn nightclubs and even new ski resorts to help them enjoy life to the full.

The ethnic Kazakh presence is gradually getting stronger in what was always a heavily Russian-influenced city, but everyone seems to rub along fine. No-one even seems too bothered that Astana has replaced Almaty as Kazakhstan’s capital – except those who have had to move to Astana.

Almaty is Kazakhstan’s main transport hub and a place many travellers pass through rather than linger, but if you do stay a few days you’ll find – as several thousand Western expats have – that Almaty is a place for enjoying many green parks and colourfully illuminated fountains, for visiting excellent museums, theatres, shops and markets, and for eating, drinking and dancing in Central Asia’s best selection of restaurants, bars and clubs. It’s also a starting point for great hikes, drives, treks and skiing in the Zailiysky Alatau between here and Kyrgyzstan (the border is just 25km south) and it’s the obvious jump-off point for the magnificent central Tian Shan in Kazakhstan’s far southeastern corner.

The best times to visit Almaty are mid-April to late May, and mid-August to mid-October, when it’s neither too cold nor too hot.