15 September 2022
Last night, we joined ElderTrek. Having previously cancelled this trip twice as per Covid, the third time is the charm and for this trip I invited my adventurous niece along (guess all those cancellations worked in her favor). We met our small group at a welcome dinner and learned more of our future travel through the Stans. It is a group of 7 like-minded Americans and one New Zealander born in Kansas.
Early morning was spent stopping by Republic Square. The is in a busier, more modern part of the city and is a historical square with old government buildings, huge Mayor’s Office and flags, statues, and parade grounds. So, are the green “apples” for peace an agricultural product or the cellphone? It is also the site of a past protest which got out of hand and burned some government buildings like the old Presidential Residence. Overlooking it all are tall, what I call, plain concrete Soviet efficiency apartments and buildings. Centerpiece is the impressive Golden Warrior obelisk honoring Kazakhstan’s independence.
High atop the 91’ Independence Monument is the Golden Man representing the Kazakh people. This Saka warrior, who actually represents a group of nomads coming from the region of Iran to people this area as early as the 2nd century BC, stands atop Aq Bars, a snow leopard and the symbol of the Tatars. The statue is bronze, the designer based the warrior on the Saka noble buried with his hoard of gold sometime in the 2-3rd century BC. Surrounding this obelisk are several bronze statues and panels representing Kazakhstan’s historical events and people, including First President Nazabayev validating the Kazakh Constitution.
St Nicholas Cathedral is a beautiful Russian Orthodox church with very traditional iconostasis, relics and icons. The ornate gold domes shine brightly in the sunshine. Built in 1909, the Cathedral was used as a stable for Bolshevik cavalry and later by the Soviet regime.
Another stop is at the nearby Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan which houses a large collection of art and cultural artifacts. When first established in 1931, it was located in the Cathedral. The odd mix of artifacts is interesting. Exhibits include more than just Kazakhstan historical and archaeological items but also artifacts from Russia, Western Europe and Asia. We were allowed to enter the tightly secured gold room. Once inside, the doors are locked and it is similar to touring a large bank vault displaying historic gold treasures of jewelry. One person says okay for photos, then the next says no, sometimes in the same room. The vagaries of Kazakh decision making is on display.
The Medeu Cable Car climbs up to nearby Shymbulak Ski Resort, a part of the Zaiilisky Alatau mountain range and Ile-Alatau National Park. At about 5000’ one can enjoy the ice fields and ice skating in winter, the panoramic view of the Medeu Valley and cafes year around. It would be a great place from which to hike and enjoy the plethora of wild flowers and nature. It is here, in cool fresh air, that we have a fine lunch and very smoggy views over Almaty. Snow-capped mountains tower another 10,000 feet above.
Some of our afternoon retraces yesterday’s steps. Toured the Zhenkov Cathedral and learned more details about this fascinating building and its history and art. The park and memorials were pointed out as we walked to the Museum of Musical Instruments. On display is a collection of musical wind, percussion and stringed instruments. The building itself is a beautiful wood frame structure erected in 1908, simultaneously with the Cathedral. Originally it was used by the military for state receptions.
It is dinner with the group. Horse meat and fish seem to be popular. Portions are large. The wine is passable and a developing industry. There may be a lot more to see in this city. But it is time to escape the congestion, money changers (better than ATMs for small amounts of cash as a beer is only about 2000 Tenge or 4$), and smog. I look forward to the countryside and what those Silk Road adventurers travelled.
We stop in the hotel lounge for a nightcap. Ladies enter, server points to the breakfast room. I point to bar. Gentleman server approaches. “Chai tea” He asks? “No, American. Wine please.”