Kazakhstan is the most Russian of all the Stans. Of course geographically it is the closest to Russia, but the prevailing vibe here is European rather than Asian. Paradoxically the people here have the most Asiatic faces I have seen on this trip.
The former capitol and business hub, Almaty could be relocated to anywhere in Europe in the blink of an eye and one would still feel at home. This is a city of long tree lined boulevards sporting the best of haute couture boutiques. Cafes spill onto foot paths, impromptu art and craft stands are everywhere and buskers add further life and colour.
For a city of only 1 million inhabitants it has the western curse of peak hour traffic jams and it is not until you look down from the lookout at Kok tobe that you notice the dirty brown smog that blankets the city.
Almaty sits at the south eastern corner of the country right up against the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. This was one of the factors mitigating against it remaining the capitol. Its location, though, has it nestled in the Tian Shan mountains to the south. In fact the mountains are visible from anywhere within the city. Even if you could not see them their presence is felt as all the north south streets slope significantly upwards the further south you go.
The mountains also mean that world class ski and skating resorts are on the city’s doorstep. For me as a tourist it is a 50cent bus to the resort at Shymbaluk. From there in the off season the ski lifts dont run but it is a stiff 3 hour climb from 2000 metres to 3000 metre Talgar pass to be among the mountains and glaciers again. Lucky that Pamir acclimatisation to 5000 metres hangs around for a few weeks!