This place was so remote from Russia that, when the Tsar's Cossacks had advanced this far in 1868, they renamed the existing Kazakh settlement Verny, which means reliable. That was because only the most trustworthy troops were sent to garrison this uttermost part of the empire, where dissidents could easily have fomented rebellion without a hint of it reaching the imperial court until it was too late to put down. Verny the town remained until the Bolsheviks took over the historic role of the Tsars and, in 1921, restored the name by which the Kazakhs had known it before the Russians came: Alma-Ata, father of apples. Much fruit had always been grown here.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse
Almaty (former Alma-Ata) may have lost its status as the capital city of Kazakhstan in 1997, but it remains the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, and Kazakhstan's financial, cultural and educational hub. Kazakhstan’s economic success is most palpable here in its biggest city, where at times you could almost believe you are in Europe, such are the numbers of expensive international shops lining the streets and of Mercedes, Audis and BMWs negotiating the peak-hour jams.
Almaty is a city where all four seasons оf the year are wonderful and clearly distinct. Spring is a time when apple, pear and cherry blossoms are blowing on the streets, when the air is full of lilac scent and flower beds are filled with tulips. (It is not widely known that the ancestry of Holland's famous tulip belongs to Almaty's nearby mountains.) Almaty is the greenest city in the world. Virtually every street is tree-lined. City authorities take scrupulous care of street verdure. A ditch network helps to keep the streets clean and tidy after heavy rains. In the autumn, leaves from the tinted ranks of trees - maples, oaks, elms, birches and poplars - form quiet, picturesque carpets underfoot. In the winter the trees are often spectacularly festooned with snow. It has a population of one and a half million and for a century has been the country's largest city.
The city is situated at a height of 700 to 900 meters above sea level, beneath the foothills of the Alatau section of the Tien Shan mountain range. Almaty citizens instinctively give directions in terms of 'up' and 'down' and continue to do this even after they move to other cities. This is because Almaty is on the tilt: south Almaty mounts towards the snow-capped range; the north tilts down towards the great Kapchagay saline lake, some fifty kilometres north of the city.
This is Kazakhstan’s main transport hub, most international flights arrive in Almaty. This is a place many travellers pass through rather than linger, but stay a few days and you’ll find that Almaty is a surprisingly sophisticated and hedonistic place – one for enjoying green parks and colourfully illuminated fountains, for visiting excellent museums, theatres, shops and markets, and for eating, drinking and partying in Central Asia’s best selection of restaurants, bars and clubs.
There is no attractive 'old city': an earthquake in 1887 left just one brick building standing. But there are some interesting museums, attractive parks and intriguing buildings chronicling Almaty's Tsarist, Soviet and post-independence history. A stunning location adds much to Almaty's allure.
Thanks to its very suitable geographic position this land was always a site for settlements: the records and archeoloeical findings indicate that Almaty territory was a settlement since the sixth century ВС. It served as a staging post on the trade route from China to Europe and the Middle East during the eighth and ninth centuries.
Nevertheless, Almaty is without any doubt the most charming city of Kazakhstan with luxury supermarkets, shops of every variety, hotels, casinos, smart restaurants and cosy cafes, shaded parks, straight and wide streets built on a grid system, marvellous fountains and statuary, friendly people of diverse origins, roller-skating children, light-heurted students, multi-language bazaars, cheap and posh cars.
The temperature varies dramatically not only between winter and summer (from minus 20 to plus 40), and between day and night (10-13 degrees), but also between the highest and lowest parts of the city's environs. During the cold season you can enjoy skating wearing a T-shirt at Medeo stadium, or late in the spring you can go alpine skiing in Chimbulak, twelve kilometres from the city centre.
The Alatau range to the south and the steppe and desert outskirts to the north determine the city's climate and colourfulness. Mountain streams and canals provide the city with water all year round, and everything is green and blooming.
The city itself is built on a slope, with the highest ground to the south, at the foot of the mountains. This makes it easy for newcomers to find their way around: north is downhill, south is uphill. Across this slope meander several streams - the Bolshaya Almatinka, Malaya Almatinka and Esentai - each fed by snow melt from the mountains. The water from these streams fuels an irrigation system dating from the 19th century, with channels known as aryks running alongside the grid-patterned city streets. These provided the water to support lines of poplar trees, which give Almaty a verdant appearance. This is altogether a city which can beguile, whose easy-going charms lure visitors to stay longer than planned.
Only the metropolis's northern outskirts penetrate into the steppe's flatland. The strict north-south street pattern was designed to let the mountain breeze blow through the streets as effectively as possible in summer, when the heat becomes unbearable. The city's lavish greenery also contributes to making life bearable here during the hot season, although Almaty does not have the extreme temperatures that the steppe is known for. Here, on the edge of the mountains, even the notorious buran, the harsh, cutting wind that sweeps across the steppe from Siberia in January and February, developing infernal power over distances of thousands of kilometres, calms down.
In this-for Kazakhstan-comparatively mild climate, a rich variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers prosper. The sheltered valleys in the lower mountains are home to wild fruits, which have grown there since primeval times. Apples, especially, have a great history here, reflected in several place-names. The legendary giant apple, Aport, which brought the city fame under the Tsars and later in Soviet times, is cultivated on the slopes overlooking Almaty. In fact, Alma-Ata translates as "The Father of Apples".
Those mountains were a spur of the Chinese Tien Shan massif and they rose in a series of ridges and peaks to 15,000 feet, a formidable obstacle at any time of the year and, in winter, totally impassable. The city crouched in their lee, open only to the north, in which direction there was space of such magnitude that it could intimidate the traveller as much as the mountain wall. Alma-Ata was on the very edge of the steppe, the virtually featureless flatlands which went all the way up to the forests of Siberia, though that was as nothing compared with their distance in the other direction, between the Great Wall of China and the Hungarian plain.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse