Transport in Almaty
Almaty airport (www.almatyairport.com), the main aviation hub of the country, is modern and reasonably smart and has a new passenger terminal. It has a distinguished place in aviation history, not least as the destination for the worlds first supersonic passenger jet, the 'rabbit-eared' Tu-144, which first flew on 31 December 1968, just ahead of Concorde, and ran a passenger route from Moscow to Alma-Ata from 1977-78. Heavy fuel consumption proved its downfall.
The airport sits at the north-eastern edge of town, some 12km from the centre. The taxi drivers standing in wait in the arrivals hall, who will try to grab your bag as you pass to secure your custom, are notorious for fleecing arriving foreigners. A much better option is to arrange a taxi at the desk immediately before you leave the baggage hall. Problems in securing a fairly priced taxi are but one among a rather long list of complaints reported by travellers in respect of various services in and around Almaty airport. Aggressive baggage porters and difficult customs officials on departure have also been reported.
If you are on a budget, it is possible to get from the airport to the city centre by bus or marshrutka (minibus). Bus 501 will take you to railway station Almaty-II, bus 540 goes to Dostyk and Kazybek Bi, and bus 572 goes to Green Bazaar.
The following airlines are flying from Almaty, schedules and daily flight information are given on airport website:
Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) Flies to/from Sharjah
Air Astana (www.airastana.com) Many domestic and international destinations
Air Baltic (www.airbaltic.com) Flies to/from Riga, June to October
Asiana Airlines (www.flyasiana.com) Flies to/from Seoul
BMI (www.flybmi.com) Flies to/from London
China Southern Airlines (www.cs-air.com) Flies to/from Urumqi
Czech Airlines (www.csa.cz) Flies to/from Prague
EgyptAir (www.egyptair.com) Flies to/from Cairo
Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) Flies to/from Abu Dhabi
Kam Air (www.flykamair.com) Flies to/from Kabul
KLM (www.klm.com) Flies to/from Amsterdam
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) Flies to/from Frankfurt
Rossiya (www.rossiya-airlines.com) Flies to/from St Petersburg
S7 (www.s7.ru) Flies to/from Novosibirsk
SCAT (www.scat.kz) Flies to/from several domestic and regional destinations
Semeyavia Flies to/from Semey
Tajik Air (www.tajikair.tj) Flies to/from Dushanbe
Transaero (www.transaero.ru) Flies to/from Moscow
Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) Flies to/from Istanbul
Turkmenistan Airlines Flies to/from Ashgabat
Uzbekistan Airways (www.uzairways.com) Flies to/from Tashkent
Ukraine International Airlines (www.flyuia.com) Flies to/from Kiev
To/From the Airport - The airport bus stop is 400m along the street, outside the parking area. Several city buses from here run through the city centre (a 30- to 40-minute ride). They operate from about 6.30am to 11pm.
Almaty has two railway stations. The less convenient is Almaty-I, which sits around 10km north of the city centre, at the northern end of Seifullin Avenue. The station building has a modern, metallic look; the sense of efficiency inside is however rather dented by the harassed staff at the information counter and the knots of taxi drivers, waiting to pounce on arriving passengers. In the small scrap of park in front of the station is a 1970s statue of early Soviet functionary Alibi Zhankeldin, sporting a greatcoat to keep out the cold.
Nearly all main long-distance trains stop here. Fortunately, most trains continue on to end their journey at the much more central station of Almaty-II, which lies at the north end of Ablai Khan Avenue, at the northern edge of the city centre. The architecture here is one of faded Soviet grandeur, with Corinthian columns and chandeliered ceiling.
Ticket offices in the stations, and on Abylay Khan just south of Almaty-II, are open 24 hours. You need to show your passport when buying tickets.
Destinations served at least daily (in some cases several times daily), with typical kupeyny (2nd-class) fares, include Aktobe (40 to 46 hours), Aralskoe More (Aralsk; 32 to 37 hours), Astana (20 to 22 hours), Atyrau (50 to 51 hours), Karaganda (16 hours), Kokshetau (27 to 34 hours), Kyzylorda (24 to 28 hours), Petropavlovsk (31 hours), Semey (20 to 22 hours, daily from Almaty-I, every two days from Almaty-II), Shymkent (13 to 16 hours), Taraz (9,5 hours), Turkistan (16 to 17 hours), Uralsk (52 hours) and Ust-Kamenogorsk (24 hours). Trains for Mangyshlak (Aktau; 67 hours) depart every second day. For Karaganda and Astana you can take the Talgo, a sleek, Spanish-built, fast overnight train with lovely clean bathrooms. Unfortunately it can’t travel at full speed because the Kazakh track isn’t up to that. Train 1 departs Almaty-II just after 7pm (it doesn’t stop at Almaty-I), reaching Astana at 8am.
International departures include a train every two days to Moscow (only direct train to Moscow is train #7, leaving at 6am on even dates and taking 80 hours via Shymkent, Aktobe, Uralsk and Saratov), two a week to Urumchi, two a week to Simferopol (Ukraine), one a week to Nukus (Uzbekistan), and several to destinations in Russia including Novosibirsk, Novokuznetsk and Sverdlovsk. There are also departures to Bishkek, but the route is circuitous, and the journey takes far longer by train than road.
There are two main bus stations. The more important is the Sairan bus station, also known as the new bus station, which sits some 7km west of the centre along the long Tole Bi Street, immediately beyond the Sairan Reservoir. The latter is a pleasant enough recreation area in summer. The Sairan bus station is a classic piece of Soviet transport architecture: a powerful rectangle of a building with an oversized flat roof. It is the main terminus for long-distance bus routes. Among the many destinations served are some eight buses a day to Taraz, and two or more to each of Shymkent, Balkhash, Karaganda and Ust-Kamenogorsk. Some of these journeys can be pretty arduous: Ust-Kamenogorsk, for example, is a 21-hour trip. Sairan also serves destinations within Almaty Oblast to the north and west of the city, including ten buses a day to Taldykorgan, five to Zharkent, a bus every 20 minutes until 20.00 to Kapchagai, and frequent departures to towns to the west of Almaty such as Uzunagash, Fabrichnoe and Kargaly. There is a popular summer-only service from here to the lakeside resorts of Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan, with departures to Balykchy and Cholpan Ata, taking around eight-and-a-half hours to reach the last, with the somewhat curious timetable of departures at five-minute intervals, 22.00-23.10. Quicker minibuses to some not-so-distant destinations wait at the front of the Sayran bus station building, and even quicker shared taxis wait at the front or on Utegen Batyr at the side of the bus station. To Taraz it’s (eight hours) by minibus and (seven hours) by taxi.
Most nearby destinations are served by the ramshackle Sayakhat bus station. The Sayahat bus station, sometimes referred to as the old bus station, is most useful for local destinations to the east of Almaty, especially Talgar and Esik. Minibuses to Bayankol (eight hours), Kegen (five to six hours), Narynkol (eight hours), Saty (eight hours) and Zhalanash (six hours) leave between 7am and 9am, when they get enough passengers.
The Soviet-era main building stands next to the traffic-clogged junction of Raimbek and Suyunbai avenues, on the northern side of the city centre. The old main building itself is, however, now taken over by clothes stalls and little shops offering services ranging from manicures to dentistry. The frequent buses and minibuses to Talgar and Esik depart from the corner of Suyunbaya Avenue and Tashkentskaya. You pay on board. Other destinations are served from a new single- storey terminal building around the back of the old one. There are, for example, 17 departures daily to Taldykorgan and four to Tekeli. Pay for these destinations in advance, at the booking office.
Taxis offering seats to destinations across Almaty Oblast cluster in front of the old terminal building. There are however plans to move both bus stations to more peripheral locations in order to ease city-centre.
Bus, Tram & Trolleybus - Almaty has a vast network of bus, trolleybus and tram routes, running from about 6.30am to 11pm. They can get very crowded, so if you have much baggage or are short of time, it’s simpler to take a taxi. All services mentioned here follow the same routes in both directions unless stated. Charts of the bus routes are available on the Russian language section of the city government website, www.almaty.kz, under ‘Transport’. Tram and trolleybus routes are often shown in telephone directories.
Metro - Almaty’s new metro was open at the end of 2010. The first stretch of line runs from Rayymbek station, near Almaty-II train station, about 3km south beneath Furmanov as far as Abay, then 4km west beneath Abay to Alatau station. There are five intermediate stations on this line. Metro construction originally started in 1988 but work proceeded in fits and starts until major funds were allocated in 2005.
Taxi - There are some official taxis – marked with chequerboard logos or other obvious signs – but many private cars also act as taxis. Just stand at the roadside with your arm out and you’ll rarely have to wait more than six or eight cars before one stops. Say where you’re going and how much you’re offering. If you can’t agree on a price, let the car go and wait for another.