Upon arrival in Almaty (whose name means "Apple place") on Monday morning, Erik passed through passport control and customs, and met the driver. The driver provided running commentary during the trip to the hotel, and gave Erik a brief history lesson of the city, beginning with its outpost days when it was called Verniy, through the Soviet period, and the post-Soviet growth and development. He also highlighted the effects of earthquakes which have devastated the city in the past - its location is classified as the most earthquake-prone. The city is green, with lovely trees lining the streets, and the older part of town is low-lying. Almaty is bordered to the south by the Tien Shan mountains, and to the north by the steppe.
Since Almaty is the financial capital, with governance duties moving to Astana in the north several years ago, new glass towers are being built to accommodate the growing Kazakh economy (benefiting from oil and natural gas). Politics is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who image was featured in a few billboards along the route from the airport. Erik's favorite was the one featuring small children surrounding President Nazarbayev, happy about their opportunities in growing Kazakhstan. It was reminiscent of a similar billboard he saw in Baku, Azerbaijan a few years ago praising Heydar Aliyev.
Erik's hotel was reportedly the former Communist Party facility for visiting VIPs. It was indeed nice, modern, and in a surprisingly quiet location given the significant traffic flow on a major artery a block away. After a nap, he met the staff of the organization that invited him on the trip for lunch. The cafe was modern and hip, with red and black decor, couches and lounge chairs instead of formal tables, and a young attentive staff. The food was unremarkable, with a few Russian-style dishes (beet salad) accompanying generic meats and side dishes.
We passed several Kazakh families on picnics, and a few commercial yurts serving as cafes. Kazakhs seem more distant from the nomadic lifestyle than their Kyrgyz neighbors; the Kyrgyz countryside was dotted with many clusters of yurts with families living off the land. Erik did not notice as many yurts in Kazakhstan (though perhaps they are more common in other parts of the country). While the ride up was cloudy, bright sunbeams penetrated the cloud cover as the turquoise lake drew near. The air was fresh, the views remarkable, and the beauty of the Tien Shan range kept Erik awake (along with constant bumps in the van). You can see why in the pictures accompanying this post below! After a long stroll, everyone loaded up for the trip back to Almaty. After the return, Erik took a quick walk around the neighborhood, picking up a roll for dinner, and headed off to bed.