The entrance to the apartment in Almaty was the back side of a Soviet era building that had never seen better days. But the online photos seemed promising so Louise booked it on airbnb. A lesson we all should learn, never book anything without reviews. The owner of the apartment lived in the States so her father in law was there to give us keys and show us around the apartment . He was a bit nervous and I noticed he really wanted to leave as quickly as he could. The kitchen had dirty dishes in the sink and a filthy oven, one bathroom had not been cleaned and the glass shower door was about to fall off but we caught it. The sheets were thread bear and the towels extremely worn and there were dead roaches in the living room.
The male in our group of three wanted to spend the night; I refused; airbnb refunded our money and the owner sent an apology. We spent the first night in Almaty in a upscale hotel with 3 beds in the room..
Our next foray into searching for an rental in a post Soviet city where most of the available apartments were built between the 50’s-70’s, proved more successful. Well almost. Again the cinder block entrance was behind the building and the two elevators were claustrophobic and seedy looking. When we reached the 10th floor, there was a serious gate that closed off four apartments. The apartment had an locked outside door and another heavy locked inside door. The last time I saw this kind of defense was in Moscow in 1993. We were met by the manager, the owner lived in another country. The apartment had a spectacular 180 degree view of Almaty and a balcony with rusted railings and dirty tiles. When we asked about wifi, she said she had just taken the motem home and was planning to disconnect it since the apartment wasn’t rented that often. She would bring it back Monday; today was Saturday. Before we could move in, the place had to be cleaned and would be ready by 6 pm. That evening we realized the refrigerator did not work. But Jan, Louise’s husband, who can fix anything, had the freezer working like a refrigerator, the frig was dead.
The city of Almaty is old and new. During the Communist era, everyone was given a place to live rent free so after 1991, they basically owned their apartment. Many older people did not adapt to capitalism, so their houses were all they had. Looking at these buildings, many still with the original wood windows, chipped and broken, it was easy to figure out which places had been renovated. Some sold their apartments which were worth a lot of money in the center of the city and they moved out of town or to another country.
Many of the older buildings have been renovated at the street level for retail, bars and restaurants. A 10 minute bus ride from the center takes you to Dostyk Plaza, a 21st century glass and steel shopping mall with elegant restaurants, espresso bars and designer shops.
The city overflows with parks and trees, outdoor cafes, espresso bars on every corner, supermarkets and lots of Italian shoe stores . All films, whether local or foreign, are dubbed in Russian. We never found out why. The fine art museum, in a lovely location in a park, had a mediocre collection of Soviet paintings, from the 1940’s on.The time of great Russian art was after the revolution until the mid 1920’s.
I was told by two friends who I had met through a Russian friend in Seattle, that the best of Almaty was out of town in the mountains and at the lakes. Unfortunately, due to my lack of motivation to go on my own, the only times I left the city was on the gondola up to Kok-Tobe hill, a mountain overlooking the city.. and of course when we flew into and out of Kazakhstan. In retrospect, Almaty is not a place I every need to revisit. It has all the characteristics of a modern city becoming more European all the time. The memorable part is that it sits in a valley surrounded by absolutely magical mountains.