Disclaimer: Due to the single day I spent in Almaty, there is not much I can enlighten the traveler about in this entry.
Unlike my initial thoughts about the "wilderness of Central Asia," Almaty seems like another metropolitan European city, with well-kept buildings, wide streets, and modern buses clogging around town. In fact, while on a bus (50T) I was surprised to hear songs by Juares, as Kazakhstan would be the last place one would expect to hear Mexican music.
Getting around the city is simple, even for those Russian language-challenged. From the train station, there are trolley tracks running down Abylay Khan that can take one to city-center. ATMs are also plentiful, as well as travel agents for onward travel.
While we were there, we managed some logistical tasks that may be of interest to future travelers:
- Adding passport pages at the US Embassy. Unlike the Russian Embassy, I was able to add pages without advance notice and without working on US Embassy time (eg. not on their scheduled consular hours). This was not possible in Russia, and may be an option for those in a rush.
- Obtaining a visa for the Kyrgyz Republic in one day. We were able to obtain a single-day visa for $130, although this was a bit of a swindling deal (the consular officer usually takes certified bank order but took our cash instead); the visas were as low as $30, US citizens included, for longer periods of time of processing (up to a week). Keep in mind that visa-on-demand can be obtained for $40 (15 day stays) or $50 (1 month stays) at the Bishkek airport, and there are 3-weekly flights on Air Astana from Almaty to Bishkek as of Dec 2009.
We were not able to do much touring in Almaty, but did take the Kok-Tobe cable car (800T one way, 1500T return) up. I would not recommend doing so on a cloudy day, as nothing can be seen and the cable car is not particularly impressive. Additionally, there is a bus which takes one down for 300T, but this is a huge ripoff - walk instead down the hill the 1/2 mile the bus takes you, and you will reach the public bus drop-off point where it ends. Then, take the public bus to Dostyq Road (50T).
Finally, in the 4th edition of Lonely Planet: Central Asia the long-distance bus station is not accurate, but has moved away from town. Buses can be caught there for pretty much anywhere in Central Asia; minibuses left for Bishkek when full (which was sooner than every hour) for 1000T.
Snowy Almaty, city center
The top of the Kok-Tobe cable car (on a foggy day)