Postcard from… Almaty, Kazakhstan

After growing up in the Northeast of Kazakhstan, I moved to Almaty in 1991 to pursue a career in law.  Having lived here now for nearly 20 years, I can happily call it my home.

Though Almaty lost its official status as the capital just over 10 years ago, it is still the financial and cultural centre of the country.  It is the base for many banks, major corporations and law firms.  Almaty is also the location of the oldest theatres and concert halls.  The dynamism of the city is well represented by its ethnic diversity.  While the majority of the population consists of ethnic Russians and Kazakhs, it is home to over 100 nationalities, a figure that has been increasing all the time since independence, as expatriates move here to benefit from the newly liberalised markets.

Located in the South East of Kazakhstan, Almaty is very close to both China and Kyrgyzstan.  Most of the country is covered in steppes but Almaty itself is surrounded by beautiful mountains, visible from anywhere in the city.  In winter one can spend the day at Chimbulak, a nearby ski resort 30 minutes drive from the city centre.  On the way to Chimbulak, one may stop at Medeu, perhaps the world’s most memorable ice rink. At Medeu sits an historic Soviet-era skating arena at which numerous records were set in the 1980s.  In the summer there are many possibilities for nature trips to mountains and nearby lakes.  The weather in Almaty is considered mild and comfortable compared with most of the country, though it must be said that the temperatures may fall well below zero during the winter.

In terms of public transport there is a decent bus service that spans the city, but this is hardly necessary as cabs are easily available and inexpensive.  We have been waiting for an underground system for decades but this has not yet materialised.  Increasing numbers of vehicles are a cause of traffic and pollution. 

As one might expect from a city of such ethnic diversity, there is a range of types of cuisine.  At restaurants pizzas can be bought alongside Russian Borsch or Sashlyk (a delicious kebab-like dish).  Kazakh fare includes the signature national dish Beshbarmak that consists of boiled meat and pasta. The more refined people of Almaty have also developed a taste for Sushi, which you can find at most upmarket establishments.

As part of the former USSR until 1991, the legacy of the Soviet period lingers on in Kazakhstan, and especially in Almaty, where it can be seen in the imposing architecture and the jingoistic monuments.  However, the changes in both city architecture, as well as lifestyle, in the last two decades are quite dramatic.  When I first came to Almaty to enter law school in 1991 it was hard to imagine the city I live in today.  Practising law here requires a degree of creativity and lateral-thinking as the legal system is not yet well-established. To practise law effectively demands not only knowledge of the current laws but also an awareness of the context in which they are being developed and frequently amended.  This creates a challenging environment to work in, but always an exciting one.

Almas Zhaiylgan is a partner in Denton Wilde Sapte’s Almaty office.