This booming city was founded in 1854 as a Russian frontier fort when the Kazaks
were still nomads and was capital of Kazakhstan until late 1997. Almaty has become a
honeypot to Kazakhstanis and a mixed bunch of foreign traders, diplomats and
financiers jockeying for position in the race to carve up Kazakhstan's mineral
resources. Sudden exposure to the outside world turned this provincial outpost into
Central Asia's most cosmopolitan city with shops, restaurants, hotels and casinos
that would make the place unrecognisable to anyone who had been away since 1990.
Almaty is clean (apart from its air) and easy on the eye, with long straight avenues
and low-rise uniform architecture bearing the unmistakable imprint of Russia. The
Zailiysky Alatau mountains rise like a wall along Almaty's southern fringe and form
a superb backdrop when weather and smog permit. There are lots of parks, space and
greenery, and many of the Soviet-era buildings are striking if you look at them
individually. That said, there's not a great deal to do in Almaty, which is why, for
many travellers, it is little more than a way-station.