As my blog is called “An Englishman in Almaty”, and I’m currently living in Bishkek, I felt it was about time I wrote a blog post about Kazakhstan’s biggest city and my future base. In July I spent twelve days in Almaty connecting with friends and new contacts, exploring how I could work there in the future. This blog is some initial observations about how Bishkek and Almaty compare to each other – there are things I love about both cities, there are other things I don’t love so much.
Almaty: More sights than Bishkek
Both Almaty and Bishkek are surrounded by beautiful mountains, and it’s relatively easy to get out into nature by car, taxi or marshrutka. However, in terms of in-city attractions, Almaty currently has the upper hand. Some of these attractions are actually in the mountains, but have connecting points in the cities, such as Medeu/Chimbulak and Kok-Tobe. The city also has a very nice art gallery and national museum which I visited on my first trip to Kazakhstan in 2014. One of my favourite places that I’ve visited this year is the beautiful President’s Park.
Bishkek, on the other hand, isn’t a city with major sights to be seen (well from what I’ve seen so far, I plan to explore the city’s few museums in the autumn/winter months). Its national gallery is currently closed and there’s no definite open date. It’s got great parks and squares to chill out and go for walks in, but very little that defines it as a must-see capital city. That being said, I love Bishkek for the other reasons which I’ll be mentioning below. Most tourists when they come to the city come for visas to other Central Asian states and/or to book trekking in the mountains or at Issyk-kul.
Almaty: Every car is a taxi
When I was in Almaty in July, I didn’t really bother looking into the public transport systems because the city has a system which Bishkek doesn’t – every car is a taxi. Simply stick your thumb out and flag down a car, negotiate a price and get in. Taxis are relatively inexpensive (ranging from 50p for a 5 minute journey to about £3.00 for an hour’s ride), but you do need to be willing to haggle and not accept the first car that comes along. My rule of thumb when I was working out costs on Google was approximately 100 tenge per 3 minutes in the car, but locals can definitely get lower prices than that. Almaty does also have a metro and bus network which I’ll be looking to use when I move there as it’s considerably cheaper (20p per journey).
Bishkek, on the other hand, isn’t a big city for taxis. If you want a taxi in Bishkek, you generally have to phone one up, and wait for 5-10 minutes for it to arrive. Sometimes as an Englishman they’ve put the phone down on me because they claim to not understand my accent! If you try to get a taxi on the street they’ll definitely be at least 30% more expensive than those that use meters through their mobile phone app (though don’t count on them to always be truthful either). Where possible I use the lovely marshrutkas and trolleybuses at just 10p a journey.
Bishkek: The better city for speciality coffee
Almaty is double the size of Bishkek, but I’m sorry, Almaty, Bishkek by far has the better choice of speciality coffee shops. I do appreciate the fact that Almaty has Starbucks and Costa, which Bishkek doesn’t have (the city only just got its first KFC in June 2017, the only big Western chain in the country). However as I roamed around the city I seemed to end up meeting people either at a Starbucks or at one relatively nice café called Nedelka – it had a nice atmosphere and good cakes, but the coffee was standard and offered in a wide variety of syrupy flavours.
Photo credit: J. Dworak
Bishkek, on the other hand, has some fantastic specialty coffee shops and great baristas. The best place to buy ground or beans to take home with you is Vanilla Sky, who also offer a great selection of pastries including croissants, strudels and cinnamon buns. The best barista is by far Chihoon at Chicken Star, who is well-versed in different filters – my favourite that he’s made is an iced Ethiopian in a Canadiano filter. The best variety of specialty coffees is at Traveller’s Coffee, a Russian chain that has a whole menu of coffees that you can get in Chemex, French Press or Aeropress. I’m also a fan of Qcoffee and their iced drinks – it’s got a very relaxed atmosphere. I saw a poster yesterday that the Russian chain Shokoladnitsa are opening their first chain here – I’m interested to see how that will fare in this market.