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Instant weekend: Almaty

Oct 21, 2007, the Guardian, by Lucy Kelaart

Category: General
Posted by: admin

Why go now?

Kazakhstan may not be the first place that springs to mind when looking for a weekend break, but its former capital, Almaty, is about to become the ultimate destination for an edgy escape. New direct flights with BMI start this month and November sees the launch of a new guidebook, A Hedonist's Guide to ... Almaty and Astana, showing Almaty, nearly 2,000 miles south east of Moscow, to be the new cultural and party capital of Central Asia.

Checking in

If you want to be in the centre of old Almaty, head for the Grand Tien Shan Hotel in the neo-classical building of the former Ministry of Geology, which has beautiful mountain views (00 7 727 244 9600; ts-hotels.kz; doubles from £150). From mid-2008 you can stay at the JW Marriott Hotel Almaty (marriott.com) in the new 38-storey Esentai Park Tower on Al-Farabi Avenue, set to become the country's chicest address.

Hit the streets

The Zelyonni (Green) Bazaar is the best place in town to experience 'Central Asia'. Opposite, at the bottom of Dostyk Avenue, there's an informal flea market where you can pick up Soviet-era household items and antiques for next to nothing. Almaty's Central Public Baths, the Arasan Banya, are a truly local haunt, and the perfect way to relax on a winter's day, when temperatures can fall as low as -15C. Choose between Russian, Finnish or Turkish baths, or a large steam room with wood-panelled walls, where you can beat yourself with birch branches.

Coffee break

Kazakhstan is a nation of tea drinkers, but the hottest place in town for a 'jumbo latte' is Coffeedelia (79 Kabanbai Batyr Street; 00 7 727 272 6409) - coffee shop by day and hangout for the children of the new elite at night. More sophisticated, and only a block away, is L'Affiche (83 Kabanbai Batyr Street; 00 7 727 272 1092) with its postcard-perfect views of the Opera and Ballet Theatre opposite. Our favourite is the homely 4A Coffee (81 Zhibek Zholy Street; 00 7 727 273 1181).

Neighbourhood watch Walk along the streets of Valikhanov, Tulebaev or Baisetov in Old Almaty after a snowfall for one of the most peaceful experiences the city has to offer. Plaques on the buildings commemorate well-known figures - artists, writers, politicians and scientists - who lived there during Soviet times.

Everyone's talking about

Following Central Asia's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005, video art has emerged as the latest form of artistic expression. Artists such as Almagul Menlibaeva, Sasha Ugai and Said Atabekov follow in the tradition of Rustam Khalfin, the father of contemporary art in Kazakhstan, whose work is currently being exhibited at the White Space Gallery in London (until 10 November). See works at the Soros Centre (Block B, Sector 110, Alem 2, Dostyk Street; 00 7 727 320 1203) or Tengri Umai Gallery (103 Panfilov Street; 00 7 727 258 1152; tu.kz). Retail therapy The Sadu Concept Store (Samal 3/25 Mercur Town; 00 7 727 271 6865) on Al-Farabi is a great place to shop - check out fashions from Aida Kaumenova's trendy ready-to-wear collection, plus Aigul Kassymova's studio on the corner of Kabanbai Batyr and Pushkin Streets. Worked up an appetite Start the night with a shot of vodka or a long drink at Vogue Bar (11 Satpaev Street; 00 7 727 264 1699) or Posh (Samal 3/25 Mercur Town; 00 7 27 266 3996) before moving on to one of two new fusion restaurants: Boudoir (134 Bogenbai Batyr Street; 00 7 727 272 5555), whose head chef comes hot from Lotus One in Dubai, or Naoro (17 Abai Avenue; 00 7 727 291 1145), run by the former Maitre d' of Nobu in London. Zheti Kazyna's (58a Ablai Khan Avenue; 00 7 727 273 2587) has traditional Kazakh, Uzbek, Uighur and Dungan food. The Kazakh national dish of besparmak, made with horse meat and ribbons of pasta, is delicious, as are the samsa (dough parcels) with spinach, sorrel and cheese. PBC is a fun Soviet-style diner at 103 Furmanov.

The big night out

Serious clubbers head for Da Freak (40 Gogol Street; 00 7 727 273 1337; dafreakclub.com) in Panfilov Park which features local and international DJs. For decadence and glamour, follow the local elite to Euphoria (29/6 Satpaeva; 00 7 727 226 1808). Locals dance to live jazz, Latino, reggae and African drums late into the night at weekends at Bar Cuba (102 Bogenbai Batyr Street; 00 7 727 291 2932). Escape the city The mountain resort of Chimbulak (chimbulak.com ), just 25 minutes' drive south of Almaty, offers the best skiing in Kazakhstan. The Talgar Pass peaks at 3,163m, and there are magnificent views. You could also stop off at Medeo Ice Rink (00 7 727 271 6217) which claims to be one of the highest in the world, at 1,691m.

Getting there

Direct nine-hour flights to Almaty from Heathrow are available from 29 October with BMI (flybmi.com) and cost from £606 return, including taxes and charges. They are available three times a week, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Or fly from Heathrow via Frankfurt from £480 with Lufthansa (0870 837 7747; lufthansa.com).

• A Hedonist's Guide to... Almaty and Astana, by Lucy Kelaart and Summer Coish is published in November for £13.99. See hg2.com.