Our first stop on the Silk Road was Almaty, Kazakhstan. In the time of the Silk Road, the city was called Almatu. During Soviet times it was called Alma-Ata and was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. After independence, the name was changed yet again to Almaty.

Kazakhstan is huge, the 9th largest country in the world, larger than all of Western Europe combined, and we saw only a tiny fraction of it. The population is ethnically diverse and the largest of any of the countries we saw. It has vast oil and natural gas reserves that are basis for the nation's relative prosperity.

We started the day with a visit to the State Museum, which we visited to get an overview of Kazakh culture. Unlike most places, which allowed photos (for a fee), pictures were not allowed. The exhibits of traditional clothes and a large "wedding yurt" were fabulous. The original of the famous Golden Man (or Princess) found near here is in the capital, Astana, but a copy is prominently displayed in the rotunda.



Almaty Overlook

Our next stop on our city tour was the amusement park at the top of Kok Tobe, a hill on the outskirts of the city. This overview gives an indication of the scope of this city of about 1.5 million. Unfortunately the day was hazy, so visibility was limited.

Tien Shan Mountains

Looking in another direction from the overlook shows the neighboring Tian Shan (Celestial) Mountains. Some peaks in this range exceed 23K feet. We could see some snow on the peaks through the haze.

Almaty Foothills

On the other side of the ridge we could see these low foothills.

From time to time I was disappointed that we didn't get to spend more time exploring the countryside away from the cities, but the three weeks was jam-packed as it was. If I were thirty years younger and could speak Russian, I'd be tempted to come back.

We were pleasantly surprised at the number of people we met who spoke English, but Russian is still much more widely spoken. Not surprising since the area was under Russian domination from the early 19th century through the Bolshevik revolution and up until independence in 1991.

Apple fountain

The name Almaty is derived from the word for "apple." The location is believed to be the homeland of the ancestral apple. This apple fountain was a favored place for photos.

As you can see, "western" dress is favored in this cosmopolitan area. This wouldn't necessarily be the case throughout our trip.

Platform heels, such as the woman at right is wearing, however, were universally popular in the cities throughout "the stans" regardless of the style of dress.

Bumper cars

The park had all the typical amusements and concessions. We were there early in the day and the Saturday crowds were just starting to arrive. These two moms had the bumper cars all to themselves. They seemed to be more interested in whizzing about rather than crashing into each other. The kids were full of delighted squeals.

Almaty roller coaster

Another source of loud squeals was the "roller coaster" that started at the top of the hill and led right down into the city. There is a aerial tram that people can use to ride back up. (A support pylon can be seen at right.) I have no idea how they get the cars back up to the top.

While we were there a happy wedding party arrived on the tram. Wedding parties were a common sight throughout our visit.

Restaurant Lunch was at this whimsically decorated restaurant. It set the tone for the various delicious meals we had during our travels. My favorite feature was the array of "cooked salads" & breads that started every meal. Next came soup. Then, after everyone was already pretty full, came the main course. But of course we had to remember to save room for dessert. It took all of my Weight Watcher training to keep from piling on the pounds.

Jama warned us repeatedly to avoid uncooked veggies, unpeeled fruit, and tap water. The food & water isn't necessarily contaminated, but the microbes are not the ones our systems are accustomed to.

Zenkov Cathedral

Our next stop was Panfilov Park where we visited the Zenkov Cathedral. It was built by the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 20th century and was one of the few buildings that survived the 1911 earthquake that devastated Almaty. (The entire region is subject to large earthquakes, but we didn't feel any while we were there.)

In contradiction to its appearance, the cathedral is built entirely of wood – including the nails.

During the Soviet era it was used as a museum, but since independence it has been returned to service as a house of worship.

The interior was beautiful, but no pictures were allowed.

Carriage Rides

Panfilov Park is also a popular place for carriage rides. As we listened to our city guide describe Almaty history we were constantly moving aside to allow a carriage to pass. Luckily the bells on the harness warned us of their approach.

During the Tsarist era, homes in this area were highly desirable and residents had to prove that they could afford to live there!

Almaty Wedding

At most of the various memorials we visited, there were one or more wedding parties getting pictures taken. This war memorial is not far from the cathedral. It commemorates soldiers from all 15 Soviet Republics. The outline of the sculpture, partially shown here in the background, is in the shape of the former Soviet Union.

Jama told us that brides typically rent their dresses since they will only be used once. Sensible! Grooms, on the other hand, usually purchase their tuxedoes because there will be other opportunities to use them.

Almost everyone we met, especially the children, was thrilled to pose for tourist photos.

Museum of Music

The Museum of Musical Instruments is located in this early 20th century building on the edge of the park. The building was originally constructed for the use of Russian military officers.


This bagpipe made from an animal stomach (probably a sheep, although I don't remember specifically) was one of the odder instruments in the collection.

Leather fiddle

This five-stringed instrument is very similar to a violin. The frame is wooden and covered with rawhide.

Many of the stringed instruments in the collection are strung with horsehair as well as played with a horsehair bow. The sound is quite unusual – more organic sounding than our modern violin.

You can see that there is no fingerboard. This was true of most of the instruments. They are played by simply placing the finger on the string at the appropriate harmonic spot. The finger may either rest on top of the string, or underneath it.

Kazakh harp

This harp-like instrument was carved to resemble an antelope.

Kazakh musician

We were treated to a concert by this young woman who played an instrument that would traditionally have been used by shamans. There was a sculpture of a similar instrument outside the museum.

She also played a type of Jew's harp that was a common folk instrument in this region. One was included in every folkloric performance that we saw on the trip.

After the music museum, many of our group visited the Green Bazaar, the first of a large number of bazaars that were included in the program. Jim and I elected to skip that part of the day as we were dragging from the time change.

Road Scholar prides itself in not emphasizing shopping opportunities. When you're visiting an attraction such as the Silk Road, however, which was all about trade and commerce, you have to get into the spirit of the thing. Many of our travelers did so with enthusiasm!


The next day we had a private session at a falcon farm. I wish I could remember the presenter's name. He was delightful and Jama says he is renowned in his field.

Falconry is an ancient hunting practice in the steppes. Owls are not typically used, but he had been working with this one youngster. The extent of its repertory was flying to a specified place and then coming when called.

At one point it was directed to the bleachers next to some of us. We were warned not to attempt to touch it, however, as that beak could easily do some serious damage.

Falcon I thought I had taken note of this breed of hawk or falcon, which is a more typical hunting bird, but I can't find it. The handler is describing how the birds are trained to return to the handler. They use chicks obtained from local egg producing establishments as a reward. (Rooster chicks aren't useful for producing eggs, so they are cheap to obtain.) This bird is in the process of gobbling down a chick held in the handler's glove (yes it was already dead).
Golden eagle

The archetypical hunting bird of the steppes, however, is the golden eagle. This one had been carried a distance away by a handler riding a horse. The stuffed wolf skin is dragged along the ground by a helper and the eagle attacks it. In actual hunting practice, we were told that the eagle isn't expected to actually kill the wolf, but only to immobilize it long enough for the hunter to deliver the coup de grace.

Fish eagle

Another eagle that participated in the show was this fish eagle. The presenter said that it was the same species as the American Bald Eagle, but without the white head. It swooped toward the water with talons outstretched before it and reached into the pond to capture its target. I think it was supposed to be getting the rubber ducky, in which case it missed. Twice.


In addition to the raptors, there were several vultures that participated in the show. This one was particularly striking with his (her?) white plumage. All the vultures that we saw had down on their heads and necks unlike the local vultures here. It made them much more appealing.

After the show we could wander around the farm to see more birds and other animals including a collection of hunting dogs and even wolves. There was a pair of wolves who put on quite a concerto of howls for the tourists.

After the falconry demonstration we headed out for our final outing in Kazakhstan: a luncheon in a yurt, the traditional dwelling of the steppes. A bicycle race in downtown Almaty had closed some of the streets. This required us to travel unfamiliar roads and the bus driver got lost at one point.

Our local guide, who had originally trained as a lawyer but decided she enjoyed guiding more, said she was seeing parts of town she had never visited before!


As usual the food was delicious and plentiful. L-R Marilyn, Shim (with back to camera), Warren, and Polly.

There are tiny stools provided for us to sit on, but some found it easier to sit on the floor (Jim) or kneel (me).


Musicians in traditional dress provided the entertainment.

After lunch we left on our travels to Krygyzstan.

Kazakh steppes

In order to reach Bishtek we had to skirt a branch of the mountains by traveling east along the steppe.

This was our only experience of the vast Central Asian steppes. The structures in the distance are a cemetery. There were no towns nearby, but Jama said that the remaining nomadic folks still use specific burial grounds.

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