By Laurie Kelleher
The snow-capped peaks of the northernmost range of the Tien Shan, Mountains of Heaven, ascend like sentries over Kazakhstan’s most populous city, Almaty. Almaty has a long and rich history as part of the ancient Silk Road. Modern Almaty began in 1854 as a frontier outpost of the Russian Empire and then served as Kazakhstan’s capital from independence in 1991 until President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital to Astana in 1997. As a commercial, cultural and transport hub of Central Asia, Almaty is home to major multinational companies, banks, international organizations and universities. Almaty—or Alma Ata, Father of Apples, in Kazakh—remains Kazakhstan’s “Big Apple.” It is the country’s glitzy, trendsetting version of New York City—if New York had the Rockies in its backyard.
As one drives south along the city’s leafy streets, imperial wooden cottages, apartment buildings, trendy cafés and bustling bazaars give way to gleaming high rises and then to the mountains. A short drive up a winding river valley is Medeu, an outdoor speed-skating rink. From there, the Shymbulak ski resort’s modern gondolas whisk people as high as the 10,378-foot Talgar pass, where skiers cut fresh powder tracks from November until April.
Outdoor sports enthusiasts can take advantage of the ample opportunities in the area. The hiking possibilities span from family walks to waterfalls to summit treks along the Tien Shan mountain range. In addition, Almaty has a growing professional cycling and marathon scene, hosting the annual cycling Tour of Almaty in October and the Almaty Marathon in April along with several other races.
The arts also abound in Almaty. The city hosts more than fifty international conferences and events annually, including a new film festival launched in 2018. The ornate Abay Opera House stages exceptional opera and ballet performances at affordable prices. State museums—a point of pride in Kazakhstan—feature extensive collections of Western European and Russian art and a tour de force of geological, archeological and ethnographic artifacts. Tselinny, once a classic cinema, is being repurposed into a Center of Contemporary Culture.
With so much to see, it is opportune that Almaty is a walking city at its heart. Mountain streams thread through numerous tree-lined boulevards and public parks, and modern playgrounds are abundant. Families enjoy Almaty’s circus, zoo and dolphin pavilions. A parade of restaurants offer Kazakh manti dumplings, Korean bulgogi barbeque beef, Uigur lagman noodles, Uzbek plov rice and meat pilaf, Georgian khatchapuri cheese bread, and upscale Japanese, Italian and French cuisine. Locals and visitors can caffeinate at a teahouse, artisanal coffee shop or one of the seven Starbucks locations and can experience Kazakhstan’s wine revival at the Arba wine cellar.
Kazakhstan and the U.S. have developed a strong and wide-ranging bilateral relationship. Local officials often point out that the U.S. was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence. The two countries continue to enjoy a constructive and strong partnership on a wide range of regional and global issues. President Nazarbayev’s historic January 2018 White House meeting with President Donald Trump underscored cooperation on critical issues such as North Korean denuclearization, logistical support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, trade and improvement of Kazakhstan’s business environment.
The Consulate General in Almaty coordinates closely with the U.S. Embassy in Astana to manage this strategic partnership. “U.S. Consulate General Almaty is working to support the many positive and exciting things happening in Almaty and across the south of Kazakhstan,” said Consul General Eric Meyer. “We collaborate with our local partners on projects promoting innovation, entrepreneurship, education and cultural exchanges. It is a privilege to do this important work from such a dynamic, livable and culturally-rich city.”
ConGen Almaty includes consular, management, public affairs, political/economic and Regional Security Office sections and several agencies that operate Central Asia-wide programs from Almaty including USAID, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Foreign Commercial Service and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is burnishing its credentials as a regional and global leader, recently holding a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. In October, Almaty Mayor Bauryzhan Baibek presided over the opening of a new U.N. regional hub that will bring the staff of 19 U.N. agencies together in one building.
During its 27 years of independence, Kazakhstan has worked to diversify its economy beyond oil and gas to include more services, manufacturing and agricultural production.
It has invested profits from its significant energy reserves to develop its road, rail and energy infrastructure. City officials have adopted a “city for people” concept, working to make Almaty more environmentally friendly by adding bike lanes to major thoroughfares.
Additionally, ConGen Almaty is working to help Kazakhstan combat infectious diseases, advance inclusive governance institutions, diversify the economy and promote regional cooperation on shared water and energy resources. Earlier this year, the U.S. government helped Kazakhstan launch its first renewable energy auctions, resulting in competition and lower energy prices.
The country’s trade and investment opportunities continue to grow. American businesses were some of the first to enter newly independent Kazakhstan and have invested tens of billions of dollars since 1991, making the U.S. one of the top sources of foreign investment in Kazakhstan. The extensive business ties between the United States and Kazakhstan are a cornerstone of the strong and growing bilateral partnership. In October, the Commercial Service supported the first certified U.S. trade mission to Kazakhstan. Almaty is a transport hub, with new rail and road links built as part of China’s belt and road initiative and featuring an international airport with direct flights to Europe, the Middle East and the rest of Asia, which benefits U.S. companies and tourists.
One of the most exciting areas of ConGen Almaty’s work is bringing together innovators. Almaty is a center of entrepreneurship and innovation, and ConGen Almaty serves as a partner in local efforts. The Go Viral Festival—launched in 2017 in Almaty—brings together innovators in media, culture, business and technology from across Central Asia to learn from one another and engage with American and European experts in these fields.
The annual festival is modeled after South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and includes music, art, TED-style talks and engaging workshops for young innovators. The third Go Viral Festival will take place in Almaty in summer 2019, with Go Viral Network events taking place across Central Asia throughout the year.
One place to experience Almaty’s tech startup scene is at SmArt.Point, a cowork space, including the Almaty American Space/Maker Space. The space encourages hands-on learning with its design equipment and 3D printer.
In recent years, the Kazakhstan government has placed a focus on trilingual (Kazakh, English and Russian) education. Growing interest in U.S. educational opportunities and English-language instruction creates opportunities to increase U.S. educational exports, deepen understanding of U.S. goals and values, and shape the worldview of Kazakhstan’s future.
The United States is a popular destination for Kazakh students studying abroad. In 2017, nearly 2,000 Kazakhstani students attended undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. Young people in Almaty are learning English in record numbers to increase their professional opportunities and allow them to connect with people all over the world. ConGen Almaty’s cultural, professional and educational programs and exchanges help to meet this strong demand.
Kazakhstan is looking to expand its tourism sector and is making it easier for travelers to visit the country. U.S. tourists can now visit without a visa for up to thirty days. Meyer encourages multiple visits to fully experience Almaty’s rich natural and cultural offerings. No trip to Almaty, is complete without wandering in the Green Bazaar, a sprawling complex of indoor and outdoor stalls that opened in 1875 as a guest yard for traveling merchants and caravans. At the bazaar, one can find everything from Central Asian fruit, vegetables and meats, to Turkish home décor, Vietnamese shoes, Chinese building supplies and Japanese electronics. Amidst the bazaar, one can see Almaty’s hustle, entrepreneurialism and effortless incorporation of all things international.
Laurie Kelleher is a GSO expanded professional associate.