The south of Almaty slopes upwards until its city limits meet the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. To the north, its boundaries are halted by the vast steppe flatlands. This simple geography lesson – downhill for north, uphill for south – helps the uninitiated find their way around Kazakhstan’s largest city. This is key, as construction – one of Almaty’s fastest growing sectors – constantly reworks the landscape. The city’s development has even drawn parallels with New York City’s 20th-century building boom.
I start my Almaty adventure at the Donatello Boutique Hotel, one of the city’s newest buildings. Arriving in a beaten up BMW taxi – a contrast to the black Bentleys and snow-white Range Rovers that pass us – the hotel is easy to find as it squats at the far end of Dostyk Avenue, at the doorstep of the Tien Shan.
From a distance, it looks like a three-tier wedding-cake, all Palladian-style columns and arches, but its lack of corporate gloss is refreshing. Branded business hotels, like Rixos and InterContinental, are popular in Almaty, but the city has long cried out for a more personal place to stay.
With 22 guestrooms, a buzzy bar and a basement spa, it is the first hotel in Kazakhstan to be added to the Small Luxury Hotels portfolio, highlighting a shift in the city’s leisure market. The timing is optimum too. As of July this year, UAE nationals – along with 10 other nationalities – have no longer required a visa to enter Kazakhstan for visits of up to 15 days. This is part of Kazakhstan’s US$10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) push to develop its tourism sector by 2020.
To get to the lobby, I pass a cluster of guests who – making the most of the warmer months – lounge on white sofas and tuck into pasta and steaks. Italian food is all the rage in Kazakhstan’s former capital, a good thing when you consider that traditionally horsemeat was the mainstay of most menus. Inside the lobby a fire roars, while just off it, well-heeled locals sip vodka under glossy Flos Skygarden lamps in the den-like Donatello Club lounge. This is Kazakhstan putting on the glitz.
My room on the third floor is small but perfectly formed, equipped with an off-white leather sofa and Louis XV armchairs. The craggy mountains loom outside, just visible through gauzy curtains. My guidebook informs me that these epic 4,000 metre peaks provide a natural barrier against the infamous buran, the biting wind that travels thousands of miles south to Almaty from Siberia. To the left of the window, I can make out the enormous Royal Tulip hotel where last summer, Kanye West performed at the wedding of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grandson.
The Donatello is conveniently wedged between downtown Almaty and the Shymbulak Ski Resort. Virtually unknown outside of central Asia, this resort made the headlines earlier this year when Prince Harry and Cressida Bonas arrived there on a private jet, care of Burak Oymen, a Turkish-born property developer. Oymen, who owns Shymbulak through his company Capital Partners, also owns Almaty’s luxury 36-floor Esentai Tower, built at a cost of US$450 million (Dh1.6billion), and launched by supermodel Eva Herzigova in 2012.
Like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Esentai Tower was designed by the American firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and it is the destination of choice for wealthy Kazakhs, who go there to shop for Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Stella McCartney. Last year, the region's first Six Senses Spa opened in the Tower, part of the brand new Ritz-Carlton hotel (www.ritzcarlton.com), which has taken over the top 10 floors.
The next morning I head out to explore. Glimpses of apple orchards are visible through the taxi windows as we travel along Dostyk Avenue. Almaty, whose previous name “Alma-Ata” means “father of apples” in Kazakh, is believed to be the birthplace of the apple. Oak, poplar and birch trees line the roads, adding to the pastoral vibe.
Soon, downtown, the neoclassical Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre pans into view, as does the gourmet Parisian grocery shop, Hediard. Both are a far stretch from the city’s humble origins as a military outpost for the Tsars.
Jumping out, I head north on Pushkin Street by foot. Here travel agencies advertise Haj pilgrimages to Mecca and Almaty’s mosque sits lit by a watery sun. On its south-facing wall, a sign illustrates suitable clothing advice for visitors. Such signs are deemed necessary for a population relearning Islam after seven decades of atheist communist rule.
A few metres away, in a leafy square, some shamans offer guidance to passers-by. Nomadic shamanism dominated early Kazakh belief-systems and despite marauding invaders like Tamerlane – who destroyed Almaty in the 14th-century – and the Soviet abolition of religious freedoms, Kazakh’s earliest form of religion lives on today. I stop and ask one woman, called Zhaksygul, about her work. Like many of the 3,000 or so healers in Almaty, she tells me she is from the southern desert city of Turkistan.
“Once,” Zhaksygul says, “people from Almaty would travel to my city to meet me. Now, they are all too busy with business, so I have come to them. I have much more work and money nowadays. More than ever before.” It seems even shamans from the remote corners of the country are benefitting from Kazakhstan’s newly found riches.
Like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan has a complex religious and cultural history. Once part of the Persian Empire, its capital Baku can trace its roots back to the Egyptian's Book of the Dead and the country has swapped names and rulers umpteen times over the past two millennia. Thankfully, getting there is much less complicated. It is an easy three-hour flight from Almaty to Baku – straight over the Caspian Sea – with Kazakhstan's national carrier, Air Astana.
I arrive in Baku at sundown and head straight for Khojaly Avenue to have dinner at the celebrated Azeri restaurant Sumakh (www.sumakh.az; 0099 4124 80212). Autumnal coloured Azeri carpets hang on the walls, and tables of chattering families – all dressed up for the occasion – crowd the restaurant.
Sumakh, I had been told, has a highly capable kitchen, so I point to anything that takes my fancy on the menu. First, the waiter brings a trio of salads: tomato and roasted aubergine, selected local cheeses and a “shepherd’s salad” of tiny spring onions, dill, coriander, purple basil and cucumbers. Next, a plate of crescent- shaped qutab arrives. Onto these delicious doughy pockets, stuffed with herbs and pumpkin, I spoon sumac and dollops of xama (sour cream). Lastly, I sample a small bowl of dograma, a cold soup made from sour milk, potato and cucumber, which is refreshingly tart. Cups of tea follow, served in tiny crystal glasses.
Azeri cuisine’s strength is its ingredients. Seasonal vegetables – plump from sunshine – are naturally organic and are so packed with flavour that they make their western equivalents seem utterly tasteless in comparison. It is rumoured that restaurateur Arkady Novikov – of London’s Novikov Restaurant – will only source his tomatoes from the markets of Baku, so good are they.
Next, I check into the JW Marriott Absheron, which offers the best “Baku-by-night” views. My room, on the 14th floor, boasts huge floor-to-ceiling windows that perfectly frame the Caspian-fronting bulvar (promenade) and the city’s adventurous building projects. The newly built Flame Towers dominate the skyline. Built by HOK architects – the firm responsible for the Dubai Marina and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company headquarters – they are the tallest buildings in Baku at 190m and their curved sides flicker with 10,000 lights giving the impression of moving flames. Home to a brand new Lamborghini dealership and the new luxury Fairmont Baku hotel, the towers stand like a lit beacon of newly found wealth and is among of the buildings that earn Baku the moniker of “post-Soviet Dubai”.
After unpacking, I head outside to the terrace. The warm evening means it is busy and the air is rich with the sweet smell of apple tobacco puffed from shishas. Huge comfy chairs encourage long chats and tea ceremonies and the atmosphere is relaxed and confident, like Baku itself. Business deals are being done on tables around me, but most people are unwinding post-work. Beyond, yachts park at the busy harbour and families stroll along the promenade.
There is a strong sense of transformation and the city is full of exciting new projects. One man who is busy setting trends is the Frenchman Henry Chebaane. A former manager at London’s Berkeley hotel, Chebaane now runs London-based Blue Sky Hospitality. In Baku, he has created Sahil, once a huge rickety Soviet-style kebab place that is now a smart “seaside dining destination” on the Caspian seafront. Chinar – a hugely popular restaurant and nightclub – was Chebaane’s first project in Baku five years ago and it still attracts everyone from heads of state to fashionable locals.
Back in the UK, I ask Chebaane what factors he considers and what he strives for when designing the city’s most popular restaurants. “A sense of place. Culturally relevant but within the global zeitgeist. Softly spoken but assertive and compelling design with layers of meaning, storytelling and questions that open the imagination of the audience,” he says. This statement sums up Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Two countries that – while focused on traditions – are taking a galactic leap into the future and are opening their arms to welcome the world.