HIDDEN ALMA-ATA: SOVIET-ERA ART AND ARCHITECTURE IN ALMATY
Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lake, Kok-Tobe, hiking in the hills around Medeu. These were all on our radar when planning our five day trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital. Then I came across a website that turned all our grand plans on their head and had me grinning from ear to ear. The chance to uncover the city’s Soviet-era mosaics, reliefs and architecture had me giddy with excitement – an excitement I hadn’t felt since journeying to Russia and Eastern Europe in 2006 to research my university dissertation on Soviet propaganda. I spent hours pouring over the information at hand and compiling our own walking tour of Almaty, a tour that would be rich in colour, art and design. From a sanatorium and old milk factory to an abandoned tram depot and working hospital, we wandered the modern streets of Almaty, hunting out hidden treasures of the Soviet past.
Here’s our alternative take on the best things to see in Almaty.
The map below shows the location of every place we visited, to help you on your own journey through Almaty’s Soviet-era art, architecture, reliefs and mosaics.
KIMEP University Great Hall
This was the first mosaic we encountered in Almaty. It towered above us as we struggled off the bus with our backpacks, on the way to our hostel. I hadn’t read anything about it before our trip to Almaty so it was a nice surprise. Holding prime position on Abay Avenue, it isn’t hard to find. Just remember to look up!
At the entrance to Kok-Tobe Sanatorium you’re welcomed by bas relief works, followed by large statues of female figures. Continuing all the way to the opposite side of the grounds you’ll find this mosaic at ground level on an outer wall. You can get a great view of it, assuming there aren’t any cars parked in front.
Kindergarten of the International College of Continuing Education (formerly Kindergarten of Geologists)
Lovely mosaics portraying historical figures, technological advances and the ever popular Soviet cosmonaut. Boys and girls look to the skies of the future and scale snowy mountains with their teddy bear companion. Less ideological sgraffito work can be seen on nearby walls, featuring elephants, bears, turtles and such like. We visited on a Sunday when the gates were closed so could only view them through the railings. You may be able to get a closer view during weekday opening hours.
Hotel Almaty (formerly Hotel Alma-Ata)
A classic Soviet-era hotel that has undergone quite the facelift in recent years. The spectacular Enlik-Kebek mosaic covers the wall to the right of the main entrance, dating from 1965. It tells a Kazakh folk tale of star crossed lovers in exquisite detail.
A modern mosaic now graces the left-hand wall of the hotel – a stunning representation of the Silk Road from 2004.
National Center for the Tuberculosis Problem (formerly Tubdispanser)
Probably my favourite of the Soviet-era mosaics in Almaty. We walked the circumference of the hospital grounds, eventually spying it over the wall before finding the main gate and walking right up to it. The sun was just setting when we arrived, the tiles near the top glinting in the warm light. Get here earlier to enjoy it for longer!
Almaty Wedding Palace
Wedding Palaces are a feature of many ex-Soviet cities and Almaty’s was on our sightseeing itinerary for both the building itself and the mosaic on the northern facade. Had we not known it was there, we probably wouldn’t have even spotted the dominating Soviet-era mosaic, hidden round the back. It features a young couple in traditional dress, majestic white horses rearing up behind them by a gushing waterfall. To me, the woman’s eyes look sad.
At the front of the building, to the right of the entrance, a modern mosaic portrays another young couple. These two look somewhat happier.
City Milk Factory
This little beauty caught my eye immediately when trawling through the many points of interest on the Monumental Almaty map. It is also nowhere near the city centre, making it quite a challenge to seek out. But a little adventure makes it all the more exciting, right?
The information we had stated these mosaics were on the east and north facades. So we decided to wake up at dawn, take a bus to the other side of the city and capture them during golden hour. But, things didn’t quite go to plan.
The bus we were waiting for on Abay Avenue never showed up. So after almost an hour we took a different bus which dropped us some walking distance away. We poked around back streets trying to find the right building – to no avail. We accosted strangers, showing them a photo of the mosaic on our phone. Finally someone put two and two together, pointing us down the road to the old milk factory.
All we had to do now was find the mosaics.
We started with the security guard, hanging out in his little office by the front entrance. He gestured to an abandoned shell of a building across the lot. We wandered around it. Nothing. We showed the photo to a few young ladies heading inside one of the old factory buildings. They gave us a dismissive shoo of the hands. We covered the entire grounds of the crumbling complex, thankful that nobody stopped to question two suspicious looking foreigners. Back to the guard again. He shrugged apologetically. Then, looking up, I spotted a flash of blue through the leafy green tree in front of us. There it was. The east facade mosaic, literally staring the guard in the face, yet he’d never noticed it. The golden hour glow was long gone but we captured what we could.
Now to find the north facade mosaic. Nowhere to be seen. We continued around the outside and there it was, clearly on display above the courtyard of a local restaurant on the west facade. A restaurant that wasn’t yet open however. The gate was padlocked shut but we could see the cleaning lady on the other side, sweeping the courtyard. With my basic Russian and a lot of gesturing I called her over and asked if she could open the gate so we could better see the mosaic. She went away, presumably to look for the key, but returned empty handed. She then proceeded to ignore us with all her might as I stood peering through the gate like a sad puppy.
Not perfect, but we did get a view.
Peering over a mangled iron fence on the far side of the restaurant grounds, the mis-labelling as a north facing mosaic added insult to injury – it sat on the west wall in dull morning light. If only we’d known we’d have gone in the afternoon, when it would’ve been basking in golden rays as we enjoyed an uninterrupted view over shashlik in the courtyard. But hanging around this industrial complex all day wasn’t on the cards, and a serious case of IDS (Irritable Del Syndrome) was fast approaching. The image of the glorious City Milk Factory Mosaic we left with wasn’t the one we wanted. However, after a bit of post processing magic it’s close to what we wished we’d seen, and at least now you know what an effort it took to capture. We wish you better luck and timing with your own молоко adventure.
Old Tram Depot
The words alone were enough to pique my interest, having a long term love of all things rail related. What we discovered turned out to be so much more than just a Soviet-era mosaic. The derelict grounds of the old tram depot have been repurposed as an informal arts and exhibition space, under the name Depo Evolution Park. Murals, sculptures, installations and remnants of a pop-up bar were scattered around the grounds. The original mosaic, once brightening up a drab gray facade, now shares the wall with a striking multicoloured mural. It’s a great place to wander, peeking into disused buildings and checking out the latest artworks.
Eurasian Bank (Formerly Department of Civil Aviation)
Cosmonauts make another appearance in this wonderful mosaic covering the north facade of the Eurasian Bank building. It’s not easy to get a good look though with trees obscuring it from the street. If you sweet talk the security guard you may be allowed into the private car park at the base of the facade. From here you’ll have an unobscured view but be forced to strain your neck to take it all in. Unfortunately as soon as our tripod came out, the powers at be were straight on the walkie talkie. The security guard had instructions to move us on, so if he does let you in, best to make it snappy! Another mosaic covers the south facade, but unfortunately it’s completely obscured by the adjacent building these days.
Oh, what a delight this building is! We walked past it every day strolling to and from our hostel, the huge bas reliefs and typography never failing to raise a smile. The main reliefs cover the western and eastern facades, but there’s a smaller one on the north facade too. Also, I’ve since read that a relief was uncovered inside the building, so worth popping in to look for this.
‘Science’ is found hiding on the eastern facade, full of stereotypical Space Race era motifs extolling the wonders of Soviet scientific advancement. Rockets, cosmonauts, satellites, bombs and a proud civilian family all feature. One astronaut even appears to be hurtling towards the sun, Superman style.
On the western facade you’ll find the prominent ‘October’ relief. It was partly hiding behind scaffolding when we visited, some restoration work underway. If I could read the script I’d no doubt have a better understanding of the theme, perhaps it refers to the October Revolution? Armed soldiers advance on horseback, a flame wielding female represents the Motherland and a convoy of flag bearing tractors plough fertile lands. It’s quite something.
A nice little relief of an ice hockey player outside the Dynamo Stadium. Easy to find in Central Almaty, close to a number of other Soviet-era points of interest.
Palace of the Republic (Formerly the Palace of Culture)
This imposing building, dominating the end of Abay Avenue, looks quite different to its former Soviet-era self but is impressive nonetheless. Built in 1970, it was modernised in 2010-2011 at great cost. The striking roof remains the prominent feature, the concrete facade now replaced with glass. The reflections at sunset are quite beautiful. A large open square in front of the building features a monument to the Kazakh poet, Abay. Unfortunately there was a lot of construction work going on in the square when we visited, obscuring the view of the building as a whole.
This monster of a hotel dates from 1977 and dominates the Almaty skyline. Its interesting design gives the appearance of a giant golden crown perched on top of the 26 storey building. You can see its distinctive profile reflected in the Palace of The Republic above. To this day it remains the third tallest building in Almaty.
Auezov Theatre (Kazakh State Academic Drama Theatre)
This grand building dates from 1982, the theatre having occupied a number of locations prior. Its design is classic Soviet socialist modernism and dominates this area of the city, also home to the nearby State Circus and Almaty Wedding Palace. A monument to the theatre’s namesake, Mukthar Auezov, stands in front of the building and fountains ring the square.
Kazakh State Circus
Just across the road from the Auezov Theatre lies the Kazakh State Circus, quite different in design. It resembles a traditional yurt, with a conical roof topping a circular building. Abstract reliefs decorate the outside, while fountains and playful statues in the plaza in front complete the festive atmosphere. These days an amusement park lies next door, making this area popular for family outings.
The Republican School Children’s Palace (Formerly Palace of Pioneers)
The striking golden dome of the former Palace of Pioneers shines brightly amidst the otherwise grey concrete facade. Young Pioneers once gathered here for sporting, cultural and creative studies and the building is used for much the same purpose today.
One of Almaty’s Soviet-era buildings we highly recommend you experience from both the outside and the inside. Completed in 1982 after extensive research trips to baths across the Soviet Union, the building is an exquisite mix of socialist modernism and traditional oriental architecture. The concrete facade and foyer scream Soviet utilitarianism, the Moroccan hamman and domed plunge pool rooms exude tasteful exoticism.
The Arasan Baths are still very much in operation and offer Finnish saunas, Russian banyas, Turkish steam rooms and a Moroccan hamman. You can get scrubs and various other treatments and even pay a professional to give you an invigorating venik beating for the complete experience.
Almaty is a pedestrian friendly city, and many of the places mentioned in this post are within walking distance of each other. Saying that, you’ll probably want to jump on the metro at some point or take a bus to some of the further points of interest. Maybe you’ll want to grab a taxi to the airport or for getting home late at night. Here are a few apps we found helpful during our stay.
The usual Google Maps (iOS/Android) and Maps.me (iOS/Android) offline maps work great for finding your way and navigating the city. However, we also found Yandex.Maps (iOS/Android) to be super helpful in Almaty, especially for figuring out the local buses! You can zoom in to find the nearest bus stop and click on it to view a live schedule and list of all the bus numbers. Click on the bus number to view the route. Your GPS can track you so you know where to get off. Pay 150 tenge to the driver, or if you’ll be taking the bus a lot buy a top-up card for 400 tenge and get discounted bus rides for 80 tenge.
Yandex.Taxi (iOS/Android) is also very useful (works like Uber, but has better coverage according to locals). 2GIS (iOS/Android) is another map/bus info option, however I found Yandex more user friendly.
WHERE TO STAY
We enjoyed our stay at European Backpacker’s Hostel in Almaty, less of a hostel per se and more like a house-share. It’s a lovely old house in a great location – a sleepy neighbourhood at the foot of Kok-Tobe, yet only a short walk to the main arteries of Dostyk and Abay Avenues. There’s a great Thai restaurant literally next door, a few local grocery shops and the Kok-Tobe Sanatorium is just a few doors up. A lovely stream and walking path running by it makes for a nice stroll too.
SOVIET-ERA ART AND ARCHITECTURE IN ALMATY
We trust you enjoyed this insight into Soviet-era art and architecture in Almaty. Hopefully you find it useful on your own journey through the city’s colourful past. If you have any questions drop them in the comments below, and please share if you think there’s anything important we’ve missed.
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