There's a serious thrill to riding the Kok-Tobe Hill Gondola in Almaty, though it's probably not the one the designers of the cable car had in mind.
It's a thrill that makes you forget, for a second, the view of the snow-capped peaks of the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountains that loom so stunningly above the city. It also makes you ignore the splendour of Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital, which is laid out behind us in all its leafy glory. You even gloss over Kok-Tobe itself, the mountaintop amusement park that's gradually coming into view through the glass at the front of the carriage.
This is because directly below us there's something that, to me at least, is even more exciting. It's the houses: the simple, normal houses of Almaty proper. It's the brief glimpses of the lives being led inside them as we cruise over the city's eastern suburbs: the woman who's quietly tending her garden; the group of kids playing in a yard; the teenage boy hanging out washing; the man with his head under the bonnet of a car. That's what's fascinating to me; that's what's exciting.
The local Kazakhs sharing my gondola don't seem so interested, but I'm glued to the view below as we glide by, lapping up the voyeuristic joy, the sight that's helping to answer some of the questions that have been burning inside me since I arrived in Almaty: What is this place? What is this city like? What makes its people tick? And now I've gained a tiny window into its citizens' lives, the chance to observe their world from on high.
Almaty is amazing; it's unique. It's a capital city that's no longer a capital. It's a European metropolis that's not in Europe. It has Russian architecture, but it's not Russian. It's a Silk Road centre that's been left behind; an historic site whose history no longer seems to matter.
Almaty was once the seat of Kazakh government, but 20 years ago that capital was shifted to Astana, a city far to the north, leaving Almaty to its own devices. The Silk Road, once Almaty's lifeline, has long since faded to obscurity. The Russians have upped and left. But Almaty lives on.
To walk the streets of this city is to see and feel its spectacular past. The oldest part of Almaty is set on a perfect grid system of tree-lined boulevards that host majestic buildings, old mansions and palaces painted in classic yellow and white, remnants of the city's prosperity that flowed from Silk Road trading into Russian tsars and on to Soviet occupation. It's also home to churches and theatres of incredible beauty, signs of the high culture those Russians brought with them. There are former government residences here too, proof of Almaty's reign as the capital.
Around Panfilov Park, much of the city's history and its disparate influences come together. This beautiful green space is dedicated to the "Panfilov Heroes", 28 local Kazakh soldiers who died fighting the Nazis just outside Moscow during World War II. The park is also home to Zenkov Cathedral, a multi-coloured, tsarist-era building left behind by the Russians. Just a block away lies the Green Bazaar, a covered market in which you'll find the food of the Kazakhs, but also the cuisine of the ethnic Koreans, many of whom were forcibly moved here during Soviet Rule and who remain in the city today.
That's Almaty's past. It serves as a background to the city, an explanation of some of its quirks, but it's not the full definition. For that, you have to dig a little deeper. And go a bit higher. That's why I'm on my way up to Kok-Tobe, the mountain that looms closest to Almaty, the one that's always visible, thanks to the huge TV tower that's stuck, javelin-like, into its peak.
Eventually, our gondola ride reaches its conclusion, having cleared all of the houses, crossed a major highway, and then ascended the mountain proper to the amusement park at the top. There's a Ferris wheel up here. There's a ghost train. There's a zoo, too. Young couples canoodle at lookout points. I suggest to my guide that we go to the top of the TV tower, to take in the view, only to discover it's closed to the public.
This is the thing I'm finding about Almaty. It's modern, but at the same time it's a total throwback. The museums here are seriously old-school, the type of stern, look-but-don't-touch places I used to get dragged along to as a kid. Places such as the TV tower that seem such obvious tourist attractions are off-limits to the general public.
To enjoy yourself in Almaty you have to think outside the usual tourism box. You have to head up to Kok-Tobe to enjoy the views and the sunshine, but you also have to take the bus to another point high in the mountains, Medeu, which is home to the world's highest Olympic-sized ice-skating rink. The day I visit there's no ice – it's still autumn. Instead the empty rink has been commandeered by a car show, and a huge crowd of Almaty's rev-head population who are drooling over wheels and exhaust pipes and the like. Some things are universal.
Almaty itself, meanwhile, reveals its true delights later in the day. It reveals them over sunset drinks on the top floor of the Hotel Kazakhstan, a gloriously ugly building that commands a spectacular view of the city and the mountains that form its backdrop. Patrons up here sip vodka and slurp beer and watch as the city's lights begin to sparkle and a mood of celebration takes hold.
Next stop: a restaurant. Almaty's dining scene is surprisingly cosmopolitan, a mix of European-style steakhouses, Russian cafes, traditional Uzbek restaurants, pan-Central Asian eateries and high-end, modern Kazakh places. All of these spill onto the busy streets of the downtown Almaly district, giving the city an easy sophistication that might come as a surprise to those who know Kazakhstan only from unflattering foreign portrayals.
Almaty's nightlife, too, reflects that contemporary feel, with pubs and clubs that rage on into the small hours, a vibrant scene with a heavy beat that feels Russian or Eastern European, and yet exists here high in the Central Asian mountains, in a city that seems to far removed from everything you know.
Hanging out in a bar here, you have another chance to observe the people of Almaty, to understand their home, to gain some insight into their world, in the same way as you would floating above it in a gondola, peering in at their everyday lives. In a place so foreign and fascinating, that will always be a thrill.
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours
Emirates Airline flies daily from all major Australian ports to Almaty, via Dubai. See emirates.com
STAY & TOUR
Wendy Wu Tours' Kazakhstan Unveiled tour is an independent, six-day journey that includes a four-night stop in Almaty. The trip includes accommodation, ground and domestic air transfers, entrance fees and English-speaking guides, and takes in all of Almaty's highlights, as well as a day trip to nearby Charyn Canyon. Prices start from $2050 per person, twin share. See wendywutours.com.au