Oh how I wish someone had given me something like this when I had first moved here. So I’m doing it for you. I have provided tips on maps for getting around town, taxi services, food, shopping, pharmacies, translation, and some personal advice. I’ll add more information as I find the time or get the inspiration.
- First, when we I moved here people told us Google Maps didn’t work well and we really needed to download 2GIS. That’s complete crap. Google Maps works just fine. They both make some mistakes, but one is no better than the other. Perhaps years ago that was true? I don’t know. But Google has definitely caught up. Plus, if you’re going to use 2GIS, at least know how to say it, it’s 2 G- I -S Geographic Information System. I’ve heard people say it all kinds of different ways and it drives me crazy. 2jizz. 2jeez.. c’mon people… we’re well into the 2000s… you should know what GIS is. In Russian, they do call it “Two-Geez”. Both 2GIS and Google Maps work pretty well around here and both will get you lost occasionally. I swear, no matter what anyone else may say, neither one is better than the other for getting around town, or the country for that matter, and the robotic voice on Google is much more pleasant to listen to.
2. Taxis, or your Uber-type services
There are two services here: Chinese owned Didi and Russian owned Yandex. You can find them in your app store. There are pros and cons to each. Didi is simpler to use but Yandex has varying levels; you can get economy, comfort, comfort+, or business class, heck, you can even order a van! Put them both on your phone. You never know when you might be with a group and a van will come in handy, or you’ve had a bad day and you want the fancy business class, or you’ve had a bad day and don’t want to hassle with the pain Yandex can often be and you want the simplicity of Didi. Oh! You can also order a Yandex for someone else. That’s a handy option Didi doesn’t have.
Didi is a Chinese knock-off of Uber, if you know how to use Uber then you know how to use Didi. It’s that simple.
Yandex takes a little getting used to. When I first moved here I was told “just download the app and go. It works exactly like Uber.” LIES. LIES I TELL YOU. It does not work exactly like Uber. It works very similarly, but not exactly the same, and that makes a big difference and can cause some anxiety issues when you find yourself stranded on a busy sidewalk and the app says your car has arrived but you don’t see it and you don’t speak the language. It’s best to have someone show you in person your first time and it takes a few times to feel confident with it, but the basic thing to know is the pin needs to go where you want to be picked up. You can move it around on the map. The blue dot should be where you are standing and you place the pin on top of yourself, but here’s the thing, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the GPS is off by a bit. Sometimes you can watch your little blue dot bounce all around on the map and you’re like oh my god! Where am I????
Also, let’s say you’re at one place, but you want to be picked up down the street. You can drop the pin on the map exactly where you want to be picked up and the car will meet you there. Just remember: the GPS locator does not always work properly. When you first arrive you’ll make a lot of mistakes with it. It gets easier. Luckily, the drivers tend to be really friendly and patient. Oh! They seldom have change. Until you get your Kaspi card, local debit card, make sure to always have small change with you so you can pay.
3. Driving If you drive your own car you might want to read this about getting pulled over. I’ve never been pulled over in Almaty, but outside the city they’re out for you. The link is to my blog post all about our experiences getting pulled over here. Oh boy is it fun.
If you do get pulled over, remain calm. All they want is a small bribe and you can be on your way. Now, believe me! They may try to take advantage of your ignorance, play you, and see what they can get out of you, but that’s because they’re taking advantage of you. Stay calm, stay collected, stay strong, and you’ll be fine. Get out of the car. That’s how it’s done here. Don’t forget your phone for Google Translate. The officer may or may not approach you. If he doesn’t, then you are expected to walk back to his car and get in the passenger’s seat. Yes, this is all normal, it’s how it’s done here. Follow these rules:
- Listen to him then demand your ticket.
- He’ll say “we don’t give tickets here, you just pay a fine” then you say “oh, is that so? then what’s the fine?” and he’ll give you some insane price like $300 USD. That’s where you laugh at him and say “No way, I don’t believe you, issue me a ticket, let me go, or get you supervisor here right now”
- It might make him smile, he knows you get it, he’ll give you a verbal warning, and let you go.
- Or the haggling game begins. Don’t give in. It’s 5,000 tg. 5,000 tg. Period. He won’t take it in his hands. Because oh my goodness! That’s bribery and that’s wrong! Police officers can’t do that! If you’re in the car, he might want you to put it in the glove box or somewhere else. If you’re standing outside the car you might put it in a folder he has with him or something.
- All of this may or may not go down without him ever even looking at your documents.
- You may occasionally encounter a cop that’s really looking for that big bribe. He searches all your documents, looks at all the dates and tries to say this one’s out of date, even though it’s not, that’s one’s filled out wrong, even though it’s not that’s a fine, that’s a fine… just stay calm, stay cool. Tell him “write me a ticket, I’ll take it to court, get your supervisor here, or let me go.” And then you’re back to giving him a 5,000 Tg bribe and going about your merry way.
High quality car repair is extremely affordable here. I would think twice before accepting free or budget repairs.
Local drivers are pretty good. I haven’t had any issues. There are a few rules you should get used to: pedestrians always have the right of way, when they are in a crosswalk you must stop for them, and they won’t even look for you, they just walk. You can’t turn left across a solid line, if you need to go left, you must go right, U-turn, and go back. People exiting a larger road onto a smaller road have the right of way, you must yield to them.
Online ordering. Lots of people’s favorite is Chocofood, but it’s all in Russian and you can only use local payment methods. I find it incredibly difficult and stress inducing to use. I stick to Wolt. You can use it in English, you can even chat with helpers in English as soon as you have placed your order, and use your foreign credit card.
Here’s a list of restaurants I like in no particular order some are fancy some are not fancy at all. I’ve eaten at far more places than this. If I don’t recommend it, it’s not on the list. Once again, these are not in best to worst order, I just add them as I think of them or as I eat at them.
- Afisha European menu, fancy, need a reservation, you can do it in English on the website, they’ll call to confirm
- Coffee Room casual place, best eggs benedict in town
- Trattoria Italian
- Trieste Probably the best Italian in town
- Jambull nice place
- Chef French
- Craft American style bar food, best hamburger in town
- JZ Peking Duck Chinese
- Turandot Better Chinese
- Social Coffee casual place- coffee shops have full menus here
- Beefeater nice restaurant
- Sumo San Japanese
- Tanuki another Japanese place
- Wine Shop and Cafe great place to hang out with a friend in the afternoon
- Ethnocafe Zhailau Central Asian food
- Truzinzky Yard- no website but they’re on Google Maps. Georgian food.
- Tandoor Best Indian food I’ve found in town so far
- Iftar Uyghur food
- Honey-Honey I was told they’re farm to table but I haven’t confirmed that, looks fancy but you can also go casual
- Medved traditional Russian restaurant
- Bao fast food type Asian
- Harat’s Pub food is hit or miss some is amazing and some…not so much… you have been warned. Good pub.
- The Friend’s Bar and Terrace– loud and packed at night, pleasant and empty for lunch
There are great local markets like this one all over the place where you can buy fresh produce for cheap. No one hassles you like they do in the big outdoor markets in China, Latin America, and West Africa. It’s quite pleasant. If you prefer a western style supermarket then they’re all over the place too. The big supermarket brand name around here is Magnum. Another is Carefood, and I think there’s a supermarket inside every shopping mall. There’s a gourmet supermarket inside the Essentai mall.
You can buy everything you could ever possibly need online and have it delivered to your door from a website called instashop. It takes some getting used to and only takes cash or a local debit card, but once you’ve learned how to maneuver it, you’ll love it. Wildberries also operates here. It’s the Russian version of Amazon or Alibaba.
You can find all your major clothing brands from H&M to Prada in the malls. Mega is a gigantic shopping mall with everything you’d ever need and Essentai is the place with all your high end shops like Gucci, Prada, and Bulgari. There are lots, and lots, and lots of malls all over town. Sputnik, Dostyk, Aport, Almaty Mall, City Center…. the list goes on and on… but really, Mega has everything you need. When you’ve been here a while, you’re feeling comfortable, and you’re ready for an adventure, try one of the others, but at first, just stick to Mega.
For the home there are a few places that sell Ikea products, if you search Swedish Idea in Yandex you’ll get to the very best one, trust me, or in Google , simply search Ikea and there and there are several stores. This one’s currently listed under the Russian name: Svidishaidia IKEA. There’s also a much cheaper place called Leroy Merlin that’s kind of a cross between an interior design store and a Home Depot, and then there’s an even cheaper place called Zeta that’s a cross between a Dollar store and an Office Max. Those references won’t mean anything to you if you’re not American, sorry. There are also loads of independent home decor shops all over town. Don’t limit yourself to my few suggestions. These are just to get you started.
For sporting goods and camping gear there are two main places: Sportmaster and Decathlon. I recommend Decathlon. It has a a bigger selection and offers a superior quality product. It’s simply a better store. Just type it in Yandex, Google, or 2GIS and you’ll get right there.
6. Personal advice:
I highly recommend you learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet. My husband and I both feel it has been a major advantage for us. Even if you don’t learn to speak or understand much Russian at all, just being able to sound out the words will be a huge help to you. When you’re looking at a whole bunch of loose herbs and spices and you can go oh!!! basil! I can read it! That one’s basil! It’s just the little things like that that make you feel good. It’s only 33 letters. When I really decided to get serious about it and do it, it only took me about 10 days. We both did it before we arrived.
Google Translate and Google Lens apps are life savers! They’re both free in the app store. Google Translate has conversation mode you can use while you’re talking to someone. You click a button and speak in English and it translates into the language of choice and even speaks it for you, then you click another button, they speak and it translates into English for you. Warning: if there is background noise it won’t work. It needs silence. With background noise you need to type. With Google Lens, you can scan a page of any language, it auto senses the language and translates it into English for you. I use it for signs and restaurant menus all the time.
Indoor pool, and massage. If you like a traditional Asian/Russian style massage where they really dig into you then I recommend Essentai Fit+Spa, if you prefer a more traditional European/American relaxing massage then I recommend Siam Spa. Both are top of the line for what they offer. It simply depends on what you’re looking for. For a nice indoor pool, you cannot beat Siam Spa. They also have the best hot tub I’ve ever sat in in my life. It’s the perfect size, the perfect temperature, and the perfect depth. They also have a really nice pool. I’ve been to several of them in town, it’s the best. Also, be aware all the pics on Siam’s website are stock photos. When you show up the place looks nothing like the website. I thought I was at the wrong place. Don’t worry. You’re not.
For a weekend get away, there are lots of nice hotels as well as incredible AirBnB’s for low costs.
(I’ll add hiking/camping later)—I’ve only been here a year and mostly I dedicated this past pandemic year to relaxation. It was a stressful year. I love hiking, and I love camping, and I’m excited to be so close to the mountains, but damn! This past year was tough. Every time I had a free day all I wanted to do was get a massage and soak in a pool.
There are small little neighborhood pharmacies everywhere you turn; just look for the flashing green cross, they’ll have all your basics and the really, really common prescription meds, but if you’re looking for something less common, like an asthma medication, save yourself the hassle of searching place to place and head straight to either Apteka Plus or Pharmacy 2, commonly known as Centralnaya Pharmacy. Remember that! All the locals call it Central Pharmacy, but you won’t find it under that name in any of the maps and, oh my god, did I suffer loads of stress trying to figure out where the hell Centralnaya Pharmacy was. Anyway, those two pharmacies always have everything. I, personally, prefer Apteka Plus. Both also have all your sunscreen, aloe, shampoo, eyeglasses, tampons, maxi pads, umm… I’m drawing a blank… all that stuff you might buy at a pharmacy. They’ve got it. Type those names in Yandex and the driver will take you right there or Google Maps will get you there too.