Almaty, definitely a vibrant and lively place, is the largest city in Kazakhstan. It was also the country's former capital until it was moved to Astana in 1997.

Almaty literally means 'city of apple trees' and has a wide variety of apple trees due to its relatively mild climate. The Almaty region is said to be the homeland of many apple varieties. Locals associate Almaty with the taking of the apple from the tree in the Old Testament. The Turkish name for the apple is Alma, and when combined with Ata, meaning ancestor, this might explain the origin of the apple (The Garden of Eden).

The city, Garden of Eden or not, is stunningly beautiful and is located on the outskirts of Trans-Ili Alatau at the south-eastern tip of Kazakhstan. The backdrop of the mountains against the tall buildings creates a dramatic and impressive landscape.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country on the planet and was under Russian control until 1993 when it became an independent state. Kazakhstan has now developed its own good relations with both east and west and adapted its culture to suit both old and new.

Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan and is still its largest city. Almaty, the financial and cultural centre of Central Asia, has medium-sized tourist and expatriate communities.

On a clear day, you can see the beautiful rugged, snow-capped mountains just south of town. The city generally slopes from south to north, making it easy to navigate the streets. If you are going uphill, you are going south. There is also a small mountain range surrounding the city from the east.

Almaty is among the 50 most expensive cities worldwide for expats to live in, according to Mercer Human Research. Although Almaty fell from 30th in 2007 to 44th in 2008, it is still more expensive than Toronto, Los Angeles or Hamburg. If done carefully though - Almaty can be just as cheap as many South American and Eastern European cities.

Almaty has a relatively low crime rate and is generally a safe place to travel. Use common sense at night, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, when young people take to the streets to get drunk and, in some unfortunate cases, seek trouble. Kazakh people are extremely friendly and hospitable to foreigners and nothing should happen to you unless you really want it yourself. Never go places you do not trust or know about unless you have a local person with you to help you with the language. While the average visitor is unlikely to encounter any problems, racism is often a minor concern. You should always be respectful of the country and the natives. In this case, you will feel comfortable with everyone.

Kok Tobe
Panorama Almaty