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Discovery Kazakhstan #1

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Text by Vitaliy Shuptar

In 1997, Astana became the political capital of Kazakhstan. Almaty, however, retained its economic, financial, scientific and cultural significance, and most people would agree that it remains Kazakhstan’s principal city: after all, this is where the vast majority of the Republic’s hotels, tour companies, restaurants, museums  - and people -  are to be found. It’s also one of the world’s greenest cities  -  and a wonderful mix of cultures and traditions. Let’s consider a few of the most important things to see.
Svyato-Voznesenskii Orthodox Cathedral is deservedly considered by most city guides Almaty’s most interesting building. It is 56 meters high - almost exactly half the height of London’s Saint Paul’s, and a little under a fifth the height of the Eiffel tower. It was built at the turn of the 20th century by a local engineer, Andrei Zenkov, almost entirely of wood; and without a single nail, it is said. There are six cupolas, each crowned with a cross of iron. The artwork inside the cathedral is the work of Nikolai Khludov. One of the cathedral’s major claims to fame is that, virtually alone of all the buildings of the then Verny  - the old name for Almaty -  it withstood the 1910 earthquake, suffering only one cross knocked out of the vertical. One can imagine the cityscape after that earthquake, and how noble the building must have looked amidst the rubble.
The cathedral sits in the centre of Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen Park, dedicated to 28 soldiers of the 316th Rifle Division  - originally formed in the city -  who died in winter 1941 after a heroic action in the defence of Moscow against a numerically far superior aggressor. In the same park you can admire the Memorial to Glory, walk down the Avenue of Me-mory, and gaze into the Eternal Flame. It’s a favourite with locals in need of a break from the cut and thrust of city life.
At present Novaya Ploshchad (which translates as New Square; although in fact the official name is Ploshchad Respubliki, or Square of the Republic) is mainly for processions, festivals, sports celebrations and parades. The square’s length, from Furmanov Street to Zheltoksan Street, is 580 meters, and its width in the middle is 210 meters. In its centre stands the Monument Nezavisimosti  - Monument to Independence -  designed by the architect Shota Valikhanov and erected in 1996. The centrepiece of the monument is the Obelisk Nezavisimosti, the Independence Obelisk, 28 meters high and surmounted by a 6-meter Golden Man and his winged snow leopard. Extending in a semi-circle around the obelisk are metal bas-reliefs depicting key events from the history of Kazakhstan, and at the base, on the pedestal, a plaque bearing the palm print of President Nazarbaev, commemorating the moment when he laid his hand on the Constitution of Kazakhstan during his swearing-in. Beside the obelisk are sculptural representations of the allegorical figures of Mother-Heaven and Mother-Earth together with two children on foals.
The Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences truly reflects a certain spirit of the city. It is the crowning glory of the same constructi-vists that created Stalin’s Empire style, which was pompous and yet terse, ideal in form and yet betraying in its content a stupendous imagination. And yet somehow it seems to have acquired a peculiar charm in its Kazakh setting and nowadays it would be difficult to imagine a Kazakhstani city without at least one building in this style. Almaty certainly has more than its fair share of this kind of building: the whole historic centre was built in the same period, the 1940s and -50s. The Academy and other buildings in the square combine to create a beautiful architectural ensemble which includes the pedestrian section of Valikhanov Street and a statue of the same Valikhanov. The Academy occupies two blocks, uniting numerous academic institutions under its rooves.
It is possibly stretching things a little to call Almaty’s system of irrigation canals a sight; but without it the city would undoubtedly lose much of its charm and spirit. The system was built in the tsarist period by the Semirechiye Cossack Army, which was quartered in the city. The canals, lined by mighty oaks and spruce, help to dissipate the heat in summer. Among the oaks and spruce grow rose bushes which, along with apple trees, have come to symbolise the city.
Besides its most obvious practical function, the Kazakhstan Hotel serves as an unmistakeable city landmark because of its distinctive height and style  -  in which it is considered something of a masterpiece. Visible from almost anywhere in the city by day and night, when it is richly illuminated, it is also renowned for its resistance to earthquakes. Mind you, it was built long after 1910.
Koktyube mountain, in the south-east outskirts, is the most popular place from which to catch a view of the city, especially at night  -  one of those things to do that lovers seem to find particularly beguiling. The name Koktyube is believed to be very old: it occurs in merchants’ diaries dating from the Middle Ages, and the place has inspired generations of poets, artists, and writers. It ws perhaps in recognition of this that a statue of the Beatles was unveiled there last year, showing the four musicians, life-size, in bronze, at a bench. The composition thus allows the visitor to have a photograph taken of him- or herself surrounded by these pop legends. The easiest way to get to Koktyube is by cable-car from Abai Square behind the Palace of the Republic, but you can also get there by road. If you’re not sure of the way, just look for the 372-meter television tower that stands on top, another well-recognized symbol of the city and reputedly devastatingly earthquake-proof.
Zhibek Zholy Avenue, also known as the Arbat, is a pedestrian zone in the very centre of Almaty, equally popular among the city’s inhabitants and its visitors. It’s a hang-out for lovers of rock music and popular culture, but local painters also find it congenial to work and sell their works here; and despite its bohemian feel, this is a quiet part of the city with plenty of places to stroll gently or to sit down for a breather.
Medeu, a winter-sports complex in the valley of the River Malaya Almatinka south-east of the city centre, is 1,700 meters above sea level. Surrounded by mountain ranges, and beautifully cool in summer, it is often the first sight shown to visitors. Its ice-rink, with an area of 10,500 square meters, is often used for international ice-hockey and skating events  - more than 20 speed-skating records have been broken at Medeu -  but is usually open to all. The season runs from November to March. With the Voice of Asia international music competition an annual event here, there is something to do in Medeu nearly all year round. Also at Medeu you can inspect its flood-proof dam, from the top of which you can grab a superb view of the Tien Shan. If you feel like a little gentle exercise you can get to Medeu on foot up 830 steps, the so-called health staircase. Couch potatoes can take a taxi.

Discovery Kazakhstan
Travel guide#1/2008

Discovery Kyrgyzstan Travel guide #10/2008


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