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Exploring Semey (Semipalatinsk)

So when I told my friend Umbetov that I was going to the edge of southern Siberia to visit the town of Semey - known previously "to the Russians as Semipalatinsk - he shrugged. There was not much to see, he said, not much at all. Or rather, a lot more of the same. 'You have seen the steppe - the empty steppe?' I nodded. 'Then you will see more empty steppe.'

It's true, there's not much to see in Semey. The town's moment of glory came in 1917 when it was the capital of the short-lived Alash Orda government of briefly independent Kazakhstan. Today it is a city of 300,000 people, slowly coming back to economic life, with a new suspension bridge crossing the River Irtysh.

But this region of the country is the land of the Middle Horde, known for their intellectual and artistic prowess. Kazakhstan's greatest writer, Abay Kunabaev - the founder of Kazakh literature who died in 1904 - was born in a village close by, and a large museum in the town pays lavish tribute to his memory. Abay recorded Kazakh traditions and legends, and also translated Russian and European classics into Kazakh - making Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers every Kazakh's favourite foreign book. Abay also recognized the Russian contribution to Kazakh life: 'Study Russian culture and art - it is the key to life.' (This did not, however, protect him from a period of Soviet disapproval for his 'feudal' politics.)

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins

Semey mapWest of the Central Square - The large rectangular space which forms Semey's Central Square has an energetic line of fountains down the middle and a circular plinth aching for a statue to be installed. The undistinguished five-storey concrete building housing the city administration runs along the eastern side of the square.

West along Abai Street - Taking Abai Street northwestwards from the Museum of History and Local Lore, you pass on your left after one block the grand Doric-columned, yellow-walled facade of the Semey Academy of Medicine. Opposite stands a monument to those killed in Afghanistan in the 1980s. A young man kneels in front of his grieving mother. The names of those killed are inscribed on the wall behind.

Three blocks further on along Abai Street, in a somewhat desolate location close to an underpass, is the restored Yamishevsky Gate, the only one of the gates into the Tsarist fortress of Semipalatinsk to have survived. It is a pleasant, whitewashed structure, guarded by a couple of 18th-century cannons, though unfortunately seems to be used as the neighbourhood public conveniences. A short stretch of cobbled street runs artistically through it. Beyond the underpass, a further three blocks on, stands the pastel green-shaded Resurrection Cathedral. Built between 1857 and 1860, this is centred on an octagonal tower on which stands a blue roof topped with an onion dome. On the western side of the building is a graceful bell tower, with an octagonal tower standing atop a square one, all topped by another onion dome. Another four blocks along Abai brings you to the northern approach to the modern suspension bridge across the Irtysh River, its 90m-tall pylons serving as symbols of the aspirations of the city to regain its standing as a leading trade centre.

North of the Central Square - A couple of blocks to the north of the Central Square, with its main entrances on the interrupted Lenin Street, is Semey's Central Park, centred on a dry fountain and mostly comprising unkempt woodland. It does offer a couple of basic cafes though, which are pleasant in summer. Immediately beyond the park, at the corner of Lenin and Dulatov streets, stands the museum complex devoted to the poet Abai.

Fire station - At the corner of Internatsionalnaya and Dulatov streets, opposite the southern edge of the Abai museum complex, stands an intriguing red-brick building with a tall tower, giving it the whiff of an old lighthouse, topped with a red Soviet star. It is a fire station. On the side wall is a memorial to fire-fighters killed during World War II as well as those killed across Kazakhstan while carrying out their duties after then. An action-packed frieze shows firefighters in the midst of a raging inferno.

Around Victory Park - Continuing north along Lenin Street from the Abai Museum, you reach after a couple of blocks the southern end of Victory Park (Park Pobedy), studded by monuments to World War II. A T-34 tank was placed here on a concrete pedestal in 1995, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the end of the war, demonstrating that the practice of putting items of weaponry on plinths did not stop with the end of the Soviet Union. Immediately to the north of this is Heroes Alley, with each of the local Heroes of the Soviet Union commemorated by a pink stone monument. Just beyond this is the main composition of the square, featuring a tall obelisk topped by a victorious rider, an adjacent eternal flame and a powerful statue of a falling soldier, straining to keep his machine gun held up.

The large concrete bulk of the Hotel Semey stands at the northern end of Victory Park. There is an intriguing collection of communist statues behind it, set out in a double line as an open-air gallery. Take Lenin Street (appropriately) northwards beyond the intersection with Kabanbai Batyr Street, and you will see the statues in parkland on your left. The ensemble is dominated by a huge statue of Lenin, which once stood at the heart of the Central Square. In front of this are two lines of busts and smaller statues of communist notables, each standing on round concrete plinths. The statues have had a somewhat itinerant life following the fall of the Soviet Union. They were originally assembled close to the Irtysh River, not far from the Central Square, but were moved to make way for a construction project there.

East along Abai street - There is a scrap of park to the east of the Nevzorov Fine Arts Museum, along Abai Street. Here stands a solid-looking statue of Abai, the poet holding his right hand to his chest. Three blocks further east along Abai Street stands the Anet Baba Kishikuly Mosque, which dates from the late 1850s. Its entrance, on the eastern side of the building, is topped by a small green dome. Minarets, irregular octagons in plan, stand either side of the entrance. The main body of the mosque is roofed by a flattish green dome.

Monument to the Victims of Nuclear Testing - Turning right off Abai Street opposite the Abai monument, you cross a bridge over the Semipalatinka Channel to reach the park-covered Polkovnichy Island, which with its open-air summer cafes serves as a retreat from the city on warm weekends. At 1km from the turning off Abai, a track to the left leads to the striking Monument to the Victims of Nuclear Testing. The work of architect Shota Valikhanov, the monument, which was inaugurated in 2001, is also named Stronger than Death. The monument is a 25m wall in the shape of a large tombstone, standing on a 6m-high mound. Into the tombstone is cut a space in the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud. At the base of this is a white marble sculpture of a woman, trying to protect her baby from the explosion by covering it with her outstretched arms. To the right of the monument stands a black marble wall on which is etched a map of Kazakhstan. This is an unfinished composition which was intended to portray the sites across Kazakhstan associated with high levels of nuclear radiation. To the left of the monument is another small mound on which stands a tree covered with votive offerings. The Stronger than Death monument is a moving composition in a tranquil setting.