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Exploring Almaty

A stay in Almaty should begin with a familiarization walk for a couple of hours. Don't stick only to the broad main streets, wander up and down the half-hidden secondary streets as well, from time to time peeping around corners into the many courtyards and squares. Sit down in any of the many small parks and look around, and you'll soon realize that the city's most interesting aspect is all around you: the people. A melting pot of nations. Almaty has a Babylonian mix of faces, dress codes and languages. The liveliness of the streets and courtyards is striking. Children play till late in the evening, young adults frequent the cafes and disco bars till deep into the night, conversations take place on every corner.

Almaty has "genuine" places of interest to offer, but these would only be half as interesting without the surrounding melange of Almaty's 1.5 million residents. An example of this is Koktobe. Close to the towering Hotel Kazakhstan and set back from the junction of Dostyk and Abai (Abay) avenues, a cable car whisks you up to the 1,070-metre - high summit of the "Green Hill". There, at the foot of the television tower, you can look out over the city and mountains, a magnificent panorama that draws hundreds of people at a time in the evenings and at the weekend. Most are city inhabitants, romantic couples and families appreciating what a beautiful place they live in. Sunset is a particularly popular time, enjoyed in one of the nice cafes or restaurants with a portion of shashlyk, beer or wine, and music-at times a little too loud. A new park offers children and adults many types of entertainment, and visitors will be surprised to find a very lifelike, striking memorial to the Beatles, which has proved very popular and is already rather worn.

Panfilov Park was named after General Ivan Panfilov's regiment, which, during the battle of the Volokolamsk Shosse near Moscow destroyed 50 German tanks-the 28 brave guardsmen lost their lives in the process, but a massive and evocative statue of the general and his men remembers their courage, and an eternal flame in front of it is often flanked by bouquets of flowers. The large park, with its old trees and peaceful ambience, is frequented by countless people every day. Some seek spiritual help or a blessing in the Svyatno-Vosnesenskiy Sobor (Holy Ascension Cathedral), Zenkov's wooden creation that is an architectural joy; others simply come to bear witness to Almaty's past, to relax, to take a coach ride, eat an ice cream or sit down on one of the many benches for a game of chess- Bridal couples surrounded by their numerous guests and relatives visit the park and lay a  garland on the monument to the guardsmen, before proceeding to the Wedding Palace for the ceremony, then perhaps on to Medeu to celebrate their wedding day in great revelry.

Another spot where one is sure to meet many people is Ploshchad Respubliki - Republic Square, where the impressive Independence Monument looks across to the old Presidential Palace. Situated between Furmanova Street and Zheltoksan Street, the square is normally nothing more than a meeting of the broadest streets in the city-trying to cross it is a lesson in courage and fast reflexes. On holidays, however, the square is turned into a place of festivity with stages, market stalls and crowds of fun-seekers. Fireworks shoot into the sky, music blasts out from the stage and through loudspeakers, and people eat, drink and dance.

The Independence Monument's statue of the Scythian warrior standing on a winged snow leopard has been added to the collection of Kazakhstan's national symbols. At its foot, next to a print of the President's hand, the history of Kazakhstan, starting with the Scythian migration through to the uprising of December 1986, is depicted in a series of reliefs. It is here that the uprising reached its tragic climax. To the south of the square are the splendid buildings of white marble where, before the capital moved to Astana, the President and the government were located. As for the Parliament, it used to gather on Old Square (Staraya Ploshchad), between Ablai Khan and Furmanov on Tole Bi Street. This square features lavish parks and lawns, with attractive water fountains surrounding the main colonnaded building. Here, in the heart of the city, numerous offices, shops and restaurants create an atmospheric buzz.

The Central Mosque (Tsentralnaya Mechet) on the corner of Raimbeka and Pushkina, with its large blue domes can be spotted from some distance. It is relatively new, built in 1999 and can accommodate 3,000 worshippers. The building was jointly financed by a large number of Islamic states. Its outer walls are made of white marble, while the inside is an attractive blend of modern Islamic architecture. The Hall of Prayer and its adjacent rooms quickly fill with praying men, and many now also carry out their prayers in the courtyard. On holidays, and most of all occasion of weddings, many less religious Kazakhs come here in order to secure the  support of Allah. Non-Muslims can enter freely, except on Fridays. Women must keep their head, neck and arms covered, and miniskirts are taboo.

The dress code is less severe at the Nicholas Cathedral (Nikolskiy Sobor), a charming, newly restored Russian Orthodox cathedral that can be reached by leaving the Nikolskiy Bazaar on the corner of Baytursynuly and Kabanbay Batyr to one's left. The proximity of the bazaar to the church is practical in every sense. In the rare instance that the House of God is closed, you can instead enjoy the colourful mix of vegetables, household items, souvenirs and flea market bric-a-brac. Those who beg for alms around the church often spend the tenge received from generous passers-by in the market place.

A leisure park surrounds the architecturally interesting Circus, built in the shape of a yurt, on Abai Avenue. This park is popular among the citizens of Almaty, in particular at the weekend and in the evening during the warm summer season. There are carousels- karaoke, a chamber of horrors and numerous fast-food stands, and the sound of pop and rock music resounds around this area of the city.

The Central Culture and Leisure Park, or simply Central Park, at the eastern end of Gogol Street is somewhere for those looking for relaxation and shade, and features a collection of ancient trees and a beautiful range of flowers. There is the zoo at the far side with more than 4,000 species of animal, but it is in a sad state, with an obvious lack of funding to house the animals properly. Though you can see rare indigenous animals such as the snow leopard, Tien Shan bear and Kazakh steppe wolf, the condition of the animals in their narrow cages can be depressing.

The vast Botanic Garden (Botanicheskiy Sad) behind the trade exhibition centre (entrance: 48 Timuryazova Street) has also seen better days. Founded in 1932, it used to be not only a popular leisure spot for city folk, but also a national research centre. The large estate of 108 hectares has been badly neglected since the 1990s and is now closed. A sign hangs at the entrance with constantly changing instructions about whom to report to for a visit to the garden, but for the moment it seems it is only open to group tours. It is possible to creep in through the dilapidated fence on the Al-Farabi University side, but you risk a US$50 fine if you are caught. Real Kazakh games can be witnessed at the Hippodrome (ipodrom) on Akhan Sere Street. During national holidays and on certain weekends, you can watch Kazakh horseriding contests here.

The Arasan Banya (Baths) on Ayteke Bi Street is a must-visit destination to get a feel for local life. Housed in a huge white slab of a building opposite the western  edge of Panfilov Park, with a fascinating interior of coloured glass and Art Deco angles, you can easily spend an entire day here-preferably in the company of friends-for a very affordable price. There is a choice of Russian (humid), Finnish (dry) or Turkish (mild) saunas, almost all kinds of massage can be arranged and the circular pool is a great place to relax.