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Exploring Aktau

Aktau looks out to the west across the Caspian; its waterfront is where the city breathes, especially in the blazing heat of summer. The city can be explored in a single day. It's best to start in the morning on the large square in front of the Akimat and the Abai Theatre  - where a new ship's monument sits in solitary splendour on a granite wave-walk uphill north from here, turn southwest at the Akyn Kashagan Kurzhimanuly Monument, wander down to the seashore and stroll along it in the late afternoon and evening sun, south and then east until the circle is closed, or the same route in reverse direction. This walk-of about 10 kilometres-takes you past some interesting sights that belie many people's perception of Aktau simply as a dormitory town.

Map of Aktau Take the coast road southwestwards, to the promontory at the end of Microdistrict 4, where the Hotel Mangistau lolls sleepily. The most curious sight in Aktau is found across the road from here: an 11-storey block of flats with a stumpy lighthouse stuck on the top of it, put there simply to save money. As if to humiliate this somewhat puny example of the lighthouse family, one of the neighbouring apartment blocks features a frieze of a conventional- and rather more impressive-looking lighthouse.

From the promontory, the coast road then runs northwards. At the next junction, demarcating microdistricts 4 and 5, at the seafront end of a strip of greenery, sits a statue of Taras Shevchenko, picturing the Ukrainian exile looking seawards in a vaguely wistful way. A series of steps and terraces across the road in front of the statue leads down to the water. Here the attractive, water-stained chalk rocks and houses above make a nice picture. There is another flight of steps down to the Caspian at the next intersection, between microdistricts 5 and 7, behind a notably large Kazakhstani flag. One intersection further to the north of this, close to the Modernistic metallic sheen of the Renaissance Hotel, is the somewhat incongruous sight of a MiG aircraft on a concrete stick, like a life-size version of those proudly displayed plastic aircraft models. The steps here lead to a popular section of beach, lined with several cafes and the Kaspiyskiy Bereg Hotel.

Running a block inland from the coast, the road now bearing the name President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue is Aktau's main thoroughfare and the only street in town which gets the honour of its own name. At the intersection between microdistricts 7 and 9 stands a striking circular war memorial consisting of an eternal flame enveloped by the five white-tiled panels of a stylised concrete yurt. The five massive concrete panels are positioned around an eternal flame, which burns here to commemorate the Victims of the Great Patriotic War. Each panel is decorated with a relief and represents a year from 1941 to 1945. In the same fashion as the eternal flame in Almaty's Panfilov Park, brides and grooms come to lay flowers and observe a minute's silence in memory of the millions of soldiers from Kazakhstan and other Soviet republics who lost their lives in World War II.

A few metres northwards along the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue from the war memorial, beyond the Ardager Shopping Centre, stands the Mangistau Region Museum of History and Local Lore. Well laid out, with some interesting displays, this is one of the better regional museums, though labelling is in Kazakh and Russian only.

Museum houses an impressive collection of excavated items from antiquity, as well as Kazakh household tools from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; the region's geology, flora and fauna are also displayed in great detail. The museum used to occupy the entire building but it is now difficult to find its entrance: it is not through the iron gate with its name on top, but through another gateway on the left of the building, and then to the left through a modest-looking doorway-the sign that indicates the museum is hardly visible.

Walking northwards along the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue from the museum, you pass on your left a series of seven-storey apartment blocks, whose end walls are decorated with large portraits of notable Kazakhs, such as Ayteke Bi, Kazybek Bi, Tole Bi, Ablay Khan and now, also, Nursultan Nazarbayev all gaze down on passers-by.

Across the road is a rather lumpy statue of musician Kashagan Kurzhimanuly, holding a dombra. The next intersection is centred on a roundabout, on which stands a curious piece of sculpture resembling DNA spirals. Beyond this, on the left, stand a series of public buildings, including the regional akimat and, further on, the marriage registry office, the latter resembling a large concrete yurt. Intimak Square over the road, a venue for public concerts and celebrations, is flanked by a composition entitled Intimak (Accord'), which features a mother holding a chubby baby who, in turn, clutches a piece of fruit. It stands between three columns, propping up a shanyrak.

Further north, the modern offices of the Nur Otan Party seem better suited to their previous tenants, the shipping company Kazmortransflot, as they are constructed in the form of a sleek ocean-going vessel, ploughing along the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Avenue. Across from here stands a statue of Tobaniyaz Alniyazov, who helped establish Soviet power on the Mangyshlak Peninsula, but who fell victim to Stalinist repression in 1930.