The city is relatively compact, and it does not take too long to walk from one end to the other (if you decide to brave the mosquitoes). A good starting and orientation point is the pedestrian bridge, built in 2002, between Pobedy (Victory) Park and the residential zone (Zhilgorodok) for the oil workers. This suspension bridge between Europe and Asia has a span of 405 metres. Across the bridge, you can walk along the riverbank through the city towards the north, passing the river's horseshoe bend until you come to the road bridge. This is the city centre, divided into two by the river and stretching no more than two to four blocks away from the riverbank. Here and there, a few parks testify to attempts to conquer the saline soil and produce some greenery.
Ural River - Snaking through the centre of the city, the Ural River, known in Kazakh as the Zhaik, is both the focus of the Atyrau cityscape and its most attractive feature. Paths have been laid out along the riverbanks: the walk from the main bridge southwards on the Asian side of the river to the district of Zhilgorodok is particularly pleasant. The river changes its character radically with the seasons. In winter, the river becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare. Recreational fishermen sit huddled around holes in the ice, a tot of vodka their protection against the cold. In summer, attention shifts to the sandy river beaches on the Asian bank, one adjacent to Zhilgorodok, the other just north of the main bridge. Beachfront cafes open for business, the smell of chips mingling with that of suncream.
At present there is only one road bridge in town, a fact which accounts for the considerable rush-hour congestion accumulating on either side. Further bridges, outside the centre, are to be finished constructed anytime now. There is also a footbridge, but this runs somewhat inconveniently from Zhilgorodok to a residential suburb of little interest on the European side, and is not much used. By local convention, the river divides the two continents of Europe and Asia. This tradition is marked by the paired battered metal pavilions at either end of the bridge. Those on the western side, at the start of Satpaev Street, are marked 'Europe'. Those on the eastern side, looking down Abai Street to the tapering caramel-coloured columns of the Kazakh Drama Theatre named after Makhambet, are marked 'Asia'.
Zhilgorodok - The pleasantest suburb of Atyrau, Zhilgorodok is a quiet, somewhat crumbling district, put up after World War II using prisoner of war labour. It lies in a meander of the Ural River, to the southwest of the main bridge. The best way to get here is along the riverside path, a walk of a couple of kilometres from the bridge. Turn inland along Sevastopolskaya Street when you reach the river beach. By road, Zhilgorodok is reached by taking Azattyk Avenue southwards. You pass a statue of the musician Kurmangazy, his powerful right arm clutching his dombra to his chest. Turn right at the roundabout onto Auezov Avenue, passing the Neftyannik ('oil workers') Stadium on your right. You reach a silver gate topped with a red Soviet star on a stick. This marks the entrance into Zhilgorodok. Auezov Avenue is pedestrianised beyond this point.
The focus of the district is a graceful, Moorish-tinged Palace of Culture, the tall arches of its facade facing a quiet square. The remaining sides of the square are fronted by arcades which give the whole place the feel of an Italian piazza. The wooden balconies and window boxes decorating buildings along the side streets, and the popularity of this district for summer-evening strolling and as a meeting point for the youth of Atyrau, all serve to reinforce Zhilgorodok's Mediterranean feel.
From the main bridge, Satpaev Street runs westwards to 'European' sideof Atyrau. The long white building facing the river to the northwest of the bridge houses the regional administration. Immediately in front of this stands a tall stone statue of Sultan Baybars. On his right is a smoothed stone with petroglyphs and images recalling the engraved gravestones found across the western parts of Kazakhstan. On his left is a pyramid, replete with engraved sphinx and assorted hieroglyphics.
Walking westwards along Satpaev Street for 1km, you reach a large and somewhat windswept square, with a statue of Makhambet and Isatay at its northern side. Makhambet Utemisuly was a Kazakh poet who, with his friend Isatay Taymanuly, led an insurrection against Zhangir Khan of the Bukei Horde and his Tsarist Russian allies in 1836-37, following the imposition of restrictions on the Kazakh nomads fishing in the Ural River and pasturing their animals near rivers and settlements. Taymanuly was killed during fighting in 1838.
Makhambet fled following the failure of the rebellion, and was eventually murdered in 1846. Many of Makhambet's poems are of a martial nature, and are often directed against the injustices of Zhangir Khan's rule. The statue portrays Makhambet and Isatay as heroic figures on horseback: Makhambet has his dombra slung over his shoulder; Isatay, wearing chain mail, is depicted as a more conventionally military-looking figure. Behind the statue, a frieze shows our two heroes directing battle. Note the rather curious figure in the bottom left corner of the frieze: a chortling sculptor, in the process of carving a kulpytas, while apparently slurping on a glass of something. Evidently strong, judging by his grinning countenance.
On the western side of the square is the Imangali Mosque, built in 2000 and taking its name from that of the then Akim of Atyrau, Imangali Tasmagambetov. Its blue-tiled dome stands atop a central drum. Two minarets, reaching a height of 26m, flank the building, whose exterior walls are enlivened by decorative tilework.
Head northwards along Isatay Avenue, which runs along the east side of the square. This road used to be named Taimanov Street, which was in honour of exactly the same person (Taimanov is the Russianised version of Taymanuly); the renamed version has a more populist, and certainly more Kazakh, feel. Ahead of you glimmer the gold onion domes of the Uspensky Cathedral, a brick building dating from the 1880s. Its exterior walls are painted a cheerful orange. The interior features a tall, pastel-hued, iconostasis, with icons and wall paintings covering most available interior surfaces. Around the cathedral lies the somewhat ramshackle old town, a district of single-storey dwellings, some with log walls, most with corrugated metal roofs. There are water pumps on street corners here, and a prodigious quantity of overhead cabling. With oil-rich Atyrau developing fast, the old town is unlikely to survive much longer in its current form.
Two museums are located on the crossroads between Momysh Uly Street and Azattyk Avenue, the Local History Museum (1 Momysh Uly Street) and the Museum of Applied Arts (11 Azattyk Avenue). Both are well worth a visit, like all regional museums of their kind in Kazakhstan. The Museum of Regional Traditions highlights the life and work of Makhambet Utemisuly (Utemisov), who lived in the area of Guriyev in the first half of the 19th Century and whose aphoristic and expressive poetry greatly contributed to the education of the common people. Also interesting is the exhibition about Sarayshik, the capital of the Golden (Nogai) Horde that was first destroyed by Tamerlane in 1395 and later again by the Cossacks in 1580. Remains of the walls of Sarayshik have been found recently during construction work on the Ural about 50 kilometres north of Atyrau. The city's own Golden Man can also be seen here. It is an accurate replica of the golden mantle of a Samartian warrior and dignitary. This treasure and many other revealing objects dating from the lst/2nd centuries AD were excavated in 1999 near the hamlet of Kulsary at the burial site of Araltobe.
The cattle market of Tuma, on the western edge of town, is recommended to those who like "authentic" impressions of day-to-day life. The fishing port Atyraubalyk and the river port to its south, with the oil terminals in the background are also rather colourful. The best way to see them is from the western riverbank, since direct access to the sites is impossible.
The presence of a large statue of a 13th-century ruler of Egypt outside the regional administration in Atyrau is explained by the belief that here, or at any rate somewhere nearby, was the place of Baybars's birth, around 1223, into a tribe of KipchakTurks.
Captured as a boy and sold into slavery, reportedly for a rather low price as he had a bad eye, he came into the possession of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt. Baybars was trained up as a soldier, like many of the slaves acquired by the Ayyubid ruler, who was anxious to shore up his position. This strategy was to backfire. The white slaves, known as Mamluks, established themselves as a powerful force in Egypt, and themselves took power in 1250, after having the Ayyubid heir murdered. Baybars became a successful military commander, securing a notable victory against the Mongols in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, near Jerusalem. Welcomed back to Egypt by the new Mamluk sultan, Qutuz, Baybars promptly killed Qutuz and assumed the sultanship himself. In the following year he helped to legitimise both his own position and Mamluk rule by bringing to Cairo from Damascus a descendant of the Abbasid Caliph, and re-establishing the caliphate.
Baybars's rule was marked by considerable military success against the dual threats of the Mongols from the east and the Christian Crusaders, who had established footholds on the Middle Eastern coast. He was also a good administrator, improving the road networks across his domains, such that a letter sent from Cairo could be delivered to Damascus in four days. He closed the brothels and inns of Cairo, and at one point introduced legislation banning the wearing of men's clothing by women. But his court was also notably lavish, with its members given such duties as Slipper Holder, and he seems to have been heartily disliked by those around him. He died in 1277, apparently while attempting to murder a rival named Malik Kaher. Baybars poisoned a cup of kumiss but, in an episode straight out of a Danny Kaye movie, Kaher switched cups, and Baybars drank his own poison.
A somewhat more romanticised Kazakh version of the Sultan Baybars story offers a different ending, which has Baybars returning at the end of his life to the Kazakh steppes for which he had been pining during all his years in Egypt.