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The Central State Museum

Almaty's largest, though not necessarily its most enjoyable, museum sits a short walk from Republic Square. Head east along Satpaev Street, and then turn right down Furmanov Street at the first crossroads. The museum is housed in a large blue-domed building constructed in the early 1980s, on the east side of Furmanov Street. It is set back from the road amidst gardens. The museum as an institution dates from the 19th century: it was founded in Orenburg, and moved to Almaty in the 1930s.

Museum takes you through Kazakhstan's history from Bronze Age burials to telecommunications and the transfer of the capital to Astana, with many beautiful artefacts. It's just a pity that signage in nonlocal languages is limited to 'Don't touch, please!'.

The large foyer, beneath the central dome, is enlivened by costumed mannequins depicting various periods in the early history of Kazakhstan, including a model of the Golden Man. There is an uninspiring cafe downstairs, several souvenir shops offering carpets and handicrafts, and frequent temporary exhibits.

The permanent exhibits are arranged in four large halls.

HALL 1, starting downstairs, deals with archaeological finds and early history up to Chinggis Khan (with balbals and models of some of Kazakhstan's major monuments). The exhibits are arranged in an orderly historical progression from fragments of dinosaurs to a model of the Timurid Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui. Among the items encountered along this historical route is a Bronze Age burial in a stone-walled coffin. There is a fascinating bronze sacrificial table from the 4th or 3rd century BC, found in Almaty Oblast, which depicts a procession of lions around the rim, while in the centre wild animals and birds are feasting on a dead deer. There is an interesting display of balbals, standing stones from the Turkic period around the 7th to 9th centuries. A moustachioed man with rather droopy eyes holds up a glass. Another man holds a bird. The exhibition continues upstairs, with displays focusing on the flourishing of urban life from the 10th century. The development of trade along the Silk Routes is illustrated by the presence of a Japanese bowl and engraved Iranian copper dish. A dramatic diorama depicts the Mongols of Genghis Khan storming the city of Otrar. There is an impressive display of items from Saraichik in Atyrau Oblast, including a 14th-century money box, ink pots and a tall bronze lamp. And finally the Mausoleum of Khodja Ahmed Yassaui, represented by pieces of ceramic tile as well as a model of the building.

Next to hall 1 is the 'Open Collection', an exhibit of outstanding ancient gold adornments found in Kazakhstan, mainly from Scythian burials between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC (you do get a tour in English, Russian or Kazakh for your money).

HALL 2, located amongst the souvenir shops on the ground floor, focuses on ethnography, featuring a finely kitted-out yurt and some beautifully worked weaponry and horse and camel gear, plus musical instruments and exotic costumes going back to the 18th century.

The hall is centred on a yurt, standing in the middle of the hall, replete with colourful rugs on the floor and walls, engraved wooden chests, and a bed with elegantly decorated side panels. Along the walls of the hall run various displays. Hunting techniques are depicted with a mannequin of a falconer.

There is a model of a waterwheel, turned by ceramic jugs which would alternately fill and empty. An intriguing display, unfortunately in Kazakh only, sets out to demonstrate the distinct genetic and physiological make-up of the Kazakh people. There is a display of items considered to have protective powers against the evil eye: a black and white-striped rope; the claw of a golden eagle; and the skull of a wolf. There are items used by shamans, such as a kobyz customised with the addition of a mirror and feathers. There are displays too of costumes, jewellery, musical instruments, religious items and children's games.

HALL 3, on the top floor, is a mix of items on the multi-ethnic character of Kazakhstan and Soviet-period history. The former involves displays of the costumes, artefacts and traditions of many of the ethnic groups which make up modern Kazakhstan, ranging from the several million-strong Russian community to the Assyrians (of whom there are 540 in Kazakhstan, according to the figures presented here). An interesting display on the Korean community was contributed by the Korean State Ethnographic Museum. The rest of the hall commemorates the heroes of Soviet Kazakhstan. There are presentations on various Heroes of Socialist Labour, before you are taken into the war period, with a list of Kazakhstanis earning the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. A diorama depicts a stalwart Red Army defending a wintry line against advancing German tanks.

HALL 4, on the same floor, focuses on post-independence Kazakhstan. There are displays about the State flag and emblem, currency, awards, hydrocarbons wealth and mineral resources, Kazakhstan's role in space exploration and its sporting successes. President Nazarbaev's books are displayed in various languages. The embroidered cloak used at the presidential inauguration of December 1991 is on display, as is the heavy inauguration belt, complete with dagger. A striking wall carpet depicts the leaders of the central Asian states (Nazarbaev is second from the right), commemorating a meeting of the presidents in Bishkek in 1995.

On the other side of Furmanov Street, almost opposite the museum, the white marble-faced square-based building is the Presidential Residence, built by the French construction company Bouygues in 1995.