Like paving tiles, manhole covers are a perfect illustration of disregarded infrastructure; they are literally right under our feet yet we pay them no attention. Yet if other pedestrians are anything like me, there have plenty of attentional surplus to burn. How about instead of checking out girls or fondly remembering your lunch, you train your eyes on the ground and make some mental notes? You might see a cast-iron disc, stamped with a bygone year, or molded in a beautiful pattern, or marked with a mysterious code. The power of observation can open entire worlds you never knew were there.
Let's start with those mysterious markings. Many manhole covers, or lyuki [люки] will note the city its birth foundry is in (Taldykorgan, north of Almaty, is a common placename) or even the year it was forged. But the single-letter stamps are the most interesting, because they tell you what the manhole is even used for. If you see a big K, it stands for Kanalizatsiya, or "sewer." A big B is actually the Russian letter for the sound "V", as in Vodoprovod, or "plumbing." The letter Г makes the "G" sound and stands for Gidrant, or hydrant, and another common one is ГТС, or GTS, for Gorodskaya Telefonnaya Syet, the city telephone network.
Especially in the center of Almaty, around Zhambul and Shevchenko, you can find a ton of super vintage lyuki, printed with Almaty's old name, Alma-Ata, or with an art-deco logo and the letters НКС (NKS in Latin script). The letters stand for Narodny Komissariat Svyazi [Народный комиссариат связи], or the People's Comissariat of Communications, the central body in charge of telephone service during the Stalin era. The organ's emblem is iconic, appearing on manhole covers throughout the former USSR, and it shows an ancient telecommunications plug, fit with an insulator, getting shot by thunderbolts.
The most common manhole cover has got to be what locals call the vaffly pattern, because it looks like waffles. You can also see concentric circles, honeycomb, spriraling sun rays, and a pseudo-swastika pattern that resembles a meander. I've amassed a pretty good collection, but there are surely more designs out there. Never mind the social stigma and accusations of awkwardness: keep your bashful eyes on the ground and start hunting.