You can tell a lot about a neighborhood in Almaty by the state of its pedestrian underpasses, or podzemkas [подземки]. These tunnels under major intersections provide a safe passage for walkers while offering the potential for commercial space, but they can range from spic-span to stinky. In the center of town, where major intersections receive a lot of foot traffic, these passages have been fashioned into mini-malls, the most genius being the Igrushka underground toy stores. Passing families have no choice but to cross the street through a brightly-lid hall of children's temptations - good luck getting out of there with your wallet closed, mom and dad! Other podzemkas have been rented out to different shops offering samsas [самсa; Central Asian pastries], soft drinks, and shoe repair.
The funkiest tunnels, covered well in an expose by the local site Vox Populi, offer every pedestrian a Catch-22: risk a dark dungeon filled with trash, poop and building materials, or dash in front of the race cars zooming above ground. These podzemkas have a smell of danger, strangely urine-like, that you can pick up before you even walk down the stairs. Who could lurk there in the darkness, shooting up and waiting for clueless American urban explorers? Sadly, we tourists don't have it the worst. The stairwells down to these passages have some of the worst access ramps you can see, disabled beware.