We started our 2009 Central Asia tour in the Kazak capital Astana, from where we made a Steppe tour with a 4x4 UAZ making stops in Kurchatov, Karkaralinsk ending in Karaganda. We took the nights train to the old capital Almaty after spending some days in Karaganda. Kazakhstan left a lasting impression on us and today we are still in contact with some of the people we met there.
"Kazakhstan is the greatest country in the world; all other countries are run by little girls. Kazakhstan is number one exporter of potassium; other Central Asian countries have inferior potassium."
Borat Sagdiyev - 2006
What struck us most about Kazakhstan was the sheer size of the country and its raw natural beauty. Driving a four by four UAZ trough the endless steppes was one experience we will never forget and recommend to everybody. The other great thing about Kazakhstan is the tolerance and harmony between its people from different ethnic and religious groups. Don’t hesitate and visit largest landlocked country in the world, whenever you have a change.
Getting low cost flights to Kazakhstan was rather difficult during our planning for the trip. We wanted to start our holiday in Astana rather than Almaty and only a few airlines fly to the Kazakh capital. Aeroflot is usually a safe bet, however, we decided to fly with Kaliningrad based KD Avia. We arranged the required letter of invitation and the Visa with our usual Visa agent in the Netherlands together will the entry documents for Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Waiting for our connecting flight on Kaliningrad airport was a classic experience, passengers were kept in a small room for hours without being able to buy food or drinks and having to sit on the floor. Kazakhstan Reizen, a Dutch company specialized in organizing custom tours in Kazakhstan arranged our programme in North-East Kazakhstan in advance of our journey. Our guide Vitaly and driver Zenya were waiting for us at Astana Airport with an Uaz 452 4x4 off road minivan, actually one of our favourite Soviet cars.
The capital of Kazakhstan was moved from Almaty to Astana after independence in 1995 despite the fact that many Kazakhs never approved on this measure orchestrated by president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Astana is located in the middle of the Central Asian steppes, in a mosquito invested swamp with hot summers and freezing winters. Billions of petrodollars are invested by president Nazarbayev to turn Astana in a futuristic capital with ground-breaking architecture designed by famous architects, most notable Norman Foster. We spend a day driving through the city to check out the architectural highlights of modern Astana, and of course the remains of its Soviet past. We also had time for a trip to Akmola Labour Camp, a part of the GULAG were Wives of Political Dissidents were detained during Soviet times. A museum and a monument dedicated to the victims of the Soviet oppression were recently constructed at the site of the camp by the local government.
Astana to Kurchatov
The Soviet Union's largest nuclear test site, Semipalatinsk-16 has been opened to foreigners by the Kazakh government. We decided to add Semipalatinsk-16 to the itinerary of our Central Asia tour in 2009. The first part of the journey from Astana to Pavlodar in the North East took about half a day and gave a good impression off the vast Kazakh steppes. For locals the steppes may not be very interesting, but for people from a densely populated country is the endless open space a fascinating sight. Just before Pavlodar near Leninsky village we left the highway and headed south towards Kurchatov. The last city we passed before our final destination was Aksu, a typical Soviet era industrial city with large Steel and Power Plants. In the Aksu outskirts we saw a park with dozens of Lenin statues and other communist monuments probably reallocated after the end of the Soviet Union. The rest of the journey would take us over bumpy dirt roads, which was no reason for our driver Zenya to slow down. We arrived in Kurchatov in the early evening after a long but exhilarating drive through North-East Kazakhstan.
After arrival we checked in the Kurchatov Hotel were probably many important Soviet scientists and high ranking officials have stayed in the past. The hotel is very close to the main square with a statue of Igor Kurchatov and the former Headquarters of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. Most interesting are the abandoned military buildings nearby the hotel. Souvenirs like Lenin portraits are now hard to find in these former administrative buildings but they are still very interesting places to walk through. Behind the main square is the house of Lavrenti Beria, the boss of Stalin's secret police. Other interesting places we saw are an old radar dome one the Irtysh River and a Word War II monument. In the evening we had dinner, with lots of drinks in a restaurant where most of the locals were hanging out.
The following morning we had an early breakfast in one of the buildings of the Atomic Institute, with a serious hangover from the Vodka of the previous night. The local museum of nuclear testing displays al sorts of instruments that were used during nuclear testing. Now it was time to visit the Polygon and see the site of the first Soviet Atomic Bomb detonation. We were accompanied by a local guide with Geiger counter and drove about 30 km into the Polygon. On ground zero there are large towers, blackened from the explosion, used to install measurement equipment. There are also observation posts and a bridge to understand the impact of a nuclear explosion. After a short look around it was time to move on and we headed to Karaganda.
There was no direct road from the test site to Karkaralinsk so we went straight through the steppes with only some recent tracks to follow. The ride took hours but was never boring, we spotted a rare Saiga Antilope and the car got stuck in lake bed were we stopped for lunch. Luckily we managed to get the car out of the mud otherwise we would have had a long walk in store. We arrived in Karkaralinsk in the early evening; an interesting town surrounded by beautiful nature were little has changed since Soviet times. There was a lot of excitement in the guesthouse we were staying, apparently the sister in law of the owner was just kidnapped by her future husband.
The local museum in Karkaralinsk is one of those places where very little has changed since Soviet times. Even better some new exhibits are added, but totally in the 1970s style of the museum. A large part of the museum is dedicated to local Communist Party officials and other important people. One of the most famous people from Karkaralinsk is Toktar Aubakirov a Soviet Cosmonaut who flew in Soyuz TM-13 in 1991, a large part of the exposition is dedicated to him. Karkaralinsk seems to have been an important place for politics, it was fought over during the revolution, is littered with Soviet monuments and current leader Nuran Nazarbayev's portrait can also been seen on every street corner. A new monument consisting of a MiG-21 and some cannons dedicated to the military was constructed in 2005.
The last part of our steppe journey would take us from Karkaralinsk to Karaganda, once the centre of the Kazakh Gulag, now a thriving multicultural city. Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Tatars, Germans and Poles were deported from all over the Soviet Union by Stalin and now life together with the native Kazakhs in relative harmony. Karaganda was an important industrial centre during Soviet times and was expanded as a socialist model city after World War II, with Neo Classical architecture and many communist monuments and street decoration. Lenin and other Soviet heroes still stand in the city centre, the Miners Palace is a beautiful example of Stalinist architecture. Another place that has largely been untouched since Soviet times is the Central City Park, filled with Soviet era space themed kids attractions and a children's train as star attraction.
Dolinka and Temirtau
During our last day we visited the Ecology museum, the home base of our great guides from local NGO Avalon, who are working hard to promote eco-tourism in this beautiful part of the world. A special section of the exposition shows rocket parts that landed in the area during launches at Baikonur Cosmodrome that is not far away (in Kazakh measures). The museum shows interesting artifacts about the history, geography and ecology of the area around Karaganda. Stalin's mass deportations during the 1930s are mostly associated with the GuLag in Siberia, however, many victims were send to the KarLag (Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp) in remote Kazakhstan. The headquarters building of the KarLag was located in Dolinka and is now turned in a museum.
We visited the Temirtau steelworks on the way back from Dolinka to Karaganda. These giant Soviet era plants produce purple smoke and start making hell like noises every 10 minutes or so. Our stay in Eastern Kazakhstan was a great mix of Soviet nostalgia, adventure and wild nature; we would recommend everybody who wants to visit this part of Kazakhstan to contact Avalon, as tour organizer, these guys will organize a great trip for you.
We had booked the fast night train from Karaganda to Almaty. Many of the passengers are ambitious young Kazakhs who live in Almaty and work in Astana, with whom we had interesting conversations giving a good insight in Kazakh state affairs and politics. The former capital of the Kazakh SSR is known as the most metropolitan city of Central Asia with plenty of tourist attractions and a vibrant nightlife. We spend most of our time exploring the Soviet past of Almaty, named Alma Ata during Soviet times. The choice to move the Kazakh capital to Astana is actually a blessing for Almaty, the millions spend on Astana would otherwise have been used to modernise Almaty wiping out its Soviet charm with plastic facades glued on every building.
We made a couple of walking tours through Almaty enjoying the nice summer atmosphere, Soviet legacy the city has to offer, tasty shashliks and cold beers. Naming all the highlights of Almaty would be too much here, we will publish a city guide with the Soviet highlights of Almaty later on this website. Some of the must see sights are the Palace of the Republic, Kazakhstan Hotel, Palace of the Pioneers, Arasan Baths among many others. The 1970s micro districts of Almaty boost some stunning modernist Soviet architecture.
A nice place to relax in Almaty is Panfilov Park named after the 28 guardsmen of the Panfilov Division, who died defending Moscow against German tanks during the World War II. Locals hang out in the park to skate, drink beers and old man play in the chess house in the middle of the park. The giant World War II memorial in the park can match most of the war memorials we have seen in many other cities, various other Soviet memorials including the Afghanistan memorial can be found in the Panfilov Park.
Almaty is situated in the foothills of the Zaili Alatau Mountains, going up the mountains from the city is a popular outing for both tourists and locals. The quickest way to go up the mountains is by cable car to Kok-Tobe hill, luxurious restaurant terraces provide a great view to the city centre 300 meters below. The Shymbulak ski resort is another favourite place is the mountains to go for a day trip. The famous Medeo ice rink is on the road to Shymbulak. Medeo was the highest and fastest speed skating track in the world where many world records were set before the faster high altitude indoor tracks were built.
Where we didn't go
Kazakhstan is a giant country with many great places that we were not able to visit. Baikonur Cosmodrome, the space launch facility from where almost every Soviet space rocket was launched is still the main launch facility for space vehicles in the world today. Baikonur is actually Russian territory and we found that making a trip from Kazakhstan was rather difficult to arrange. We still hope to visit Baikonur in the future, probably coming straight from Moscow.