Ust-Kamenogorsk is a lively city with generally low-key Soviet architecture, at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba Rivers. Founded as a Russian fort in 1720, 'Ust' has grown from a small town since the 1940s, when Russians and Ukrainians began arriving to mine and process the area’s copper, lead, silver and zinc.
Kurchatov & the Polygon
The town of Kurchatov, 120km west of Semey, was the command centre for the Semipalatinsk Polygon. The nuclear testing zone itself stretched some 100km to 120km south and west from Kurchatov. Today, the rather desolate town is home to Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Centre, which, among other things, works on the development of nuclear power in Kazakhstan.
Even if you have left it too late to get the border-zone permit needed to visit the Altay Mountains proper or other areas near the Chinese border, there’s still plenty of good country within reach of Ust-Kamenogorsk that’s good for hiking, horse or bike riding, rafting or just exploring.
In the far eastern corner of Kazakhstan the magnificent Altay Mountains spread across the borders to Russia, China and, 50km away, Mongolia. To visit this area you need to plan well ahead and go with a good travel firm such as Altai Expeditions or Imperia Turizma, who can obtain the border-zone permit that is required beyond the village of Uryl (Orel).