Smack in the steppe heartland, 220km southeast of Astana, Karaganda is most famous for two things: coal and labour camps. The two are intimately connected, as the vast ‘KarLag’ network of Stalin-era camps around Karaganda was set up to provide food and labour for the mines. Prison labour also built much of Karaganda itself.
The most attractive city near the northern stretch of Kazakhstan's border with Russia, Petropavlovsk was founded in the 1750s and is older and architecturally more diverse than many cities in Kazakhstan. Hotel Kochevnik, basic but clean and in a quiet but central location, is a good budget bet.