pop 1.3 million Kazakhstan’s economic prosperity is most palpable here in its biggest city, where at times you could almost believe you are in Europe, such are the numbers of glitzy international shops lining the streets and of Mercedes, Audis, Volkswagens and BMWs negotiating the peak-hour jams.
This is the most Russified part of Kazakhstan but it’s also the location of the new capital Astana, chief crucible of the prosperous, multiethnic Kazakhstan of the future, an extravagant exercise in capital-city creation and the pole around which the north of the country is being revived.
Love it or hate it, Astana is here to stay as Kazakhstan’s capital. Just a medium-sized provincial city known for its bitter winters when President Nazarbaev named it out of the blue in 1994 as the country’s future capital, Astana replaced Almaty in 1997.
This is the most Kazakh part of Kazakhstan: Kazakhs are generally the great majority in the population, having been settled here in large numbers during Soviet collectivisation. It’s a fascinatingly varied region whose chief attractions begin in the Aksu-Dzhabagly Nature Reserve with its pristine mountain country, great hiking and horse riding and good-value homestays.
Ust-Kamenogorsk, a relatively prosperous regional capital, is the gateway to the Altay Mountains – one of the most beautiful corners of Kazakhstan but one for which you need to plan ahead because a border-zone permit is required.
Most Westerners who come to Kazakhstan’s far west – so far west that the part beyond the Ural River is in Europe – are involved in exploiting Kazakhstan’s biggest oil and gas fields: Tenghiz (oil), Karachaganak (gas) and the offshore oil of Kashagan beneath the Caspian Sea.
South Kazakhstan’s most vibrant city, with a booming bazaar and lively downtown, Shymkent has more of a Central Asian buzz on its leafy streets than anywhere else in the country. Stop here to soak up the atmosphere, eat well and cheaply, and head out to nearby places of interest including Turkistan, Sayram, Otrar and the Aksu-Dzhabagly Reserve.
Ust-Kamenogorsk & Around
Ust-Kamenogorsk (Kazakh: Öskemen), 800km north of Almaty, is a fairly 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-Kamenogorsk has grown from a small town since the 1940s when Russians and Ukrainians began arriving to mine and process localcopper, lead, silver and zinc.
Semey, 200km down the Irtysh from Ust-Kamenogorsk, is sadly better known to the world by its Russian name Semipalatinsk. Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet military exploded some 460 nuclear bombs in the Polygon, an area of steppe west of the city. Locals say they knew when tests were taking place because the ground would shake – often on Sunday morning.
Stuck between the desert and the Caspian, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere else of any size, with all its water derived from desalination, Aktau is perhaps the most oddly situated of all the weirdly located places scattered across the former USSR.
Ask any Kazakh what they know about Taraz and they’ll probably say ‘vodka’ as this is where the country’s favourite brand is produced. It’s a quiet, Soviet-style place with leafy boulevards and one excellent museum.
Smack in the steppe heartland, 220km southeast of Astana and 1000km northwest of Almaty, Karaganda (Kazakh: Qaraghandy) is famous for two things: coal and labour camps. The two are intimately connected, as the big ‘KarLag’ network of Stalin-era camps around Karaganda was set up to provide slave labour for the mines.
At Turkistan, 165km northwest of Shymkent in the Syr-Darya valley, stands Kazakhstan’s greatest architectural monument and its most important site of pilgrimage. The mausoleum of the first great Turkic Muslim holy man, Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, was built by Timur in the late 14th century on a grand scale comparable with his magnificent creations in Samarkand.
Aralsk, 475km northwest of Kyzylorda on the same road and railway, used to be an important fishing port on the shores of the Aral Sea. A large mosaic in its train station depicts how in 1921 Aralsk’s comrades provided fish for people starving in Russia.