This leafy city with a backdrop of the snowcapped Zailiysky Alatau has always been among the more appealing Russian creations in Central Asia. Today Almaty’s new rich have expensive suburban apartments, large SUVs, glitzy shopping malls, Western-style coffee lounges, expensive restaurants, dance-till-dawn nightclubs and new ski resorts to help them enjoy life to the full.
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 is also the only region of Kazakhstan that was within the sphere of the Silk Road and the settled civilisations of Transoxiana in medieval times.
Ust-Kamenogorsk, a relatively prosperous regional capital, is the gateway to a large region of mountains, lakes and villages with good hiking, horse riding, biking, rafting and other activities. The Altay Mountains, at its eastern extremity, are one of the most beautiful corners of Kazakhstan but you must plan well ahead to get a border-zone permit to visit them.
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.
Atyrau (population170,000), 30km up the Ural River from the Caspian Sea, straddles the Europe/Asia boundary. The cheapest sleep is the Komnaty Otdykha, entered from the train station platform. It’s basic and short on security, but clean, and half-price for less than 12 hours. The central Ak Zhaik Hotel has comfy rooms and a slew of facilities including a British-style pub.
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.