Smack in the steppe heartland, 220km southeast of Astana, Karaganda (Karagandy; Қарағанды) 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.
During the depressed 1990s many of Karaganda’s ethnic-German residents (descendants of Stalin-era deportees) emigrated to Germany. But Karaganda has bounced back and today the central areas of the city are a pleasant surprise, with a lively buzz, good dining scene and plenty of parks and broad tree-lined streets, all prettily illuminated after dark. Bukhar Zhyrau dangyly, the main street, heads north through the centre from the train and bus stations.