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 this large region full of mountains, lakes and villages with good hiking, horse riding, biking, rafting and other activities. The Altay Mountains, at the 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 (Öskemen; Усть-Каменого́рск) 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.
The region from Almaty to Lake Balkhash is known as Zhetisu (Russian: Semirechie), meaning Land of Seven Rivers. There are actually more than 800 rivers, many fed by glaciers in the mountains along the Kyrgyz and Chinese borders. It's also known as the 'Golden Triangle' for its trio of major natural attractions: Kolsai Lakes, Charyn Canyon and Altyn-Emel National Park.
The gateway to Kazakhstan's largest oil field, Atyrau (Атырау), formerly Guryev, 30km up the Ural River from the Caspian Sea, straddles the Europe/Asia boundary. Oil money is evident in the proliferation of expensive hotels and upmarket restaurants; nowhere in the country is the disparity between the haves and have-nots greater, and crime levels are above average.
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.
At Turkestan (Туркестан) stands Kazakhstan’s greatest architectural monument and most important pilgrimage site: the mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui. It was built by Timur (Tamarlane; 1336–1405) in the late 14th century on a grand scale comparable with his magnificent creations in Samarkand, and has no rivals in Kazakhstan for human-made beauty.