Gde? Gde? V Karagande! The old Soviet expression making fun of Karaganda’s middle-of-nowhere location does not do justice to this town of culture, sports and forward-thinking people.
It’s a long way from anywhere, but if you are in the neighborhood, there are enough things to see and do in Karaganda to keep you busy for a day or two.
Karaganda is a miner’s city. Coal extraction started somewhere in the 1850’s, but it wasn’t until Stalin decided to fuel the large industrial production in the Urals with the coal reserves beneath Karaganda that the city really exploded. He had Kanysh Satpaev to thank for this, an important name in Kazakhstan, since he was the geologist who first discovered the enormous mineral wealth of the country, and thus is the reason for (some people in) Kazakhstan’s affluence.
The development of Karaganda’s mines became the task and death for many convicts of Stalin’s Gulag labour system. Many scientists, writers and artists, as well as a large number of Volga Germans who Stalin suspected would betray him in the war with Nazi Germany, spent years in the Karlag. Although since Kazakhstan’s independence many well-educated people left Karaganda, the cultured vibe of the city is still immediately obvious.
Getting there and around
By train: trains run daily connecting to other major cities like Astana (3 hours), Shymkent and Almaty.
By bus: bus and shared taxi have a wider range of destinations, including Dolinka, Karkaralinsk and Temirtau.
Karaganda’s bus station and train station are well organised, as you would expect from descendants from Germans. They are located next to each other, with long-haul shared taxis in the front shouting out their destinations. Getting around is easy enough with public transport, almost all buses pass by the main drag Bukhar Zhirau.
Taxis are moderately priced. Karaganda is a small city and easy to explore on foot or by bicycle.
Sights and things to do
- Ecological museum (Bukhar Zhirau 47, entry 200 tenge, closed on Monday): The Ecological museum is a wonderful initiative, mostly aimed at local school children to talk about the many ecological disasters Kazakhstan is facing. Definitely worth a look if you want to know more about the Polygon, the fate of saiga and the Baikonur debris (with real fuel rocket on display). English guided tours available.
- Regional museum (corner of Lobody and Erubaev, entry 200 tenge, closed on Monday): If you’re only planning to visit one regional museum in Kazakhstan (and one is indeed enough), let it be this one. Well-presented and large, but with a typical list of exhibits (minerals, fauna and flora, cross-section of a yurt, overview of the area’s history) and no English explanation. Most interesting exhibit: a 13th-century letter from Ablai Khan to the Pope. Who knew!
- Murals & Soviet monuments: a lot of Soviet art has survived on the walls and streets of Karaganda. Walk around town to discover some great pieces.
- City park: in summer, it’s a great place for people watching; alternatively, you can risk your life on one of the Soviet-era amusement park attractions.
- Karaganda zoo: it’s not a fantastic zoo. Only if you are really into zoos.
- Shaktyor Karaganda football club: The football team has a large supporter base and a match provides great entertainment, if not for the football, at least for the atmosphere and the low entrance fee. Winter sports enjoy considerable popularity in the off-season.
- Theatres: If you don’t speak Russian and have kids with you, try puppet theatre Buratino: great fun! If you do speak Russian, these house some of Kazakhstan’s finest actors. Since you speak Russian, you will have no trouble finding out more with the following names: академический театр музыкальной комедии, драматический театр имени С. Сейфуллина, русский драматический театр имени К. С. Станиславского.
The best museum in Kazakhstan stands silent in a sleepy town called Dolinka. It details the period of political repression and the system of GuLag in Kazakhstan (KarLag). Extensive exhibit with explanations in English and Russian.
Museum staff make you relive the period with props, music and mood lighting. In the basement, the cells and interrogation rooms come alive with puppets and sound fragments. No effort has been made to spare you the gruesome details.
Closed on Monday, entrance 200 tenge. To get there by public transport, take the bus to Shakhtinsk and get of at Shakht 2 (ask for Dolinka). Then, wave down whatever passes by for the last stretch to the town (bus stop Stolovaya). The museum is another 3 minute walk. If you’re hungry, the stolovoya at the bus stop serves up tasty lunches!
Kazakhstan’s premier steel town. The main sight is the gigantic steel factories. It’s a terrible place to live, as drugs and alcoholism is rampant and the smoke from the steel plant drifting over town looks toxic at best. But to see these aging, Brobdingnagian steel plants dominate all that surrounds them is an overpowering feeling, and Temirtau should be on the list of both disaster tourists and culturally interested travelers.
Also, it is a good way to get a sense of where a lot of the pride of the people in this region comes from. No Temirtau, no Kazakhstan, a notion that is reinforced by the fact that this is the place where president Nazerbayev began his career in the communist party as a blast furnace worker.
Something totally unexpected to see if you have more time waiting for the bus back to Karaganda: Temirtau’s botanical garden located inside the city park is really quite nice.
Accommodation is available at the Pekin Hotel (booking.com) if you have no other choice. Otherwise, stay in Karaganda.
The nature reserve of Karkaralinsk offers a wonderful refuge from the city. Can be reached by bus or shared taxi (3-4 hours).
- Ben’s, on Chkalov street off Bukhar Zhirau, near the stadium and the city akimat. Great food and good portions for less than 5$.
- Assorti stolovaya (Beibitshilik 12, about 100m from the corner with Bukhar Zhirau): Very cheap + tastes ok. You have to walk through a little shop to get there.
- Ankara: near the Lenin statue in the center. Great location, but service is nowhere as is the food. Not recommended!
- Laguna: a Soviet affair. Old hotel, unfriendly staff. 25 minute walk from city center. Some things might not work (some wifi available), but it’s clean. There are other hotels in Karaganda with such crappy service, but here the price is at least correct.
- Bakhytty Hostel: bare-bones hostel, seems to have closed down.
25$ to 100$
- Metelitsa: Best value for money in Karaganda. Lovely rooms, good wifi. Restaurant gets high marks.
- Zumrat Hotel: 10 minutes in the center, but it’s new, with big rooms, fast internet and a decent restaurant. Bit cheaper than Metelitsa.
- Voyage: Best in town. New, modern boutique hotel with a good restaurant and luxurious rooms. Staff is helpful, lounge is a good place to socialise. Small minuses: a bit out of the center and no pool or sauna.
- Hotel Cosmonaut: Best in town. Great breakfast, wonderful staff, lovely location near the park (although not central). Pool, fitness and sauna.
- Dostar-Alem: Not as luxuriously furnished as Cosmonaut or Voyage, but big rooms, good breakfast and helpful staff all the same + pool and fitness.
- Merey: Great value for money hotel in the upper range. Only downside is the breakfast.
If you have more questions, an English-speaking tourism hotline operates daily from 9am to 6pm daily except for holidays. Call 8-800-080-7212.