No one from Ust-Kamenogorsk can travel to other parts of Kazakhstan without remarking how dirty they find it. Ust-Kamenogorsk is a very tidy place. Here, shops close at 6, people like to dress up nicely, and everyone lives in fear of the police, who are very strict. There are no jaywalkers in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Only daredevils.
For tourists, Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen in Kazakh) is the gateway to the Kazakh Altai. Outside of the local ethnographic park, which is a real highlight, there is little reason to linger in the city for skiers, hikers and explorers.
That’s because Ust-Kamenogorsk is a working town. From a distance one can already see the red-and-white chimneys fume. Coming back from a jaunt in the uber-fresh mountain air, the heavy nose of processed zinc does feel shockingly unhealthy. It might still be of considerable interest to those with a love of industrial archaeology and Soviet heritage. Everyone else will quickly move on.
Getting out of Ust-Kamenogorsk
There are a few nice panorama viewpoints in Ust-Kamenogorsk. The first is at the Hollywoodian Kazakhstan sign. Under the giant flag, the city unfolds. A popular place for dates.
The second is the dam that regulates the flow of Irtysh. The construction itself, the force of the water, and the lake on the other side of the dam combined make this another place to hang out.
The main sight in Oskemen, to use the Kazakh name for once, is the ethnographic park. This humongous, well-maintained park is a must-see. Other than that, Ust-Kamenogorsk also plays host to an underwhelming fine arts museum. Only if you are bored.
Finally, you can also visit Old Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Ust-Kamenogorsk started its life as a fortress from the Russian army in the 18th century. Located at the strategic junction of 2 rivers, Irtysh and Ulba, it was the perfect base to coordinate the advance into Central Asia proper.
That junction is today called Strelka (arrow) but there are no remnants of those early settlers. Instead, a huge WW2 monument dominates the scene, and the boulevard rounding the 2 rivers is a nice place for evening strolls and morning runs.
A few 100 meters east, an Orthodox church is caught between hulking apartment blocks from different decades. If you are looking for Tsarist architecture, a better place is the area surrounding Kirov park, off Pobeda Avenue.