Gde? V Karagande! (Where? In Karaganda!) It’s still a standing expression in Russian if you don’t know the answer to where something is, but you are stuck in rather polite company and cannot say your stock phrase “v pizde (in a vagina)”.
It plays on Karaganda’s middle-of-nowhere-location, known first and foremost as a place where political enemies of the Soviet regime were sent to work the mines of the GuLag system.
These days, Karaganda is still set in an immense expanse of steppe, but it is less remote because of the rise of nearby Nur-Sultan as the nation’s new capital.
It still is not the first place on anyone’s Kazakhstan itinerary, but slow travelers, Soviet history buffs, people tracing their family’s roots and expats looking to get a deeper understanding of their country will all find Karaganda a rewarding destination.
The Dolinka museum is Karaganda’s must-visit.
Karaganda is a mining town. 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.
Karaganda’s mines became the final destination for many convicts of the GuLag labour system. Many scientists, teachers and artists from Russia, as well as a large number of Poles and Volga Germans who Stalin suspected would betray him in the war with Nazi Germany, spent years in what became known as the KarLag. When the Chechen people were mass-deported from their homes by Stalin in 1944, most also ended up in the Karaganda area (survivors were allowed to return in 1957).
When Kazakhstan became independent, Karaganda lost almost 30% of its population in a few years, including 100 000 Germans that emigrated to Germany. Despite the enormous outflow, Karaganda is still at the heart of Kazakhstan’s industrial base, these days dominated by the ArcelorMittal company, both the main polluter and main employer in the city, with more than 30 000 employees.
A mining town filled with the descendants of deportees, Karaganda remains much more cosmopolitan than you would at first imagine. True to its worker roots, the city is also the home town of one of the world’s best boxers (GG Golovkin), a good football team and an active labour union.
Sights in Karaganda
Murals & Soviet monuments
A lot of seriously good Soviet murals have survived thus far on the walls and streets of Karaganda. Start off with the Glory to Miners monument (Gmaps), then walk around town to discover some great pieces.
Kazakhstan is an ecological nightmare: oil extraction, nuclear tests, ageing industrial plants, space debris, desertification, poaching, … The Ecological museum is a wonderful initiative, mostly aimed at local school children. Worth a look if you want to know more about the Semipalatinsk test site, the fate of saiga and the Baikonur debris (with real fuel rocket on display). English-language guided tours available.
Bukhar Zhirau 47 (Gmaps), entry 200 tenge, closed on Monday.
A typical regional museum with a typical assortment of exhibits (minerals, fauna and flora, cross-section of a yurt, overview of the area’s history) and no English explanation.
Corner of Lobody and Erubaev (Gmaps), entry 200 tenge, closed on Monday
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.
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.
The best museum in Kazakhstan stands silent in a sleepy town called Dolinka, some 50 km out of Karaganda. It details the period of political repression and the system of GuLag in Kazakhstan (KarLag) through an extensive exhibition with explanations in English and Russian.
From the time it opened in 1931 until its closure in 1959, at least a million people passed through KarLag.
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.
There is also a hall dedicated to the devastating 1930s famine that killed off an estimated 1.5 million Kazakhs, a consequence of the Soviet Union’s policy of collectivization of agriculture.
The museum closes 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 (Gmaps). If you’re hungry, the stolovoya at the bus stop serves up tasty lunches!
The main sight in Temirtau are the Brobdingnagian steel plants. They are terribly polluting, but the sight of such monsters of industry is, at the same time, awe-inspiring.
Despite complaints about air quality and low wages, locals do take a lot of pride in their work. The factories have been and are still important to Kazakhstan, if only for the fact that Temirtau is where a blast furnace worker called Nursultan Nazarbayev began his career in the Communist Party.
When the Chechen people were mass-deported from their homes by Stalin in 1944, most ended up in the Karaganda area. Survivors were allowed to return in 1957, but not everybody did. 100 km south of Karaganda lies Krasnaya Polyana, a Chechen village where people have stayed on. Eurasianet has an article about Krasnaya Polyana, while BBC4 has a 30-minute podcast with the sounds and voices of little Chechnya on the steppe.
Spassk memorial to victims of repression
35 km south of Karaganda, along the main road to Balkhash (OSM / Gmaps), the victims of the KarLag are commemorated in a touching tribute. Spassk was another KarLag penal colony. Different countries that lost citizens here have erected a monument. Besides the former Soviet republics, there are also memorials from Germany, Poland, Japan, Finland, Korea, France, Italy and Romania. Beyond, only the infinite steppe.
Karkaralinsk and Kyzylarai
The nature reserve of Karkaralinsk is not spectacular, but its pine forests offers a pleasant refuge from the city air for local lungs. Can be reached by bus or shared taxi (3-4 hours). Bronze Age settlements have been dug in the nearby Kent mountains. The town of Karkaraly has some Tsarist-era buildings from its beginnings as a Cossack settlement and trade hub.
The Kyzylarai oasis lies 300 km south of Karkaralinsk and is broadly similar. Rising above the plains to a peak height of 1565m, it’s a haven for wildlife like eagles and mountain sheep, and there are megalithic structures from the Begazy-Dandybai culture.
Karaganda’s hinterland is huge. If it would be a country, the central province of Karaganda would be the 59th-biggest country in the world, bigger than Germany or Japan, but only Mongolia, Australia and Namibia would be less densely populated.
About 400 km south, the city of Balkhash is another industrial Soviet creation, at the shores of the massive Lake Balkhash, renowned among fishermen.
500 km west of Karaganda lies another mining town, Zhezkazgan. From here you can go even further into the steppe, to visit the balbals and mausoleums of Ulytau.
Like elsewhere in Kazakhstan, the hostel market in Karaganda is in continual flux. There is no point in recommending a hostel, since it is likely to be out of business by next year. But new ones always pop up.
In the mid-range, Ozz Inn is the best choice. There really is no need to doubt. If it’s booked out, a well-reviewed private apartment is perhaps the next-best option, although receiving the keys can be a hassle with some if you don’t speak Russian. Aparthotel Milo is decent and cheap.
When it comes to mid-range hotels, Rosa Roze scores with its delicious breakfast (if you don’t mind the homestay design choices). Although Ar Nuvo takes a hatchet to both the spelling and the design aesthetic of the Art Nouveau movement, it does offer a pleasant stay for a reasonable price.
Looking at hotels in the top range, Senator is a new build and stands head and shoulders above the competition in terms of style and ambitions.
Voyage is a still-new 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 has been around for a while. Good breakfast buffet, well-trained staff, lovely location near the park (although not central). Pool, fitness and sauna.
By train you can get to Nur-Sultan (2,5-4 hours), Shymkent (14-20 hrs), Almaty (11-18 hrs) and Zhezkazgan (10-13 hrs).
Karaganda airport has a rather extensive flight schedule to regional airports across Kazakhstan and Russia.
We don’t recommend buses for large distances in Kazakhstan, but a bus to Nur-Sultan is an option (4 hrs), although a shared taxi will get you there quicker and in more comfort for a similar price.
Getting around is easy enough with public transport, almost all buses pass by the main drag Bukhar Zhirau. Taxis are moderately priced. Karaganda’s city centre is small and easy to explore on foot or by bicycle.
Questions and reports are welcome in the Karaganda forum thread.