Ekibastuz is a gritty and polluted industrial city in northern Kazakhstan – comparable in some respects to Karaganda’s Temirtau – that is of marginal interest to the general traveler, but of great interest to the niche tourist.
In any case, it is an easy pit stop on the road between Nur-sultan and Pavlodar, and is the most convenient transit point for the Bayanaul National Park, especially if coming from the capital.
Ekibastuz is best known for its massive coal mines (the largest in the former USSR and, at one point, the world), the world’s largest chimney, and a gulag labour camp that hosted Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for 3 years, providing inspiration for his novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”.
Ekibastuz history: Coal mines and Gulag labour
Ekibastuz (“two heads of salt” in Kazakh, the name of a nearby lake) was established in 1899 with the sole purpose of exploiting the area’s massive coal reserves, first discovered in the 1860s by local prospector and jeweler Kosym Pshembayev.
Pavlodar merchant Artem Derov (whose mansion now houses the Pavlodar Regional Museum) created the “Voskresenskoye” joint stock company in the late 1890s to attempt commercial extraction.
Subsequently, a Scottish industrialist named Leslie Urquhart (1874-1933), who was actively involved in the mining booms in Siberia and Azerbaijan at the time, bought the rights to the region’s reserves, and in 1912 established the “Kirgiz Coal Mining Company” under the “Irtysh Corporation”, with a plan to create a major industrial supply chain connecting to lead and zinc mines in Ridder.
His plans were upended by Vladimir Lenin, who nationalised the assets. With widespread worker strikes at the mine leading up to the 1917 revolution, Lenin felt Urquhart’s ownership was not to the USSR’s benefit, and his subsequent attempts to claim compensation became entangled in geopolitical tension between Britain and the USSR , leading Urquhart to seek fortune in Australia instead. By 1925 however, most production was mothballed due to funding issues, and some mines were dismantled.
Attempts to develop the reserves resumed after WW2, with the formation of the “Irtyshuglestroy” state company in 1948. This paved the way for a switch to large-scale open cast mining during the 1960s and ’70s of 3 major pits, Bogatyr, Severny and Vostochny, which together hold a staggering 13 billion tons of reserves within a 62 square km radius. By the 1980s, Bogatyr was the largest single coal mine in the world, and the pock-marked legacy of this and other mines can be seen from afar when arriving into the city by train even at nighttime (due to extensive subterranean lights).
Ekibastuz’ early development was built on gulag labour. Known as “Osoblag No. 11” (special camp in Russian), or just “Dallag”, the Ekibastuz gulag was first established in 1948 as an offshoot of both Steplag in Zhezkazgan and Peschanlag in Karaganda. In fact, it was relatively small by USSR standards. A total of 5,000 plus prisoners were interred at the camp during its life cycle, a tiny fraction of those at the notorious Karlag camp near Karaganda, according to the Gulagmap.
It was no less brutal and soul-crushing however, and was where Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent to work as a labourer for the last 3 years of an 8-year sentence he received in 1945 for criticizing Stalin. Other prisoners included Japanese prisoners of war, members of the intelligentsia, as well as ethnic minority groups such as Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars. The camp was disbanded in 1954, and all remaining prisoners were transferred to Zhezkazgan.
Also exiled to Ekibastuz (although not to a gulag) in 1957 was Georgiy Malenkov, a Soviet politician who briefly succeeded Stalin as leader of the USSR following the latter’s death in 1953, but who became embroiled in a power struggle that saw him exiled after an attempted coup against Nikita Khrushchev in 1957 failed. He worked in Ekibastuz as the director of the local thermal power station until 1968, and today is honoured on the site with a memorial plaque.
In 1980, the coal-fired power station GRES-1 was launched, which up until today remains Kazakhstan’s largest. Its subsidiary, GRES-2, was launched in 1990, and currently features the world’s tallest chimney (419 m), a smokestack aptly nicknamed “cigarette lighter”.
These 2 power stations account for over 20% of Kazakhstan’s electricity generation, and are connected to the 432 km Ekibastuz-Kokshetau power line which, at 1,150 kV, also happens to be the highest transmission line voltage in the world. This in turn is part of a major 2,350 km Siberia-Kazakhstan-Urals network crisscrossing Russia and Kazakhstan.
Visiting the coal mines
Visiting the coal mines is not possible without prior permission. Send us a message if you are interested, we may be able to arrange it for you.
Ekibastuz Museum of Local History
Not a bad museum for those interested in the USSR’s industry and gulag history. The many exhibits are surprisingly stocked with English-language descriptions.
After an initial section with archaeological findings in Ekibastuz, including “Tasmola culture” excavations and kurgans (burial grounds), the meat of the exhibition is the history of the coal mines, from pick axes to power plants. There is a large section on gulags and Solzhenitsyn’s time in Ekibastuz.
Along Auezov Street lies the Shakter football stadium. The Ekibastuz gulag was located here, and there is a creepy monument commemorating the victims of political repression in an adjacent park. Funds to build the monument were collected privately by local residents, many of whom had family members who suffered during the era.
At the eastern end of Gornyakov Street is a commanding statue of Lenin guarding the former Miner’s House of Culture. The surrounding streets constitute the old town, with some houses dating from the early 20th century.
Cathedral and Polish church
Catering to Ekibastuz’ sizeable Russian population is an Orthodox cathedral at the far western tip of Auezov Street, best reached by taxi. Completed in 1999, it is named in honour of Seraphim of Sarov and is crowned with 8 large domes. It has some interesting icons and murals inside, and is generally more attractive than its counterpart in Pavlodar. Elsewhere in the city, there is also a small Roman Catholic church catering to the ethnic Polish community.
The best hotel in the city is the Home Parq, adjacent to a nearby shopping mall along Mashur Zhusup Street. However, for those opting for a short stay in the city, we recommend Hotel Amiliya which, in addition to being reasonably clean and efficient, offers rooms on a 12-hour basis (i.e. arriving at midnight, checking out at noon) for ~15$.
From Nur-Sultan, it’s 4 hours to Ekibastuz by car, and 5-6 hours by train or bus. Pavlodar is a 2 hour drive. Trains from Nur-Sultan continue to Pavlodar (3h), Semey (12h), Oskemen (16h), Ridder (18h) and Tomsk (28h).