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.
Things to see and do
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.
Ust-Kamenogorsk also plays host to an underwhelming fine arts museum. Only if you are bored.
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.
Places like Irtysh and Ust-Kamenogorsk are Soviet-era cockroach haunts you should avoid. Instead, for 15-25$ you can get a decent apartment in the center, and that beats any hotel that advertises for this price.
Hostels in Oskemen tend to come and go. Currently the Registan is the cheapest place in town.
Oskemen airports operates regular flights to Astana, Almaty, Moscow and a few other destinations in Kazakhstan and Russia. It is a small airport, a regular bus service connects the city centre with the airport in 20 minutes.
Oskemen’s train station is called Zashita; you might still see this old name pop up in timetables or on booking platforms instead of Oskemen or Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Oskemen is connected by direct train to Russia, passing Barnaul (15 hr), Novosibirsk (21 hr) and Tomsk (27 hr). In Kazakhstan, you can ride the TurkSib to Almaty (18-25 hr), or go west to Astana (28 hr) via Semey (11 hr) and Pavlodar (19 hr).
Attention! Between Oskemen and Semey, the train crosses Russian territory! If you need a Russian visa, take the bus to Semey before hopping on the train from there. It will be much quicker as well.
The train to Ridder takes more than 2,5 hours, while it is only 90 minutes by car. Something for rail enthusiasts.
The long-distance bus station (OSM) is located near the crossroads of Nezavisimost pr. and Abai av. and serves destinations such as Almaty, Karaganda, Pavlodar and Katon Karagay. Destinations in Russia include Omsk, Tomsk and Novosibirsk.
The short-distance bus station at the central terminus of the city’s tram lines, has several buses daily to Semey, Ridder and Zyryanovsk.
All info for travel to Olgii in Mongolia is now to be found at How to get from Kazakhstan to Mongolia on public transport.