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 you 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, lead and uranium does feel shockingly unhealthy (cancer statistics agree).
It might still be of considerable interest to those with a love of industrial archaeology and Soviet heritage. Everyone else will quickly move on to the beautiful mountains of the Altai.
Ust-Kamenogorsk started off as a Russian outpost in 1720, part of a line of fortresses set up to expand Russia’s southern border, develop trade links and explore the mineral wealth of the Altai.
Located at the strategic junction of 2 rivers, Irtysh and Ulba, it was the perfect base to coordinate the advance into Central Asia proper.
After World War 2, the city developed into a major industrial centre for Kazakhstan’s mines with processing plants for lead, titanium, magnesium and zinc (the equipment of the zinc plant in Germany’s Magdeburg was transported here as war reparations).
Nuclear fuel for the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project, tested in nearby Kurchatov, was produced at the Ulba Metallurgic Plant. Despite a big explosion in 1990 sending a cloud of highly toxic beryllium over the city, the plant still produces fuel, these days for nuclear reactors. It also plays host to the world’s first low-enriched uranium fuel bank.
The city’s industries are powered by, amongst others, 5 hydroelectric power plants damming Ulba and Irtysh.
Things to see and do
The main winter sport (outside of drinking) is skiing. Or is it still ice hockey? For all other intents and purposes (hiking, horse riding, botanizing, village visits, mushroom picking, …), check out our guide to the Kazakh Altai – this should be the reason you are here.
The junction of Irtysh and Ulba is called Strelka (arrow). It’s where Russian settlers first started building Ust-Kamenogorsk. 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.
The main sight in Oskemen, to use the Kazakh name for once, is the ethnographic park. This humongous, well-maintained park really has everything – it’s the top thing to do if you have some time to spend in U-K.
A copy of the famous Hollywood sign, this offers a nice viewpoint over the city. Under the giant flag, the city unfolds. A popular place for dates.
World’s deepest lock
The second nice viewpoint is the hydroelectric power station over the Irtysh (Gmaps). The construction itself, the force of the water, and the lake on the other side of the dam combined make this a popular hangout.
The dam also includes a ship lock to let boats bridge the height difference. It is apparently the deepest ship lock in the world, at 40-42m. Although the Panama canal bridges a bigger height difference, it uses 3 consecutive locks to do so.
Oskemen’s central park, a pleasant bit of greenery centered on a statue of Sergey Kirov, is surrounded by a number of underwhelming museums in Tsarist-era buildings.
The regional history museum (Gmaps) has some balbals and cannons standing outside. Inside it’s all stuffed animals and incoherent displays of old stuff. Of all the regional museums we have seen in Kazakhstan, it’s one of the least exciting (and that’s saying something).
The ethnographic museum (Gmaps) focuses on the traditions of Kazakhs. Fine if you are completely new to Kazakhstan, but we venture that if you managed to come all this way, you have already seen a yurt and a kobyz before.
The fine arts museum (Gmaps) equally has no highlights.
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.