Pavlodar is Kazakhstan’s 8th-largest city, and one of its most industrialized. Well off the radar for most travelers, it is, in spite of its reputation for heavy industry, one of Kazakhstan’s most pleasant and well-rounded cities, host to a wide range of sights and museums.
It is also one of the only cities in Kazakhstan with an embankment and beach, along the Irtysh river, as well as an extensive tram network. There is an attractive and compact old town, and generally the city’s streets are easily navigable by foot and much less traffic-clogged than other Kazakh cities.
As elsewhere in the north, Russian influence is strong, with ethnic Russians making up over 40% of the population. Yet, as with neighbouring Semey, Pavlodar also retains a proudly Kazakh identity, as the birthplace of some of the country’s most important figures in literature, poetry, music and science.
Pavlodar is one of Kazakhstan’s oldest cities, founded in 1720 as an outpost of imperial Russian expansion, and created to consolidate conquered lands and guard Cossack troops against invasion.
It became a village in 1838, named “Koryakovskaya” after the nearby Koryakovsky Lake, which eventually became one of Siberia’s most important hubs for salt production. Endless camel caravans transported the salt across the Russian empire. The city benefited immensely from the growth in river trade along the Irtysh, which led to the emergence of a merchant class by the mid-19th century, most of whom were Russian or Tatar.
Koryakovskaya was designated a city in 1861 and renamed Pavlodar, in honour of Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich, and became the administrative center of Semipalatinsk region. The emergence of commercial banks and a further wave of industrialists gave the city many of its attractive historic buildings.
As elsewhere, Pavlodar suffered from the onset of communism and repression after 1917, with widespread instances of famine in the 1930s, the result of the forced removal of regional livestock.
Pavlodar got its next growth spurt in the mid-1950s, as a vital component of the USSR’s “Virgin Lands Campaign” (2,8 million hectares of new land), and in 1958 was awarded the “Order of Lenin” for its grain production. Large-scale industrialization also began during this period, with the establishment of aluminum plants and open-pit coal mining in nearby Ekibastuz. This prompted a surge in new migration to Pavlodar, and at one point the proportion of Kazakhs in the city fell to below 10%.
Urban infrastructure also rapidly developed, with the inauguration of the city’s famous tram network in 1965 (the only in Kazakhstan other than Ust-Kamenogorsk), and a plethora of new industries developed, ranging from machinery and tractor production to oil refining and chemicals.
Pavlodar was comparatively cushioned from the impact of the USSR’s collapse, in large part due to the country’s enduring reliance on its crucial industry and power generation functions. To this day, Pavlodar region accounts for an estimated 70% of the country’s coal production, 40-50% of electricity generation, and 70% of ferroalloy production. It is also a major center for wheat and agriculture, and has been successful in attracting new investment.
Many of the city’s attractions lie along or near Lenin and Satpayev streets, running north-south along the city’s embankment, and Toraigyrov street, a major west-to-east thoroughfare near the railway station.
Sights and things to do
Mashhur Zhusup Mosque
This unusual mosque is Pavlodar’s most iconic landmark, its bright blue dome making for epithets like “shuttlecock” and “Darth Vader’s helmet” (it is supposed to resemble a stylized yurt).
The mosque was completed in 2001, and named after Mashhur Zhusup Kopeyev (1858-1931), a famous turn of the century poet and ethnographer from nearby Bayanaul, who was educated in Bukhara, and whose mausoleum remains an important place of pilgrimage.
The centerpiece of the prayer hall is a chandelier made from 430 bulbs, as well as a carved wooden mihrab.
Irtysh River Bank
A stroll along Pavlodar’s river embankment is one of the city’s highlights in any season. In summer, crowds flock to the city’s main beach for swimming and sunbathing, and hourly ferry cruises run from the river ferry station.
Pavlodar Regional Museum of History & Local Lore
The city’s largest museum occupies 2 co-joined Tsarist-era buildings in the old merchant town. These once housed the city’s telegraph office and the mansion of a wealthy merchant named Artem Derov, who established the first enterprise to extract coal in nearby Ekibastuz.
The museum itself, however, is named in honour of Grigory Potanin, a famous 19th-century Russian ethnographer and historian. He was a close friend of Chokhan Valikhanov, Kazakhstan’s most famous etnographer and explorer, and a campaigner for autonomous rule in Siberia.
Early history features large skeletons of a full mammoth and giant deer, followed by exhibits on the Kimak State (9th-11th centuries) that centered on the Irtysh River, and the Golden Horde era (12th-14th centuries), with findings such as the Kalbasun Tower.
This is followed by sections on the Kazakh khanates, accompanied by nice displays of traditional Kazakh jewelry, arts, and instruments, that also cover famous “batyrs” (warriors) from Pavlodar such as Zhasabay (1716-1741) and his uncle Olzhabay. Hailing from the Argyn tribe of the Kazakh Middle Zhuz, both played prominent roles in Kazakh battles against Dzhungars to the east. Zhasabay’s tomb is in the Bayanaul National Park.
The Soviet period is covered through industrial development: salt production, coal extraction and the Virgin Lands campaign. There is also a section on political repression.
Chekhov Drama Theater and Old Merchant Town
Just south of the regional museum is the Chekhov Drama Theater, housed in the former mansion of a merchant called Ivan Surikov. This is the center of the old merchant town, with historic buildings and former mansions stretching south along Lenin street and in the adjoining streets.
Monuments of note
Further south along Lenin Street is a park with a monument to the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Thousands of citizens from Pavlodar took part in the clean-up.
Perhaps owing to the region’s industrial heritage, the presence of Lenin is far from done and dusted in Pavlodar. The wider region still counts 44 Lenin monuments (you can find a list of all Lenins in Kazakhstan here). Next to the Chernobyl monument stands a Lenin statue from 1928, featuring inscriptions in Cyrillic and, unusually, Arabic script (which was used for the Kazakh language up until 1929).
Along Toraigyrov street is a monument honouring the friendship between Grigory Potanin and Chokhan Valikhanov. Notice the similarity to other Kazakh-Russian friendship monuments throughout northern Kazakhstan, such as Abai-Pushkin in Petropavl and Dostoyevsky-Valikhanov in Semey.
Photography Museum of Dmitry Bagaev
Dmitry Bagaev was a prominent local photographer who opened the city’s first photo studio in 1906. The museum has one of the largest collections of 19th-century cameras in Kazakhstan, and extensive samples – some original, some copies – of old Pavlodar shots, along with chronicles of Bagayev’s regional expeditions. Worth a visit. Open 10-18 except Mondays, on Astana street, 200.
Naum Shafer’s Soviet vinyl museum
A slight detour out from the old town, the Shafer House Museum was one of our most memorable experiences in Pavlodar. Naum Shafer is a musicologist born in 1930 with one of the largest collections of original 20th-century vinyl anywhere in the former Soviet Union (roughly 30 000 albums). More of an apartment-cum-library than an actual museum, it also comprises nearly 20,000 books and thousands of original newspapers from the early 20th century.
Shafer, who is of Moldovan Jewish origin and composed music under the pseudonym Nami Gitin, lives in an adjacent section of the apartment. If you call he may be happy to guide you through his extensive vinyl collection of global music (from India to Mexico) on his old wind-up gramophone. We listened to samples ranging from early 20th-century Rachmaninov performances to haunting Mao-era revolutionary songs from 1950s China.
- Address: Bekturov Street, 19
- Call +7 (7182) 55-26-73 in advance to have Naum guide you
Other small museums
The content of these will be mostly of interest to locals, but the traditional cottages that house many of these museums are lovely.
The Maira Shamsutdinova Museum is dedicated to a well-known classical singer and composer of several songs, while the Bukhar Zhirau Museum provides an overview of literary figures from the Pavlodar region, including Bukhar Zhirau, a poet from Bayanual and adviser to national hero Ablai Khan.
Toraigyrov Street, a major west-east thoroughfare near the train station, contains a handful of sites of moderate interest. One of these is the Regional Art Museum, on the ground floor of a large concrete residential block, containing a modest collection of 19th and 20th-century paintings by local artists.
Tucked away off Akademika Bekturova street, the Museum of Military Glory features detailed exhibitions on the extensive contribution of Pavlodar citizens to 20th century wars, including WW2 battles such as Brest, Moscow, Stalingrad, the invasion of Japan, as well as the Chernobyl disaster. The surrounding park features a life-size mock-up of soldiers battling through webs of trenches and anti-aircraft guns.
Finally, on Dostoyevsky Street, a house museum is dedicated to Pavel Vasilyev, a local Russian poet who composed more than 200 poems during his short life – he was executed in 1937 at the age of 28 for allegedly belonging to a “terrorist group” that posed a threat to Stalin.
Churches and synagogue
Pavlodar’s largest cathedral, completed in 1999, sits along the banks of the Irtysh. It is famous for its nine bells, the largest of which weighs over a ton. The interior of the cathedral is nothing special, but the nearby chapel has nice frescoes and a sacred water fountain.
Off Satpayev street sits a small synagogue, affiliated with its counterpart in Almaty, that serves the city’s small Jewish community. It is open to visitors during the daytime.
Bayanaul and Ekibastuz
Bayanaul is a lake surrounded by eroded rocks and pine trees. We haven’t been there yet, so wouldn’t want to comment.
We have been to Ekibastuz, an industrial town known for having the biggest chimney in the world, and the biggest open-pit coal mine in the former USSR.
There are several lakes within a 60 km radius of the city that provide weekend getaways for Pavlodarians. The closest is Lake Moyildy, famous for the purported health-giving properties of its mud, high in mineral and salt brine content, and used to treat ailments from nervous system issues and arthritis to childlessness. You can DIY or take a spa holiday at the sanatorium. Koryavkovsky Lake, the source of Pavlodar’s salt, lies a few kilometers away.
The biggest lake is Lake Maraldy, a natural saltwater lake 50 km east of the city, which has several lakeside resorts, and is also popular for mud treatments. Artemia salina, a species of brine shrimp, give the water a distinctly pinkish hue. It can get excessively crowded in parts during peak summer, and in 2018 former President Nazarbayev described the scenes at some resorts as a “shame and disgrace”.
No trip to Pavlodar is complete without a visit to Krendel ( “Pretzel” in Russian), a Pavlodar café-and-pastry institution since 1995, with several outlets across the city and in Ekibastuz. The main café on Estay street is a great place for breakfast, while their outlets serve some of the best cakes and biscuits in Kazakhstan.
Alpenhof is Pavlodar’s best restaurant, and possibly the best place to get fresh (salted) pretzel anywhere in Kazakhstan. It’s a Swiss-German style steakhouse with good food and atmosphere all-round.
Another unique Pavlodar experience is the alien-themed café called Tarelka (the Russian word for “saucer”). The elaborate inner décor features all manners of strange testaments to the paranormal, with a large UFO hovering ominously above the entrance.
Like elsewhere in Kazakhstan, apartment rentals offer the best value for money in Pavlodar. We can just end it there in this case. If you do need hotel amenities like gym, sauna and breakfast, Hotel Irtysh is the city’s main business hotel, commanding a great location near the embankment. Ask for rooms in the new wing.
For budget travelers – hostels come and go, but there was at least one last time we checked.
Pavlodar sits along the train line connecting Astana with Ust-Kamenogorsk and Ridder in the far northeast. Regular daily Talgo trains ply the route, along with a handful of slower trains.
Heading west, the fastest train to Astana takes 6 hours 50 minutes, passing through Ekibastuz in 2 hours, while there is a separate connection to Karaganda that takes 12 hours; towards the east, Semey can be reached in 6 hours 30 minutes, and Ust-Kamenogorsk in 12 hours. There is also a daily train to Almaty (25 hours).
Pavlodar is also a major connecting point to Russia, with a train once every second day to Novosibirsk (16 hours) via Barnaul (11 hours). There is no direct train to nearby Omsk, although there are regular buses and shared taxis that leave when full.
Pavlodar airport mostly serves direct connections to Astana and Almaty. Russia’s S7 Airlines also provides regular flights to Moscow.
Pavlodar is one of Kazakhstan’s most pedestrian-friendly cities, although ride-hailing is also widely available. Still, the city’s extensive tram network is an attraction in its own right. With a total of over 90 km of track laid across 9 main lines, it is the biggest tram network in the country, carrying an estimated 50,000 passengers daily.