Kazakhstan’s Petropavl (Petropavlovsk in Russian) is Central Asia’s northernmost city. Situated along the Ishim River just 60 km from the border, it is arguably the most important of Kazakhstan’s land connections to Russia.
The city of 200 000 sits strategically along the Trans-Siberian railway that connects Western Siberia with the Southern Urals. So close is the connection with Russia that the train station of Petropavl is in fact operated by Russian railways, and on some train booking websites it is listed as a Russian city.
Travelers tend to treat Petropavl as a short stopover on the road north from Nur-Sultan, rather than a destination in its own right. However, Petropavl has a rich and under-appreciated historical past, reflected in the ubiquitous Tsarist-era architecture from a once-vibrant trading community, and the many Soviet memorabilia.
Moreover, the city’s surrounding countryside boasts attractive pine forests, an abundance of lakes, and Siberian-style leisure for all seasons.
Before the arrival of Russian colonists, the area was known to Kazakh nomads as Kyzyl-Zhar (Red Bank). Many Kazakhs still use the old name, as do the city’s football team, the Soviet-era central hotel and the local vodka, one of Kazakhstan’s most popular brands.
The city itself was founded as a Russian military outpost in 1752. The star-shaped Tsarist military fortress named after St Peter and St Paul officially became a city in 1807, and was incorporated into Omsk oblast in 1822.
Soon after, its function quickly evolved towards commerce and, by the end of the century, Petropavl was arguably a more important commercial hub than the combined fortresses of Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk, Omsk, and Yamyshevskoy (Pavlodar).
The town developed as a major trading point between Russia and the Middle Zhuz Kazakhs, as well as further afield to Bukhara, Tashkent, Khiva, Kokand, and China. Petropavl gained additional prominence from the frequent visits of Ablai Khan, the leader of the Middle Zhuz and “Khan of all Kazakhs”, who struck up a friendship with his Tsarist counterparts.
Following its establishment in 1896, the city’s incorporation into the Trans-Siberian railway brought about a new wave of industrialization, with German, British and American entrepreneurs setting up businesses in rapid pace. Immigrants arrived from across the Russian empire and to this day, there remain sizable communities of Poles, Armenians, Chechens, Germans and others spread across the North Kazakhstan region.
Some of Petropavl’s most successful merchants hailed from Buddhist Kalmykia; others had foreign names like Blumenthal. During its heyday, goods made in Petropavl could be found as far afield as Germany.
Soviet period and post-independence
The Soviet period effectively killed the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, and Petropavl was transformed into a closed military city that focused on heavy machinery and weapons production.
North Kazakhstan was a major target for the Virgin Lands Campaign, which established over a dozen large agricultural collectives across the region, bringing with it further immigration from across the USSR.
The Soviet Union’s collapse had a profoundly detrimental impact on North Kazakhstan, and the shutdown of major industries lead to mass unemployment. To this day, the region remains primarily reliant on agricultural and dairy industries, along with cross-border trade.
Recent years have seen a revival of living standards, in line with Kazakhstan’s broader economic development. Vladimir Putin and former president Nursultan Nazarbayev held a symbolically significant meeting in the city in 2018, with a focus on boosting cross-border tourism and preserving the city’s historical heritage.
Things to see and do
Many of Petropavl’s main attractions are centered along the 3km pedestrianized Constitution Street, lined with red-brick and colourful pastel buildings built during the 19th century by rich merchants. Their functions ranged from factories to shopfronts, hotels to libraries – all testament to the city’s former vibrancy as a trading hub.
Other interesting sights along the boulevard are the Roman Catholic church, a legacy to the region’s influx of ethnic Poles and the Abai-Pushkin statue and Valikhanov-Dostoyevsky mural, 2 of several testaments to Russian-Kazakh friendship in the city.
The city’s Central Square sits half way along Constitution street, and hosts many of the city’s social events.
At the junctions of Sutyushev and Nazarbayev (Mira) streets stands the Kyzylzhar Central Mosque, built in 2005 with Saudi aid. The three-storey brick structure resembles an 8-pointed star, flanked by 2 minarets and capped with a bright blue dome, resembling the central mosques in Pavlodar and Ust-Kamenogorsk.
The Russian restaurant “Samovar” across the road is a good place to stop for a meal with a view. Also nearby is the old mosque, at the corner of Sutyushev and Zhambyl, built in the 19th century by a merchant in what was then the city’s “Tatar settlement”.
The city’s water tower, east of Constitution on Brusilovsky Street, was built in 1901, and functioned as a water reserve tank for fire prevention. Now housing an art club, it has a viewing platform at the top.
Constitution Street ends with the Soviet-era Russian Drama Theater, built in 1972, flanked by the statues of Karasai and Agyntai batyrs, commemorating the 2 warrior chiefs representing different Kazakh tribes (Great Zhuz and Middle Zhuz) who united to collectively fight off the Dzhungars in the 17th century. Nearby are memorials to the Great War and Victims of Political Repression, the latter housed at the site of the former NKVD (KGB) building.
Behind the theater is a nondescript park with several adjacent buildings of historical interest, including the Romanov School, which still uses the old Tsarist form of Cyrillic script; the large Shamsutdinov Trade House, a former factory from the 20th century currently slated for renovation; and trade school buildings.
Some streets leading to or from Constitution Street are lined by row upon rows of attractive Siberian-style log dwellings, some of which have sunken deep into the ground over the years. A number of Tsarist-era merchant mansions also remain, including the house of Valit Yangurazov, at Ulyanova and Gorkovo streets, also known as the “House of the Bride”.
Nearby is the “General Kornilov” restaurant, a popular eatery housed in a historic building dedicated to General Lavr Kornilov. Half Cossack and half Kazakh, he rebelled from his prestigious position in the Russian army and became a leading anti-Bolshevik figure, for which he was subsequently killed in 1918, and his name became anathema. The revival of his legacy is an interesting example of Kazakhstan’s attempts to dissociate itself from its Soviet past.
Other streets notable for historical architecture include Potanina Street, the road leading down to the bank of the Ishim river, and several streets running perpendicular to Constitution, such as Gorkovo, Altynsarina, Parkovaya, and others.
North Kazakhstan Regional Museum
2 red-brick buildings along Constitution Street, built in the 1890s by two different merchants, now jointly house the North Kazakhstan Regional Museum. Although most exhibits are displayed in Kazakh and Russian only, they provide a good historical and geological overview of the region.
On the first floor, there are standalone sections on ecology and natural history, in chronological order, including information on the 3 000+ lakes across North Kazakhstan. There is a fascinating introduction to the “Botai” tribe culture of the Eneolithic period, which was centered on North Kazakhstan, along with interesting exhibits on the Kazakh Middle Zhuz and their battles against Dzhungars.
The museum’s second floor focuses on Petropavl’s modern history, featuring a well-documented collection of photographs, paraphernalia and memorabilia from the heydays of the 18th through 20th centuries, as well as important local figures. There are subsequent sections outlining North Kazakhstan’s experience under Soviet rule, taking in Stalinist-era repression, the “Virgin Lands Campaign”, and the development of heavy industries.
Constitution street 48, Tuesday-Sunday 10-18, 150 tenge entrance.
Ablai Khan’s Residence
Along Sutyushev stands the Residence of Ablai Khan. Originally built in 1829, it was financed by Catherine the Great as a place of residence for Ablai Khan who, although based in the south, was encouraged by Russia to regularly visit the city to encourage harmonious relations between the 2 ethnic groups. The building also served as a military hospital before falling into a state of disrepair, restored in the mid-2000s.
The museum chronicles several aspects of Ablai’s life, his achievements, his battles with the Dzhungars, and his election in 1771 as “Khan of all Kazakhs”. There are re-creations of his bedroom, living room, throne room, personal belongings (some ostensibly original), along with an interesting comparison of his diplomatic relations with Tsarist Russia and with Qing China, which defeated the Dzhungars in 1758.
Sutyushev street 1b, open Tue-Sun 10-18, 200 tenge entrance.
North Kazakhstan Regional Museum of Fine Arts
Approximately 1 km down Auezov Street is the beautiful Regional Museum of Fine Arts building, otherwise known as the “Yuzefovich merchant house”. Built in 1909 by a timber industry businessman, and restored in 1985, it features colourful green and white lozenge patterns set across a conjoined front and rear section, and houses prominent works of both local and nationally-recognized artists.
Nearby, along Internatsionalnaya Street, stands the five-storey Muratova mill, built in 1904, now converted into a mixed-use development with a rooftop bar called “Beergrad”, and a staircase flanked with photos of old Petropavlovsk. The surrounding area is known as the “Eurasian bazaar”.
St Peter and Paul Cathedral
Roughly 10 minutes walk from the Ablai Khan Residence stands the towering St Peter and Paul Cathedral, in the largely ethnic Russian district of “Podgora” near the Ishim river. One of the oldest preserved buildings in the city, it was founded in 1803. Part of its interior is currently under renovation.
Other churches of historical relevance include the 1890s All Saints Temple, in the east of the city, and the modern Church of the Ascension cathedral finished in 2005.
Soviet art and architecture
There are several examples of ornate interesting Soviet-era art and architecture, replete with interesting symbolism, all across the city.
These include tiled mosaic dioramas pasted to walls and building in locations such as the city’s bus station, the airport, Sutyushev street, the Skif Hotel and Fitness Club, the Old Railway hospital, the Sokol supermarket, the Metallist and Mashinostroiytel Recreation Centers, the Yakorskaya poultry farm, and many others.
A seemingly incongruous botanical garden in the east of the city (Medvedeva, 41, daily 10 – 17, 300 tenge), developed in 1912 to produce herbs for a local tin meat canning factory, documents a surprisingly wide variety of flora and fauna from around the world in a series of greenhouses and gardens. Next-door is the indoor Neptune Aqua Park.
Behind Abai & Pushkin, the central park is a pleasant, generic Soviet-style park, complete with Lenin statue, war memorials, and a renovated ferris wheel.
The Rahmet department store and Tsum on Constitution Street are the main places to buy supplies, while the nearby “5 Zvezd” (Five Stars) has a basement shop with some interesting regional souvenirs.
An influx of new money has seen the arrival of new mall developments such as City Mall and Hampton mall, while the giant Dostyk Plaza on Constitution Street is set to open by 2020.
Nearby side trips
Southwest of the city lies Lake Pestroye, with a city beach that is suitable for swimming during summer and ice skating in winter. Nearby are 2 decent resorts: the Green Park Hotel, and the Park Hotel Pestroye.
Both house attractive Siberian-style log cabins, and feature summer and winter attractions for summer and winter seasons such as traditional Russian banya, forest obstacle courses, traditional yurts, husky sledding, snowmobiles, and walking/cycling tours.
Beyond Pestroye is the village of Bishkul, from where Kazakhstan’s Olympic gold-winning medalist Alexander Vinokourov hails. There are murals of Vinokourov in Petropavl, along with a large sports palace complex dedicated in his name.
While there is nothing of his legacy in Bishkul itself, the roads surrounding the village and its attractive environs are often thronged by trainee cyclists during summer months, dressed in the distinctive turquoise Astana team colours.
The banks of the Ishim River north of the city also have city beaches in the summer, while stretches of the Ishim are popular for fishing.
Side trips further afield
There are a handful of interesting sights spread across North Kazakhstan. Many of these are located in the south of the region, meaning direct access is often quicker from Kokshetau.
Shalkar and Imantau Lakes
Lake Shalkar is a 17 km-long, crescent-shaped lake. Imantau Lake is similar in size and scope. They both feature attractive lakeshore villages and holiday base camps in early stages of development, similar to the nearby lake resort of Zerenda in Akmola.
Memorial complex to Karasai and Agyntai Batyrs
Near the village of Saumalkol, Aiyrtau district stands the cone-shaped Karasai and Agyntai Batyr Memorial Complex, opened in 1999 to honour the 2 warriors who participated in over 200 bloody battles over a 48-year period, including famous victories such as the 1643 Battle of Orbulak. Both died within a year of each other (1671-1672), and are buried in the nearby Kulshynbay-Tobe hill.
More than anything else, the memorial is a testament to the country’s nation-building process. First president Nazarbayev is a descendant of Karasai’s Shaprashty Great Zhuz tribe.
Botai and Ak-Iriy settlements
Kazakhstan is littered with important archaeological sites, and the North Kazakhstan region is no exception. Both of these sites are simple dig sites, though, so it’s really something for the enthusiast.
The Botai settlement is a 15-hectare archaeological site, situated about 25km west of Saumalkol. Upon excavation, over 100 dwellings were found, along with 300 000 artifacts and hundreds of thousands of horse bones. Some researchers believe the Botai were the first to domesticate horses, some 5500 years ago.
60km northeast of Petropavl are the remains of the ancient city of Ak-Iriy, near the village of Dolmatovo. Dating to the 5th century BCE, archaeologists suggest it belonged to the Saka steppe tribes, who worshipped fire and were followers of Zoroastrianism. The settlement itself functioned as a defensive and trading outpost, with fortifications such as moats, along with an inner central square.
Ozernoye Polish village
The village of Ozernoye in Taiynsha district is interesting for Poles. The local history museum tells the story of the Poles deported to North Kazakhstan in the 1930s. Ask priest Wojciech to show you around the convent, church and chapel.
30km north from Saumalkol is the small village of Syrymbet, associated with Chokhan Valikhanov, descendent of Kazakh khan Ablai, and widely regarded as the founding father of modern Kazakh historiography and ethnography.
The Syrymbet Historical and Ethnographic Museum chronicles his life, while the nearby manor, 3km outside the village, is a single-storey log building built for Chokhan’s grandmother in 1824 by order of Tsar Alexander 1.
We currently recommend the Green Which Hotel as the top midrange choice. Newly built, it opened in 2016 in a great location: right next to the Drama Theater at the very end of Constitution Street. It is modern and very well-furnished by Petropavl standards.
For a bit more money, you can check in to the Telegraph Inn, a classy 4-star hotel that also offers studios with kitchen. The Skif Hotel nearby used to be considered as the most luxurious option in the city, but it has aged a bit and is due for renovation.
When we last checked, a brand-new hostel opened in Petropavl, but these tend to come and quickly go in provincial cities…we’ll try to have a look once in a while to keep this listing up to date.
Train and bus
Petropavl’s railway and bus stations sit within spitting distance of each other, on Auezov Square in the city’s southeast.
The city is connected by a daily Talgo train (along with several slower trains), that reaches Nur-Sultan in 6 hours (via Kokshetau and Borovoye), and then overnight to Almaty in 20 hours (via Karaganda). Along the Trans-Siberian, Petropavl is connected to Omsk (4-5 hours) and Novosibirsk (13-14 hours) in the east, and Chelyabinsk (6 hours), Yekaterinburg (10-11 hours) and Moscow (37-42 hours) in the west.
There are also 3 to 4 trains a week direct to Irkutsk (46 hours) via Krasnoyarsk (27 hours), and reaching Khabarovsk (105 hours) and Vladivostok (117 hours). Petropavl is also connected to Russia’s Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), with 3 to 4 trains a week reaching Severobaikalsk (55 hours) and Tynda (83 hours).
The only regional Russian city not connected to Petropavl by train is Tyumen (a major junction for north Siberia). You can reach Tyumen by bus in around 6-7 hours. Buses and taxis also run regularly to all other northern Kazakh cities. There are no direct trains to Kostanay, Pavlodar, Semey or Oskemen.
Petropavl airport (code PPK!) has direct connections to Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Irkutsk-based airline IrAero has direct seasonal summer flights to Moscow.
Inside the city
Buses and trolleybuses ply the main roads of the city, including #6, #2, and #25. The bus stop at the intersection of Constitution and Nazarbayev (Mira) Street is the busiest transit point, located next to the BlackBerry pop-up cafe.
Taxis can be ordered through 87152-500500 or 87152 333333, or via a ride-hailing app.
Questions, comments, updates and reports are welcome in the Petropavl forum thread.