Uralsk (Oral in Kazakh) is a city in Kazakhstan, but in many ways, only by name. Its location at the far northwestern edge of Kazakhstan means it is closer to Helsinki and Warsaw than it is to Almaty. Almaty in turn, is closer to Timphu, the capital of Bhutan.
It is no surprise then that locals, many of whom have Russian and Cossack roots, orient themselves more towards nearby Russia, and it’s more than likely you ended up here in the first place because you are going to or coming from Russia.
If you made it this far, do stay over for at least a day. Oral’s town center has kept some of its “old Russia” charm, with a good number of 18th- and 19th-century buildings still standing. Those with an interest in Russian history will definitely enjoy Uralsk, but there’s some Kazakh history as well, if you prefer khans to tsars.
Uralsk is the oldest city in what we now call Kazakhstan. It was established by Cossacks in 1584 as Yaitskiy Gorodok, a border outpost of the Russian empire at the strategic confluence of two rivers: the Ural, then called the Yaik, and the Chagan.
A famous Russian serf rebellion was launched in 1773 from a log house that is now the Pugachev Museum. Pugachev, a Cossack ataman, started a revolt against the autocratic Catherine the Great that would sweep up hundreds of thousands of serfs across the Ural Mountains and along the Volga.
The revolt was brutally put down, and the Empress Catherine was determined to scrub Russia clean of even the slightest hint of the dissent. In 1775, she renamed the river Yaik to Ural, and Yaitskiy Gorodok would henceforth be known as Uralsk. Alexander Pushkin visited Uralsk in September 1833 to investigate the Pugachev Rebellion. He produced 2 books on the subject: the fact-dense History of Pugachev, and the romanticized novel The Captain’s Daughter.
Not much later, a Kazakh rebellion against Tsarist rule and the encroaching Cossacks broke out under the leadership of Syrym Datov. It was also brutally put down, and Datov was forced to flee to Khiva.
Under the Kazakh khans of the Bukei Horde (1801-1845), vassals to the Russian crown, the town finally flourished. The main source of its wealth was the rich fish stock in the Ural river, a staple of St-Petersburg dinner tables. Expensive brick trader’s houses appeared, as well as mosques, a Russian-Kazakh school and a second Orthodox cathedral.
During the Russian Civil War, Red Army commander Vasily Chapaev was killed south of here, near the settlement now renamed Chapaev in his honour (on the way to Atyrau), while attempting to swim across the Ural River to escape White Army forces. He was later made into a cult figure by the Soviet propaganda machine.
These days, with fish stocks low and trade moving by rail and road rather than river, Oral’s economy is fuelled by the massive Karachaganak oil and gas deposit operated from nearby Aksai.
A walk through Oral
Most of the town’s sights are found along or close to Dostyk Avenue, which runs north-south through the heart of Uralsk. We’ll start at the southern end, in Kureni, the oldest part of town, at the confluence of Chagan and Ural.
It was here that the Cossack settlement was born. This remains a district of single-storey wooden dwellings, often with painted wooden shutters. Heading northwards through this district along Dostyk Avenue, you reach on your left, at the junction with Stremyannaya Street, the log-walled building containing the House Museum of Yemelyan Pugachev.
Continuing northwards along Dostyk Avenue, you soon reach the Cathedral of Archangel Mikhail, completed in 1751 and one of the oldest buildings in Uralsk still standing; a classic picture of old Russia.
The cathedral was at the centre of the siege during the Pugachev Rebellion. The original, more elaborate, bell tower was destroyed during the course of the siege. It was replaced initially by a wooden bell tower and then, in 1861, by the present one. The cathedral has a rich iconostasis.
Walk or take a quick bus ride to the intersection with Pugachev street, where an impressive Constructivist WWII memorial can be seen piercing the sky.
This stretch of Dostyk Avenue features many fine one- and two-storey Tsarist-era buildings. Interestingly, quite a number of early buildings were designed by Italian architects. Try to spot the influences, or find out more from a local historian.
Detour right onto Dosmukhamedov Street to head for the bazaar. Just before the smell of samsa hits you, a fine 1897 Tsarist-era mosque of unusual design and proportions comes into view.
Back on Dostyk Avenue, central Abai Square is dominated by the 1896 regional akimat building. In the corner sits the Kazakh Drama Theatre, while pedestrianised Dina Nurpeisova Street (formerly Teatralnaya), is the venue for Oral’s evening passeggiata.
Continuing northwards along Dostyk Avenue, you first pass the Old Uralsk museum, slightly set back from the main street, and 2 blocks on, the Regional History Museum.
Next comes the spirited Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. 1591, the date prominently advertised on the entrance, is the founding date of the Cossack Host.
The cathedral was supposed to be completed in 1891 for the 300-year anniversary, but construction lasted until 1907 due to disruptions in the Cossack cash flow. You might notice the surface originally reserved for the cathedral far outstrips the actual building. Apparently, plans were more substantial, but corruption issues forced the architect to downsize.
Finally, a golden statue of Manshuk Mametova holding a string of machine-gun bullets signals the end of Dostyk avenue.
Museums in Uralsk have only Russian/Kazakh signage, and few of the staff speak a foreign language. If you are interested in visiting, good language skills or a translator are an obvious plus.
Entrance fees hover around 200 tenge, but taking pictures tends to cost around 3 times more. Opening hours for all of these are 10-18 Tuesday to Sunday.
Regional History Museum
Housed in the former Russian-Kazakh school built in 1879, the museum follows the classic chronological set-up of all Kazakh regional museums, which rarely does justice to the exhibits. The lack of storytelling makes it worthwhile to invest a small amount in a guide, if you are not well-versed in local history already.
Especially finds from Scythian times, and displays on the Bukei horde are interesting, besides a particularly rich collection of Kazakh jewelry. You can rush through the obligatory displays on World War 2, Nazarbayev and local industry and personalities.
House Museum of Yemelyan Pugachev
One room of this small museum chronicles the history of the Pugachev Rebellion. The basic weapons of Pugachev’s forces, including knives, forks and clubs, are contrasted with the finer sabres, rifles and muskets of those in the Tsarist ranks. The throne Pugachev used is on display, as is a model of the scary cage Pugachev found himself in before he met his final destiny.
Other rooms, as well as some large exhibits in the garden, focus on the Cossack way of life. Unless this history is of particular interest to you, or you have never been to a folk museum, you can skip this one.
Pushkin arrived in Uralsk on 21 September, together with his friend, the lexicographer Vladimir Dal. They were warmly greeted by the ataman of the Cossack Host, given accounts of the rebellion and visited the Kuznetsov house and the fortress. A small part of the Ataman House in which Pushkin stayed during his visit to Uralsk in 1833 became the Pushkin museum.
The museum was opened during the 2006 visit to the city of President Putin of Russia. It comprises one room with exhibits from the era (none of which actually saw Pushkin), and is really only of interest if you come with a guide and a very serious interest in the man himself.
Manshuk Mametova Museum
Through photographs and her family’s personal belongings, the museum chronicles the life of WW2 machine gunner Manshuk Mametova, the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the award of Hero of the Soviet Union. Her life and death closely resemble that of Aliya Moldagulova, the WW2 girl hero from Aqtobe.
Here is another specialty museum for those with a keen interest in WW2, the Soviet Union and the myths that are constructed to build a nation’s identity.
Old Uralsk museum
This museum is free. Operated by local volunteers and stuffed to the brim with exhibits, this is perhaps the most interesting museum in Uralsk, especially for those without a knowledge of Russian. Just enjoy looking at pictures of old Uralsk, marvel at the antique clock collection or let one of the volunteers regale you with a very long story of something that happened in the past.
Oral has a large, well-maintained park with a lot of entertainment options that kids will love. Cycling, fishing and camping on the river banks is fun, but watch out for mosquitoes. In summer, canoeing is good: you can go all the way to the Caspian Sea if you are keen!
In winter, ice skating on the Ural or cross-country skiing on the wide steppe is a great way to get out of the house.
In the village of Darinskoe, 32 km northeast of Oral, literary searchers can find the small Mikhail Sholokhov museum (10:00-18:00 Tuesday-Sunday), author of The Quiet Don (in English: And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea), an epic novel about the lives of the Don Cossacks from around 1912 to 1920.
500 km southwest of Oral, side trip is perhaps not the best way to advertise a visit to the steppe village of Orda. Orda is the ancient capital of the Bukei Horde. Nowadays, it’s nothing more than a dusty steppe village, but there are plenty of reminders of its former importance left, including a 200-year old pine forest that rises up unexpectedly from the plain.
The inclinations towards European thought of Zhangir Khan, the final ruler of the Bukei Horde, ring out clearly from the Italianate mosque and mausoleum design, in sharp contrast to the decidedly Kazakh surroundings.
The climate change-related 2017 die-off means saiga are now critically endangered. Few are left in the region, and there are no organised ways of visiting the saiga. It’s easier in the Black Sands nature reserve in Kalmykia, which has visitor facilities.
Be aware that the train to Aqtobe crosses Russian territory. If you need a Russian visa, take a bus (10 hr, 3300 tenge) or shared taxi (5 hr, 4000 tenge). Trains to Almaty and Astana also use this route, start/stop your rail journey at Aqtobe if you need a Russian visa.
Nearby Samara, Orenburg and Atyrau do not have direct train connections with Uralsk; it will be quicker to go by bus, and much quicker by shared taxi.
Uralsk airport connects to Almaty, Astana and Moscow, as well as several other cities.
In the city
Bus #5 runs from the train station to the city center. Bus #12 connects the bus station to the center and ends at the train station as well.