East Kazakhstan offers a great deal for the tourist. The Altai Mountains in the northeast of the region are stunning and unspoilt, a land of cedar woods, villages of log-walled houses established by communities of Old Believers, maral deer and radon springs, a place where, according to followers of the spiritualist Nicholas Roerich, the legendary Buddhist kingdom of Shambala may be found. The Altay Mountains are one of the most beautiful corners of Kazakhstan but you must plan well ahead to get the necessary border-zone permit if you want to visit them.
The regional capital, Ust-Kamenogorsk, is a likeable and unpretentious place. A relatively prosperous city is the gateway to a large and mostly unspoiled region of mountains, lakes and villages with good hiking, horse riding, biking, rafting and other activities. Semipalatinsk is one of Kazakhstan's most historically interesting cities, the place of exile of the Russian writer Dostoevsky and strongly associated with two of the most important Kazakh literary figures, Abai and Auezov.
The region’s other main city, Semey, still suffers from the effects of Soviet nuclear testing nearby but is one of Kazakhstan’s most historically interesting places. The name Semipalatinsk does however carry the stigma of the four decades of nuclear testing conducted in the steppe to the south and west of the city in the infamous 'Polygon. The renaming of the city as Semey is intended to symbolise a fresh start.
With large lakes (and the world's fifth-largest reservoir) rich in fish, fields emblazoned with sunflowers and swaying feathergrass steppe, East Kazakhstan may not be the first port of call for most visitors to Kazakhstan, but it is a high point in the tours of many of those who do make it here.