Ust-Kamenogorsk (Kazakh: Oskemen) with the population of around 350,000, located 800km north of Almaty, is a lively and progressive city with generally low-key Soviet architecture, at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba Rivers. It is gaining a name as something of an ‘ecotourism’ centre.
Known in Kazakh as Oskemen, the origins of the town are linked to a military expedition headed by Major Ivan Likharev, who established a fortress here in 1720. Russia under Peter the Great was keen to secure its eastern borders, develop its trade routes further east and explore the mineral wealth of the Altai. The progressive advancement along the Irtysh River, with the establishment of a line of fortresses along its course, was a part of this strategy. The stronghold was named Ust-Kamenogorsk and formed the eastern flank of a complete fortification line along the bank of the Irtysh that was created to protect the land from the Zhungar hordes and to serve as a base for the conquest of Central Asia. In 1757, the Zhungar Khanate was defeated, after which Ust-Kamenogorsk's significance as a military stronghold diminished. Instead, the town gradually developed into a trade centre and an outpost for the opening up of the Altai. The Russian-language name Ust-Kamenogorsk refers to the fact that the two rivers flow out of their rocky valleys just upstream of the town, running into a broad fluvial plain.
Because of its forbidding climate and remote location, Ust-Kamenogorsk also served the tsars as a place to exile political undesirables. Many "Decembrists", participants in the revolt of December 1825, as well as adherents to a movement called Nationhood, ended up here. To a large extent it is thanks to these young, well-educated Russian democrats that the area lost its backward status and evolved in terms of education and enlightenment. In 1869 the town, which had swiftly grown in size, was granted city status. It gradually gained importance as an industrial centre thanks to its favourable location at the foot of the Altai Mountains and on the bank of a navigable river. A port was constructed, as well as a rail link to the iron ore mines of Ridder (Leninogorsk in Soviet times). The silver needed to mint coins in Russia came from the Altai Mountains, and settlement by Russian farmers on the left bank of the Irtysh increased the importance of agriculture. Factories were built in Ust-Kamenogorsk to process agricultural commodities.
The original wooden fortress burnt down in 1765. Its replacement was a grander affair, surrounded by an earth bank and moat, traces of which can still be seen in the part of town known as the Strelka, the tongue of land between the two rivers. A Cossack settlement developed alongside the fortress, receiving town status in 1804, and then in 1868 becoming the administrative capital of an uyezd within Semipalatinsk Region. At the turn of the 20th century, Ust-Kamenogorsk remained a town predominantly of single-storey wooden buildings, its economy focused on agricultural processing, and on serving the developing mining, especially gold mining, concerns in the region. In 1939, East Kazakhstan Region, with its capital at Semipalatinsk, was divided into the three regions of Semipalatinsk, Pavlodar and East Kazakhstan. Ust-Kamenogorsk became the capital of the last.
In the period following World War II the city developed into a major centre of non- ferrous metallurgy, based on the ores mined in the surrounding region. A zinc plant came into operation in 1947, and a lead plant soon followed. The Ulba Metallurgical Plant, commissioned in the late 1940s, produced fuel for nuclear power plants. A titanium and magnesium plant was opened in 1965. While many of these factories struggled following the demise of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan's independence also led to the establishment of a mint in Ust-Kamenogorsk in 1992, producing coins and awards for the new state. Ust-Kamenogorsk became the capital of a much enlarged region in 1997, when Semipalatinsk Region was merged into it. The city had now turned the tables on its once more influential neighbour, Semipalatinsk.
With a skyscape of industrial chimneys on the outskirts of the city, clanking trams ferrying its workers through the streets, and monuments to the achievements of Ust-Kamenogorsk's metalworkers still prominent, this remains a city focused on industrial production, not tourism. But the old centre of town, around Kirov Park, is attractive, as is its riverside setting, and the city overall has a workmanlike charm. As a gateway to the East Kazakhstan Region, and particularly to the scenic beauty of the Altai Mountains to the east, it performs its role well.
Orientation & Information - Central Ust-Kamenogorsk is focused on pretty Park Zhastar (former Park Kirova). The small rectangle of park still known as Kirov Park sits at the centre of Ust-Kamenogorsk's old town, surrounded by metal railings. There is a statue of Kirov here, uniformed and proud, raising his open-fingered right hand as if performing a conjuring trick. A plaque nearby identifies the site of the Pokrovsky Cathedral, built in 1888 but demolished during the Stalinist period in 1936. Which means that it survived two years longer than Kirov. The park also contains a number of golden statues, illustrating themes from fairy tales.
The main streets are Kazakhstan, running north from the Irtysh bridge to the bustling bazaar; Kirova, two blocks west; and Ordzhonikidze, which crosses them both leading to the main bridge over the Ulba. The bus station is a short distance west of the Ulba along Abaya, while the main train station, Zashchita, is 6km northwest along Nezavisimosti, and the airport is 3km further in the same direction. Triada (Ordzhonikidze 52; h10am-8pm) provides reasonably central internet access with lots of computers.
Sights - The small rectangle of park still known as Kirov Park (now called Park Zhastar) sits at the centre of Ust-Kamenogorsk's old town, surrounded by metal railings. Clustered around it are some of Ust-Kamenogorsk’s oldest buildings and several worthwhile museums, though a modernisation program means that some may still be temporarily closed. The Ethnography Museum (read more at left menu); Korpus No 1 (Gorkogo 59); Korpus No 2 (Kaysenova 67) is in two buildings facing opposite corners of the park.
There was a statue of Kirov here, uniformed and proud, raising his open-fingered right hand as if performing a conjuring trick. A plaque nearby identifies the site of the Pokrovsky Cathedral, built in 1888 but demolished during the Stalinist period in 1936. Which means that it survived two years longer than Kirov. The park also contains a number of golden statues, illustrating themes from fairy tales.
Korpus 1 exhibits the traditional culture of the Kazakhs of the East Kazakhstan region; Korpus 2 is devoted to the many other ethnic groups in the region, from Chechens to Koreans. The good History Museum has a natural-history section with stuffed regional wildlife, including a snow leopard and a giant maral deer, and human history exhibits that reveal a huge number of ancient burial mounds in the region. In the park itself is a replica Russian pioneer village of log cabins, furnished and decorated in period style. It’s nice to take a walk to the Strelka, where the Irtysh and Ulba meet, marked by a large Heroes of the Soviet Union memorial.
On the eastern side of the park, along Golovkov Street, there is a fine red-brick Tsarist building housing the Zhambyl Russian Drama Theatre. It was built in 1902 as the House of the People.
Head north one block along Golovkov Street and then turn right onto Gorky Street to reach the large square still known by most local residents as Lenin Square. The building of the regional administration fills its western side, but the statue of Lenin which used to stand in front of it was removed in 2002. The pleasant, well-tended square runs eastwards to a modern mosque, standing close to the bank of the meandering Irtysh. With a turquoise dome, the mosque is flanked by two tall minarets, rising to slender silver cones. At the centre of the park is a fountain, with sculptures based on the animals of the Chinese New Year.
The northwestern corner of Lenin Square abuts the southeastern one of Zhambyl Park, surrounded by railings topped by stylised hammers and sickles. In summer you can sup at the open-air Cafe Medved ('Bear Cafe), watching real bears at play in the small zoo.
On the eastern side of the park, along Ushanov Street, is the Tsarist-era Central Mosque, a simple single-storey whitewashed brick building with a blue central dome atop a circular drum. Next to this is a two-storey red-brick building, with arched windows highlighted in white. It was built in 1912 as a boys' elementary school, and now serves as the House of Friendship of the Assembly of the Peoples of East Kazakhstan.
Strelka The spit of land at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba rivers is a district known as Strelka. It was the site of the original fortress of Ust-Kamenogorsk. Right at the confluence is a war memorial. An eternal flame burns from a Red Army star at the base of a tall column. An inscription records that 51,000 citizens of East Kazakhstan died on the fields of battle during World War II.
Entertainment - Bolshevik (Nezavisimosti 37; working hours from 11pm) This giant dance club in an old cinema is the nocturnal venue of the moment. The motif is retro Soviet, with red flags and Lenin busts; the music is pop and dance, with regular theme parties. From September to April, don’t miss Kazzinc Torpedo (www.kazzinc-torpedo.kz) at the Dvorets Sporta (Abaya 2). Frequent Kazakhstan ice hockey champions, Torpedo is also the only Kazakhstan team playing in the Russian Major League (Russia’s second-best league). It has produced a number of NHL players. Look for posters outside the stadium: face-off is usually at 6.30pm.