This industrial town of 140,000 people, lying about 140km to the southwest of Pavlodar, is an important coal-mining centre, responsible for some two-thirds of Kazakhstan's coal production and the generation of more than half of its electricity. While not a place of obvious tourist attractions, the role of Ekibastuz in helping to fuel the industrial development of Kazakhstan, coupled with historical and engineering interest ranging from the internment in a labour camp here of writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to the site of the world's tallest chimney, make this a worthwhile break on the road between Pavlodar and Astana.
Stories about the origin of the curious name of the town, which means 'two heads of salt' in Kazakh, are linked to the coal reserves from which Ekibastuz owes its existence. One variant of several similar tales records that a shepherd, cooking his evening meal, noticed that the black stones on which he had propped his cooking pot had caught alight. Realising that these stones were of value, he carefully marked the site by placing two large lumps of salt from a nearby lake on top of each other. The prospector Kosim Pshenbaev is credited with the discovery of the Ekibastuz coal reserves in the 1860s. A Pavlodar merchant named Artemy Derov sought to develop the field commercially, and a settlement was established near Lake Ekibastuz in 1898. The further development of the field in Tsarist times is linked to a British entrepreneur named Leslie Urquhart. He planned to create an integrated metallurgical complex involving the coal reserves of Ekibastuz and lead and zinc mines at Ridder. The Ekibastuz operation was held by the Kirgiz Coal Mining Company, which in turn was owned by the Irtysh Corporation, of which Urquhart was chairman. In addition to the coal mines, he developed a lead refining plant and zinc smelter at Ekibastuz. But the arrival of Soviet power disrupted these plans, and led Urquhart to years of fruitless attempts to secure compensation for the properties nationalised by the Soviet authorities.
The full-scale development of the coal reserves of Ekibastuz did not take place until after World War II. The large-scale open-cast mining of coal began in 1954, and three years later Ekibastuz was given town status. Its economy is today based around three huge open-cast pits, Bogatyr, Severny and Vostochny, but the viewing platforms over these terraced craters are not accessible to casual visitors. The power stations fuelled by the coal from Ekibastuz include two close to the town, catchily titled Ekibastuz GRES-1 and Ekibastuz GRES-2. The latter, more than 25km to the north of the town, claims the distinction of the tallest chimney in the world, at almost 420m. Ekibastuz is linked to other world records. A power line from here, constructed in the late Soviet period, holds the record for the power line designed for the highest transmission voltage. And Marat Zhilanbaev, a local marathon runner with a passion for deserts, has set a range of records in a solitary, and sandy, career, including clocking up 226 marathons in one 365-day period in 1990-91, and running 1,700km across the Sahara in 24 days in 1993.
The story of Ekibastuz was also linked with incarceration, as GuLag labour was used during the initial phases of its post-war development. The writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to the new camp for political prisoners here in 1950 to serve the last three years of the eight-year sentence he had received in 1945, following the interception of letters implicitly critical of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn's experiences as a bricklayer and labourer in the Ekibastuz camp were to form the basis for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Another Ekibastuz exile was Georgy Malenkov, a Soviet politician who briefly succeeded Stalin following the latter's death in 1953: Khrushchev quickly replaced him as First Secretary of the Communist Party, but Malenkov lasted another two years in what was essentially the post of Prime Minister. But Malenkov's star was on the wane, a process accelerated by his association with a failed attempt to oust Khrushchev in 1957, and in 1961 he was expelled from the Communist Party and sentenced to internal exile. Like many before him, his place of exile was Kazakhstan, where he worked as director of the thermal power station in Ekibastuz.
Practicalities The centre of Ekibastuz lies around 10km south of the main road between Pavlodar and Astana. Lenin Street, which runs north-south through the town, is the main thoroughfare. The railway station lies at the northern end of this street, 3km north of the centre. The bus station is a pink- walled building on the eastern side of Lenin Street, some 500m to its south.
What to See A good overview of the development of the town is given in the Ekibastuz History and Local Lore Museum. This is housed in a two-storey whitewashed building with 'museum' written on the outside, in Russian, in large red letters. It sits on Gornyakov Street, which intersects with Lenin Street. From the Hotel Ekibastuz, take Lenin Street to the north, turning left after one long block. The museum will come into view on your right.
The museum kicks off with rooms devoted to archaeology and ethnography. Then comes a diorama of a cramped mine shaft of the Tsarist period. Unlike the modern development of the Ekibastuz coal reserves, based around large opencast pits, the early mines were underground. The next two rooms describe the Tsarist-era development of the reserves. There is a bust of Kosim Pshenbaev, and photographs of the activity of Leslie Urquhart's Kirgiz Coal Mining Company. The next room is devoted to World War II, with photographs of local veterans. It is followed by a display on the labour camp, in operation from 1948 until 1954, in which Solzhenitsyn was incarcerated. There is a copy of The GuLag Archipelago on display. The next room looks at the post-war development of Ekibastuz, with a model of the Bogatyr open-cast pit and photographs of the GRES-1 and GRES-2 coal-fired power stations. Displays on the sporting and cultural life of the town in the next two rooms include the T-shirt of long-distance desert runner Marat Zhilanbaev, proclaiming 'I was in the Guinness World of Records', together with a pair of his, understandably dusty, running shoes.
Heading east along Gornyakov Street, crossing over Lenin Street and then following Gornyakov Street to its end, a block away, you reach a large statue of Lenin. Behind this, the pink- and lilac-walled building with a facade enlivened by square-based columns is the former Miners' House of Culture, now known as the Akky Club and given over to various uninspiring eateries and a hairdresser's salon.
Taking Lenin Street northwards, some 500m north of the intersection with Gornyakov Street stands, on your right, a silver-coloured statue of bearded prospector Kosim Pshenbaev, looking proud following the discovery of the Ekibastuz reserves.