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Karaganda (Karagandy)

The city of Karaganda, the fourth largest of Kazakhstan with a population close to half a million, takes its name from a shrub. A remarkable, spherical thorny plant called the steppe or prairie scooter (karaghanik) grows in the central steppe region of Kazakhstan. It comes to life in stormy weather and whirls over the plain like a horde of rabid hedgehogs. This offers a springtime bloom of yellow flowers.

Smack in the steppe heartland, Karaganda is most famous for two things: coal and labour camps. The two are intimately connected, as the vast 'KarLag' network of Stalin-era camps around Karaganda was set up to provide slave labour for the mines.

The name 'Karaganda' is often used in a jocular way in other parts of the former Soviet Union, to refer to the 'middle of nowhere'. And certainly this city, in the heart of the immense steppelands, does have an isolated feel. The presence of a large urban area in this spot is due to the presence of one valuable resource: coal. An apocryphal story has it that the city was founded after a group of nomadic Kazakhs threw rocks on their campfire to extinguish it. One of the rocks burst into flame, and the coal reserves of Karaganda were discovered.

More realistic version is that in 1833, an unsuspecting shepherd first discovered coal here. The owner of the plot, a Kazakh bey named Utep, sold it in 1856 to the Russian merchant Usakov, who started to mine the coal but unfortunately went bankrupt. The concession was bought by Frenchman Jean Carneau, and in 1907 it passed into the hands of a British company. The mine was nationalized after the October Revolution, but its value was not recognized and it was destroyed. The mine was rebuilt within the framework of the Russian coal industry with the voluntary assistance of specialists from the Donbas (Ukraine's Don Basin).

Coal mining developed into a major industry in the 1930s, when the Soviet authorities decided to use the coal reserves of Karaganda to fuel the industries of the Urals. The accomplishment of this task was achieved with the efforts of convict labour, and Karaganda became notorious for its high concentration of labour camps, many grouped in a large area to the southwest of the city known as KarLag (Karagandinsky Lager). Among those sent to the camps here were many thousands of ethnic Germans, deported from the Volga Region as Stalin fretted that they would act as fifth columnists in the war with Nazi Germany. Karaganda retained a large ethnic German population throughout the post-war Soviet period, though many emigrated to Germany following Kazakhstan's independence. The Chechens of the north Caucasus were another ethnic group deemed suspect by Stalin and deported here en masse. Akhmad Kadyrov, the former Chechen separatist leader who became President of the Chechen Republic from 2000 until his assassination at a World War II victory parade in 2004, was born in Karaganda. Part of the remains of this gruesome piece of Karaganda's history can still be seen today. The villages of Uzinka (after the Russian word uznik, meaning chained prisoner) and Dolinka to the southwest of Karaganda, were originally built as prisons and inhabited by convicts.

Karaganda was formally named a city in 1934, and became regional capital two years later. Railways were rapidly built, also by forced labour, to transport the coal to the steel mills in the Urals. Karaganda gained importance in World War II, after the Germans occupied the Donbas, and after the war, German prisoners were engaged in the city's construction. The only part of Karaganda that qualifies as having some sort of charm, the Old City, was built during this period. The occupation of the Donbass coalfields by the German forces during World War II further strengthened its importance, as factories supplying coal-mining machinery were relocated here.

Karaganda's typical early dwelling style consisted mainly of dugouts and clay huts, which multiplied quickly since in the. year of its establishment, the "city's" population grew to 70,000. Coalmining infrastructure, huge thermal electricity plants and residential areas are grouped around the mines, and Karaganda is an interesting destination for industrial romantics, for mining historians, and for those who like to explore man's exploitation of the land through machinery. The scenes of obsolete mining sites, high-tension cables and central heating pipes constructed above ground and with their cladding hanging below in strips, as well as abandoned blocks of flats, make for amazing, if macabre, photographs. What started in 1960 as a plan to revamp the industrial city and give it a human face, was grotesquely miscalculated. Greater Karaganda has lost almost half of its population-the area's administrative centre is left with hardly 400,000 inhabitants, down from 700.000 in the 1980s.

The city underwent a difficult time in the immediate post-independence period, and the mining industry is working at far less than its peak Soviet levels. Most of the working mines are now run by the Mittal company, providing coal for its steel plant at nearby Temirtau. It remains a dangerous industry, with major accidents in both 2006 and 2008. But there is a new economic optimism in Karaganda, reflected in the modern new stores along the main Bukhar Zhirau Avenue. A sign written along the roadside as you come into Karaganda from the north describes the place as the political and economic buttress of Kazakhstan, and at the heart of Karaganda's self-image is a strong sense that their miners have been central in constructing the post-independence success of Kazakhstan. This includes a political sense as well as an economic one: in the summer of 1989 the miners of Karaganda joined the strike action initiated by their colleagues in the Russian Kuzbass, which was to play an important role in hastening the demise of Soviet power. While the smokestacks in view as you enter the city do not offer an immediately enticing prospect, Karaganda is a pleasant city in which to spend a couple of nights. Karaganda has a large central park, tree-lined avenues and some friendly corners, such as its lovely neoclassical-style theatre, built by Japanese prisoners-of-war not far from the city centre.  The Karaganda Oblast Museum (38 Yerubayev St) is worth a visit to understand the area's history and that of its gulags, though its displays are mostly in Russian. Close to the train station is a small but worthwhile Fine Arts Museum (33 Bukhar Zhirou), while an exploration of the central park will reveal an Aqua Park and Ethnopark where locals go for some fun.

It is a very spread-out city with several centres. The 'old town' centres on the original miners' dwellings. The 'new town' to the south was developed on Karaganda's elevation to cityhood in 1934 as the administrative centre, and it is here that the places of interest to the tourist lie.

Orientation - The train and bus stations are beside each other at the south end of the city centre. Bukhar Zhyrau, the main street, heads north through the centre from here. Parallel to Bukhar Zhyrau are Yerubaev and Gogol, one and two blocks east, respectively. Main streets off Bukhar Zhyrau include Abdirov, heading east 1km north of the stations, and Beibitshilik (Mira), heading east after 2.25km.