One of the most scenically beautiful areas of Karaganda Region, Karkaraly, known in Russian as Karkaralinsk, features a range of pine-covered hills, rising to a highest point of 1,403m, emerging from the surrounding steppes. Wind-sculpted rocks and birch-fringed lakes add to the scenic diversity of one of several places to claim the label of 'Kazakhstan's Switzerland'. Some 220km to the east of Karaganda, Karkaraly is a relaxing place to spend a few days, its natural beauty coupled with a small district capital packing a surprisingly rich history are the main draws.
The district capital is a pleasant small town of 11,000 people, at the foot of the hills. Many of the houses are single-storey whitewashed cottages with blue window frames. The main street is named after Tokhtar Aubakirov, Kazakhstan's first cosmonaut. The rare step of naming the road after a living personality gives an indication of the reverence in which the name of the district's most famous recent alumnus is held.
The highest peak of the mountain chain, Zhirensakal Peak (formerly Komsomol Peak), rises to 1,403 metres and provides the name for the whole range. It looks like a karkara, the headdress for young women. A legend goes that a young woman, who fled in front of the groom she had spurned, threw her headdress off from her galloping horse. Immediately, the headdress transformed itself into a mountain chain, hiding the girl from the eyes of her pursuer, hotly intent on marriage.
A fort was established here in 1824, and Karkaraly developed as a Cossack settlement. In 1868, it became the capital of a Tsarist district, or uyezd, forming part of Semipalatinsk Region. The place served out most of the 20th century as something of a farming-focused backwater; its Tsarist buildings today act as reminders of a 19th-century relative heyday when this was an important trailing centre, the nearby Koyandinsk fairs attracting far-flung custom.
The territory of Karkaraly has enough attractions for several days of touring. To stay in the 900-square-metre national park, you need an entry ticket, which can easily be obtained in the administration building. There are well-signed routes and picnic spots. On these routes, you get to all the park's important attractions-the mountains, the bizarre rock formations, the caves, the lakes, two small ones of which are hidden high up near mountain peaks. The national park museum has a lovingly assembled display and a small zoo. East of Karkaraly territory, the remnants of the Kyzyl Kensh palace from the 17-18th centuries can be seen in the Kent Mountains. The little town, with its old Russian houses from the second half of the 19th Century, many of which are still of wood and decorated with carvings, is also worth a walk. The houses in Bokeychan St and the mosque in Aubakirov St are superb. This place of worshp was founded in the middle of the 19th Century by Sultan Kunanbay, the father of Abay.
Unlike one of the other pretenders to the 'Kazakhstani Switzerland' crown, Borovoye, Karkaraly boasts little current tourist development. Several Soviet-era sanatoria and pioneer camps, most of which have seen better days, nestle in the hills here. Some are derelict.
One of the most striking buildings of the town is the wooden Kunanbay Mosque, whose square tower topped with a blue-painted spire is visible from considerable distance. The interior of the mosque includes a beautifully carved wooden mihrab, and a minbar brightly painted in geometrical designs. The mosque was completed in 1851. Its construction was financed by Kunanbay, the father of Kazakhstan's greatest writer, Abai Kunanbaev, who was a governor, or Aga Sultan, of Karkaraly from 1849-53. The mosque was put to various uses during the Soviet period: pioneer meetings and trade union gatherings were held here, and it also acted as a library before being restored following Kazakhstan's independence.