North of Astana, on entering the southern Siberian Lowlands, the steppe changes its visage, becoming a rich landscape of water, hills and forest, a glorious and versatile region that is one of Kazakhstan's most photographed areas. The area between Astana and Kokshetau is known as the "Kazakh Switzerland", and though its hills can hardly compete with the Alps in grandeur, the picturesque scenery of rocky peaks, forested slopes and jewel-like lakes rightly attracts tens of thousands of holiday-makers from Kazakhstan and Russia throughout the summer months.
The meaning of the name Kokshetau (formerly Kokshetav) is Blue Mountains, an accurate description, like all Kazakh place names. The town is surrounded by forested, hilly landscape, and in clear weather the blue-tinged skyline of ridges and hills can be discerned on the horizon. Kokshetau is located on the edge of the northern foothills of the low mountain range of the same name. It is a region rich in forests and lakes, and its highest Peak, Mount Kokshetau in the Burabay-Kokshetau National Park, reaches to 947 metres 'the Kazakh name Burabay has officially replaced the Russian Borovoye, though you will hear and see both names used). The town was once the administrative centre of Kokshetau Oblast until the territorial reshuffle of 1997, when the North Kazakhstan Region was created with its administrative centre in Astana. In doing this the new capital gained a beautiful hinterland-and a weekend leisure spot where its resident's could escape the city and relax in natural splendour.
Founded in 1824 as a Cossack settlement on the southern shore of the Kopa Lake, Kokshetau (population 134,000) is the capital of Akmola Region. Though one of Kazakhstan's less affluent cities, Kokshetau, 290km north of Astana, is a friendly and pleasant enough jumping-off point for community-tourism homestays in the pretty rural area to its southwest.
It is a leafy, laid-back city at the heart of Kazakhstan's wheat belt. Most of the billboards you see when coming into town seem to be advertising the merits of different tractors or combine harvesters. The town has half a dozen universities and teaching colleges, and makes a lot of bread.
In the centre of town, just in front of the regional historical museum, an inscription on a wall-like monument records a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from 1958, awarding Kokshetav Oblast the Order of Lenin by virtue of its success in surpassing the yearly plan for bread production. Following independence, the Soviet name for the city, Kokshetav, was altered to the more Kazakh-sounding Kokshetau.
You can still see reminders of Kokshetau's role as a centre of provincial administration. The broad streets with pot-holed pavements are flanked by magnificent Soviet-style buildings, a relief to the eye after the desolate uniformity of multistorey residential blocks, many abandoned industrial complexes in the city and on its outskirts contribute little to making the place look more cheerful - Kokshetau has suffered more than many other towns in the north since the exodus to their homeland of a large number of ethnic Russians after Kazakhstan's independence, and the town is estimated to have lost one-fifth of its population. However, in its new role as a satellite town for Astana, the hitherto rather unlucky Kokshetau hopes to benefit from transit tourists on their way to Borovoye, thus developing its own potential.
While not a tourist town, Kokshetau is a pleasant enough place for an overnight stay, and a good gateway to the Kokshetau National Park and to Borovoye. Walk around town on an early summer evening and you are likely to see locals holding small leafy branches: these serve as switches for largely futile attempts to ward off the prodigious quantities of mosquitoes. Have a stroll around the central area between Abay and Auezov, where you'll find several green park areas.
Contact us to set up a trip to the villages of Zerenda (40km southwest of Kokshetau), Sandyktau, Ayyrtau and Imantau (all 80km to 90km southwest). The main attraction here is the experience of village life amid unspoiled countryside with lakes, woodlands, rocky hills and walking and riding routes. Kazakh music and dance performances and outings to local historic sites are also on offer. The homestays are mostly in modernised village family homes. Only a few have indoor toilets but most have Russian bathhouses and all can provide hot water.
WHAT TO SEE
The main thoroughfare is Abai Street, which scythes west to east through the town, where it ends at the railway station. The town centres on a large and bare square, at the intersection of Abai and Satpaev streets. On the eastern side of this sits the regional akimat, in a modern cream and brown- toned building. The north side of the square is occupied by a long building with a Corinthian-columned facade, which temporarily housed the Ministry of Nature Protection until a new home was built for the Ministry in Astana. On the west side of the square is a statue of Ablai Khan, depicted squatting regally, his right hand on his hip in a display of relaxed strength. Behind the Kazakh ruler rises a very tall stalk of wheat, on the tip of which a bird is flying.
Behind the Ablai Khan statue is a central park, which features a few run-down fairground rides, and discos on summer weekend evenings. In the park is also a statue of a defiant-looking Lenin, standing next to a simple Soviet monument to the Kazakhstanis killed in the Civil War. From the park, the pedestrianised Momishuly Street runs south. A bust of war hero Talgat Bigdelinov, a pilot who notched up 305 combat missions, shot down seven enemy aircraft and was twice made Hero of the Soviet Union, is followed by a series of polished stones inscribed with the names of the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union. These run for two blocks, ending up at the war memorial. A young flag-bearing soldier kneels before an eternal flame. Behind him rises a peculiar silvery sculpture of a star with a point missing. The portraits of local war heroes are presented on the surrounding wall, in alphabetical order, starting with Bigdelinov. One block north of the war memorial, at the corner of Momishuly and Auelbekov streets, is the delightful wooden Nauan Hazret Mosque, its octagonal wooden minaret rising to a spire.
From the central square, pedestrianised Satpaev Street runs south a couple of blocks to the ugly modern grey metallic-faced Palace of Culture, which also incorporates the Russian Drama Theatre.
West of the centre many attractive single-storey log-built houses survive, usually featuring painted wooden shutters. A couple of particularly fine examples, both enjoying official recognition as historical monuments, are the whitewashed wooden cottage at 22 Kenesary Street, at the corner of Abai, with intricate carving at the base of the roof, and the cottage at 33 Dzherzhinskiy Street. The latter sits opposite a small Museum of the History of Kokshetau Town, itself housed in a single-storey wooden building.
Abai Street ends on the side of a line of low hills marking the western edge of town. At the end of Kokshetau's main thoroughfare, amidst the wooden bungalows of the old part of town, stands a tall statue of a young, rather studenty-looking Valerian Kuibishev, a Bolshevik military commander during the Civil War and key figure behind the first Five-Year Plan, who gave his name to the city of Samara during the Soviet period.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
The railway station sits at the eastern end of the long Abai Street, Kokshetau's central thoroughfare. A tall concrete clock tower guides you to it. Among the trains passing this way are the daily services between Almaty and Petropavl, Kyzylorda and Petropavl, and Karaganda and Kostanai. There are also less frequent trains passing northwards on to various Russian destinations, including Moscow, Sverdlovsk and Omsk, and local electric train services to Erementau (daily) and Astana (Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday). As you leave the station, you are greeted by a tall column on which stands a statue of a woman holding her arms aloft, hopefully in joy at your arrival.
The bus station is across the square in front of the railway station, and to the left. It is a crumbling Soviet building with graffiti-covered wooden seats and small birds flying around in search of crumbs, or the exit. There are departures to Astana (five hours), Petropavl (four hours), Zerenda, four a day to Omsk, and a few to Borovoye (two hours). In the square between the bus and railway stations gather a range of taxis and minibuses offering to take you to Astana or Petropavl.
It is also possible to fly to Koskhetau. The airport is served by Kokshetau Avia, who operate a Yak-40 four times a week on a route running between Almaty and Petropavl, via Kokshetau.