Kostanai Region, the westernmost of the three regions forming Kazakhstan's bulbous northern 'cap', is an important centre of wheat production, as well as of a number of key mineral resources, especially iron ore, asbestos and bauxite. Its regional capital, Kostanai, is a pleasant provincial city on the banks of the River Tobol. Kostanai owes its existence to Tsarist-era regional administration. The Tsarist authorities decided that the administration of the Nikolaevsk District, which was being handled from Troitsk, on the territory of present-day Russia, required the establishment of a new urban settlement. In 1870, surveyors chose a site at Urdabai on the banks of the Tobol. But a commission led by the Military Governor of Turgai Region, one Major General Konstantinovich, visiting the place in 1879, decided that the Urdabai site was quite inappropriate for a town and alighted on a new location nearby, at a place called Kustanai. The first settlers arrived from Orenburg in the summer of that year. The town mushroomed and obtained city rights only 14 years after its establishment.
In 1893, the settlement was given urban status, and the name of Novonikolaevsk. The latter did not however stick, partly because of the confusing proliferation of towns sharing the name of the new Tsar, and it reverted to Kustanai, meaning "place for travel yurts", in 1895. The fertile steppe soils around the town were an attraction for settlers from land-poor parts of the Tsarist Empire, and by 1911 Kustanai already had a population of more than 25,000.
Trade was the town's main activity in its early years, as its location at the ford across the Tobol made it strategically significant. Later, when the area's iron and bauxite ore reserves were opened up near Rudniy, the city became the centre for the region's expansive mining development. In the large mines of Sokolov-Sarbay iron ore is mined in open pits. Kaolin, titanium, zirconium, gold and brown coal are also exploited in the Kostanay area.
During the 1950s, large areas of virgin land around Kostanay were developed for wheat and other agriculture, and in 1984 an impressive-looking monument to the virgin land pioneers was erected in the regional capital. With the shift to agriculture, large food- processing enterprises were added to the city's industrial economy. Even today, the region can be described as highly cultivated and prosperous-much has also been done in recent years for the development of culture, sport and tourism.
Kostanai today retains many attractive red-brick buildings from the Tsarist period. The evacuation of factories to Kostanai during World War II, and the city's post-war role as one of the hubs of the Virgin Lands Campaign, further promoted its development. After weathering the difficult post-independence years, the city displays much renewed development, exemplified by the pedestrianised centre, vibrant on warm summer evenings.
A handful of beautiful buildings from the time of its foundation have been preserved in the town centre, between the railway station and the river, and they now house the Russian Drama Theatre, the university and some administrative offices. Also worth a visit are the beautiful old Maral Ichana mosque and the Russian Orthodox cathedral.
The town itself is relatively green and peaceful; there are pleasant, good-value cafes and restaurants, an effervescent bazaar and a local history museum at 118a Altynsarin St.
Along Al Farabi Avenue The main axis of the city is Al Farabi Avenue, which runs in a northwest to southeast line through the centre of town. At the corner of Al Farabi Avenue and Baimagambetov Street, the attractive terracotta-walled building with Ionic columns decorating the facade is the Russian Theatre of Drama and Puppets.
The theatre traces its origins back to 1922. One block further south along Al Farabi Avenue, at the corner with Baitursynov Street, the Tsarist-era brick building houses a school of arts. Opposite this is the town chess club named after Anatoliy Ufimtsev, a local amateur chess player who has the distinction of authoring a chess move: the Ufimtsev Defence.
Just beyond the corner with Baitursynov Street stands the regional administration building, a modernised affair proudly showing off a tall, broad, blue-glass facade. Opposite this stands Central Square, a pleasant patch of greenery. The columned facade of the Kostanai State University stands facing the western side of this, flanked by billboards bearing quotations from President Nazarbaev in Russian and Kazakh: 'I believe in our youth!' Opposite, a broad path scythes through the green square. On the left of this is a statue of Ahmet Baitursynov, in whose honour the university is named. The writer is seated, quill pen in hand, ready to be inspired.
Another block further south, at the corner of Al Farabi Avenue and Altynsarin Street, stands the Regional Museum of History and Local Lore. A further block southwards lies an octagonal pavilion with a domed metal roof, housing the Ibrai Altynsarin Museum.
Continuing southeast along Al Farabi Avenue at the next intersection of Al Farabi and Abai avenues, stands the delightful Tsarist-era Ak Mechet, the 'White Mosque', though its walls today are painted pale blue. The building is distinguished by its three octagonal towers of differing sizes, the tallest of the three a minaret, each topped by a dark blue conical 'hat'. It was built in 1893 with the support of wealthy local merchants such as Abduvaly Yaushev. During the Soviet period it served, variously, as a workers' club, an evacuation point for citizens of Leningrad and a concert hall, and was restored as a mosque in 1991.
Northwest of the city centre, along Taran Street, close to the intersection with Borodin Street, stands an impressive monument to the pioneers of the Virgin Lands programme. Three young pioneers scatter grain across a furrowed earth. Behind, a wavy relief depicts healthily growing wheat. The reverse side of the relief depicts the back-breaking work of these pioneers to secure the harvest.
A plaque, dated 1997, at the side of the large open concrete space in front of the monument tells you that the Square of the Pioneers of the Virgin Lands also bears the title Sri Chinmoy Peace Square, having joined the 'international oneness family' of more than 1,000 peace monuments across the globe, taking their name from philosopher Sri Chinmoy.
Getting there Kostanai airport just beyond the western edge of the city, is served by a daily Air Astana flight from Astana. Scat operates a daily flight from Almaty. There are also several connections between Kostanai and airports in Germany, a measure of the strength of the city's ethnic German minority.
The railway station sits at the north-western edge of the city centre, at the end of the main A1 Farabi Avenue. Reconstructed in 2001, the station offers daily services to both Almaty and Karaganda, as well as a more local daily service to Arkalyk in the southern part of the region. A few trains also run to destinations in Russia, including St Petersburg and Moscow. The bus station is somewhat inconveniently sited at the southern edge of town, just off Abai Avenue.