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Balkhash Lake & Town

The crescent-shaped Lake Balkhash runs for 600km across the northern edge of Almaty Region, like a beret. It varies in width from just 5km to around 70km, and is shallow, with an average depth of less than 6m. A peculiarity of the lake is that it is saline in its deeper eastern section, but fresh water in the shallower western one. The main inflow into the lake, from the Ile River, disgorges fresh water into the western part of the lake. The eastern part, partially enclosed from the west by the Uzunaral Peninsula, lacks this supply of fresh water. The lake has no outflow, and is frozen from around November to March. Environmentalists fear that Lake Balkhash is at risk from similar processes of desiccation to those that have blighted the Aral Sea. The construction of the Kapchagai Dam in the 1960s, and associated development of irrigation agriculture, reduced inflows into the lake from the Ile, and there are concerns that industrial and agricultural development in Chinas Xinjiang Region, where the headwaters of the Ile, and will result in enhanced offtakes.

The largest settlement on the shores of the lake, the town of Balkhash, lies in Karaganda Region on its north shore. It is an industrial centre, focused on the processing of copper ore. The plumes discharging from its tall chimneys can be seen from tens of kilometres away, and pass directly over the town when the wind direction is unfavourable. But since Balkhash lies at the mid-point of the 1,200km road journey between Almaty and Astana, it is the obvious place to overnight if you are making this trip by car. As you drive towards the town from Almaty around the north shore of the lake, a trip which involves disappointingly few lakeside panoramas as the road remains for the most part a few kilometres from the shore, you will pass numerous roadside stalls selling smoked fish. Some hang up a cardboard silhouette of a fish to confirm what is on offer.

The development of Balkhash dates to 1928, when a geological expedition from Leningrad led by Mikhail Rusakov determined that there was a major deposit of copper ore at Kounrad, 12km to the north of the present-day town. A decision was taken to develop Balkhash as a copper-processing centre, and construction teams arrived from across the Soviet Union. Balkhash received its urban status in 1937, and a year later the first copper was produced. Dinmuhammed Kunaev, the future First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, started his working career at the Kounrad mine in 1936. The mine, which is a huge open-cast pit, the copper concentrator, smelting and refining operation at Balkhash, and further plants on the site involved in the refining of zinc and precious metals, all now belong to the copper company Kazakhmys.

Balkhash weathered great economic difficulties following the break-up of the USSR, and continues to grapple with a range of environmental and social problems arising from its aged Soviet-era plant and the town's isolation (Karaganda, almost 400km away, is its nearest large neighbour). Along the lakeside promenade, the splinters of broken vodka bottles crunch underfoot. But it makes for a reasonable enough overnight stop.

Town centre

The apex of the town runs along Valikhanov Street, where the city akimat is located, running downhill towards the lake. At the top of the street is the large and somewhat sterile Tauelsizdik ('Independence') Square, remodelled in 2007 as the centrepiece of the town's 70th birthday commemorations. A large equestrian statue of the local 19th-century warrior Agibai Batyr, who fought with Kenesary, now stands in the centre. The former occupant of that prized position, a sculpture based around a shanyrak design, has now been shifted across the road. The square is framed with four gazebo-like pavilions, sheltering benches.

At the lakeside end of Valikhanov Street stands the House of Culture of Metalworkers, a theatre fronted by a line of Corinthian columns, built in 1952. The frieze above this features a column of marchers, headed by a metalworker, followed by a woman holding a sheaf of wheat. On the roof stands a female figure of Soviet piety, releasing a bird. She holds a shield decorated with hammer and sickle and ears of wheat. Flanking the building are silver-coloured statues of metalworker and miner. The interior is opulent.  There is also a museum devoted to the history of the copper-processing factory, Balkhashsvetmet. The Museum of the History of Balkhashsvetmet Production occupies a single room on the ground floor. It covers the history of copper extraction in Balkhash from Rusakov's expedition to the acquisition of the plant by Kazakhmys. There are displays devoted to the individual plants within the complex, and pictures of those who were awarded the title Hero of Socialist Labour through their efforts here. In front of the House of Culture of Metalworkers stands a post- independence statue of local musician Magauiya Khamzin, in whose honour the House of Culture has now been renamed. He is depicted in dapper suit beneath a traditional Kazakh cloak, holding his dombra.

Just east of here along the broad Lenin Street is a blue-painted building housing part of the local university. The mosaic on its western end wall proclaims 'Glory to Soviet builders!' It pictures a young man with a theodolite and young woman with a trowel. The polluting emissions of the factory smokestacks are treated in the mosaic as symbols of pride; the plumes of smoke are pictured fluttering like banners.

A couple of blocks to the west of the House of Culture of Metalworkers along Lenin Street, to the side of a run-down park, is a monument to the First Builders of Balkhash. A man plunges a spade into the ground with a muscular arm. Next to him is a frieze depicting toiling construction and metalworkers.

The apartment blocks in the centre of town, especially along Valikhanov and Lenin streets, offer some interesting examples of Soviet architecture of the 1940s and 1950s. On the north side of Lenin Street, for example, is a line of attractive blocks with long arches across which balconies are hung and with colonnades beneath the roof. A large inscription gives the date of construction as 1941 and records that this is the House of Skilled Workers of the Copper Factory.


The turquoise waters of Lake Balkhash form an attractive southern boundary to the town. Behind the House of Culture of Metalworkers an unkempt stretch of park runs down to the lake. Along the main path within the park, looking out towards the lake, is a statue of the bearded geologist Mikhail Rusakov, holding a rolled-up document - his survey of the Kounrad deposit, presumably. Across the road from this statue is a T-34 tank, mounted on a pedestal. A plaque records that the tank marks the valiant feats of labour of the people of Balkhash in World War II, in particular in producing the molybdenum required for the production of tank armour. Their exploits, we are told, rank alongside those of the Soviet troops.

Balkhash town sits on a bay named Bertis. In summer the rather dirty lakeside beaches are packed until late into the evening by local residents escaping the stifling heat of their apartments. Swimmers paddle around clumps of reeds which lie just offshore. There are some pleasant, though basic, lakeside summer cafes and a small funfair. The promenade at the back of the beaches runs eastwards to a war memorial. Steps lead up to a boxy tiled concrete structure, centred on a now extinguished eternal flame.

Getting there

The bus station is centrally located, opposite the main bazaar on Agibai Batyr Street. There are only a small number of departures, with the main long-distance destinations served being Almaty, Astana and Karaganda. The railway station is at the northeastern edge of town, at the northern end of Yazov Street. Balkhash however lies on a branch line, and is not served by the main Almaty to Karaganda trains. One daily train makes the trip here from Karaganda. The airport is not currently used by scheduled flights, though there are plans to develop a service.

Balkhash Lake & Town