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An industrial town of 200,000 people some 40km to the north of Karaganda, Temirtau is the centre of the steel industry in Kazakhstan. Lying on the bank of the Nura River, Temirtau started its life as Zhaur, a settlement founded by a group of settlers from Samara. Zhaur was renamed Samarkand a few years later, and the damming of the Nura River to create the Samarkand Reservoir in the 1930s provided a stimulus to industrial development. A steel industry emerged here during World War II, and Samarkand was renamed Temirtau ('Iron Mountain) in 1945.

The development of large-scale steel production, however, had to await the construction in the 1950s of the Karaganda Steel Mill (Karmet). This huge project required the marshalling of construction brigades from as far afield as Bulgaria. The conditions faced by those building the plant were dreadful, and led to riots in the town at the end of July 1959. Several of the rioters were killed as the Soviet authorities restored order. The first blast furnace went into operation in 1960. Among the early blast furnace workers in the new plant was a young Nursultan Nazarbaev, the future President of Kazakhstan. Billboards around town display photographs of the president, in the uniform of a blast furnace worker, reliving his early work experiences during return visits to Temirtau.

As newly independent Kazakhstan sought out foreign investors to help revive its heavy industries, with their elderly Soviet equipment, the Karaganda Steel Mill moved into foreign hands in 1995 as ISPAT Karmet, now known as Mittal Steel Temirtau. The Mittal logo is omnipresent in the town. Iron ore is brought from the company's mines in Kostanai Region, coal from the mines around Karaganda. The Temirtau plant, one of the largest single-site integrated steel plants anywhere in the world, carries out a long sequence of operations, including coke making, the production of iron in blast furnaces, steel manufacture, hot rolling and galvanising.

Temirtau presents a forbidding landscape to those approaching the town, of smokestacks belching emissions into trails visible several kilometres away. It has some tough social problems too, including the highest levels of HIV infection found in Kazakhstan, and rampant alcoholism. But while in no sense a tourist centre, it is easy to visit from Karaganda, and a few hours here give a good insight both into the pride felt by many Kazakhstanis in the contribution made by their major industrial facilities to the development of their country, and the huge challenge involved in attempting to modernise them.

The long, snaking, Respublika Avenue, formerly known as Lenina, links the old town centre at the western edge of the current settlement to the steel plant on the eastern side of town. Old town and new are separated by the Samarkand Reservoir.

The old town The buildings of this rather charming, if run-down, part of town were in part put up by Japanese prisoners of war in the late 1940s. The centre of the old town is an attractive square, at the corner of Respublika Avenue and Panfilova Street. The Youth Theatre, dating from the 1950s, is a rather grand building, with a double row of columns in front of the entrance and round motifs on the facade depicting metalworkers, miners and agricultural workers. The theatre started out life as the Cultural Palace of Metalworkers, before a spell as the German Drama Theatre. The park around the back is gradually reverting to the wild.

Across Respublika Avenue, the square continues as a quiet garden in which a monument to Lenin still stands. Behind this is the derelict one-time Palace of Power Engineers, fronted by faded Corinthian columns and a couple of broken statues. The old town is considered a somewhat rough area, to be avoided after dark.

The new town On Respublika Avenue, towards the eastern end of town, sits the main town park. Inside this lies Temirtau's most unexpected sight, a Winter Garden. This hangar-like greenhouse was put up in the early 1990s, and a jolly jungle painting over the entrance features smiley panthers and snakes. Inside, the place is filled with palms, banana trees, hibiscus and oleander. There are caged parrots, rabbits and squirrels. Some of the plants have plaques recording that they were planted by some of the leading lights of Kazakhstan: President Nazarbaev's wife and eldest daughter, a former Health Minister, Cosmonaut Tokhtar Aubakirov. Wedding parties come here to be photographed amidst the tropical foliage.

Further west along Respublika Avenue, at the intersection with Metallurgov Avenue, is a Monument to the Metalworkers, a metal-faced obelisk beneath which two metalworkers stand. The figure on the right, sampling the molten metal with a ladle, bears a certain resemblance to the young Nazarbaev. Behind the monument, to the right, the concrete building of the Karaganda Musical Comedy Theater is decorated with the metal heads of miners, metalworkers, cosmonauts and sonic representing uninterpretable occupations.