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The capital of Aktobe Region, Aktobe (formerly Aktyubinsk), is a city of more than 300,000 people on the main railway to Moscow about 100km from the Russian border. This is a growing commercial hub that has experienced an influx of oil and gas companies operating in the region’s fields, and an accompanying facelift. As a gateway to Kazakhstan from Russia, it makes a favourable impression. Like the surrounding region, it is not a major tourist destination, but there are some quirky attractions here, including sites linked with female sniper Aliya Moldagulova, around whom there is something of a personality cult, and a charmingly down-at-heel planetarium.

Aktobe is located on the plain at the start of the southern foothills of the Ural Mountains, which peter out into the Turan Lowland. Most of the vast territory of the Aktobe Region (Oblast) consists of scarcely populated steppe across which numerous salt lagoons are scattered, but the landscape to the northeast of Aktobe, in the rising Urals, is more picturesque, especially in June when the wind makes waves of the long blades of feather grass on the rolling steppe. Here you find the green valleys of the Zhakhsy Kargaly and Zhaman Kargaly rivers, where a nice reservoir looks inviting to those who seek to relax or fish.

Aktobe city has its origins in a Russian military fort, built in 1869 on the left bank of the River Ilek close to the route of caravans passing between Orenburg and Kazalinsk. The name Aktobe, 'white hill', refers to a geographical feature close to the original fort: the modern city seems bereft of obvious hills of any colour. The settlement around the fort steadily grew, through the arrival of migrants from across Tsarist Russia, and the place was designated an uyezd capital in 1891, with the Russified name of Aktyubinsk. The development of the town was given a further impulse in 1901, with the arrival of the Tashkent to Orenburg railway. The city of Aktyubinsk was named capital of its region in 1932, and in 1999 was given back its Kazakh name of Aktobe.

The modern city is an important regional transport hub. There are two quite separate centres: an old town' to the east, focused on the railway station, and a 'new town' further west, with shops and administrative buildings spread out along Abulkhair Khan Avenue. It is not a particularly appealing town for tourists, but it does have a few attractions: the beautiful Philharmonia building (31 Pobedy Ave), the modern Akhtanov Drama Theatre on Takhtanov St, the History Museum (14 Altynsarin St) and the Museum of Applied Art (76 Abulkhair Khan Ave)

Major sights - The beautiful new Nur Gasyr Mosque and the Russian Orthodox Khram Svyato-Nikolsky (St Nicholas’ Church), both topped with masses of gold, straddle Abilkayyr Khana between the new and old towns. Both were opened jointly by Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbaev and Russia’s President Medvedev in a symbolic act of solidarity in 2008. They are normally open to visitors when their doors are open. A new park is being built between them.

Also worth a look is the unique Nurdaulet complex, which is a shopping centre, amusement park, zoo and mosque all rolled into one. The Regional Museum, in the old town, has fairly typical displays of stuffed wildlife and history. The Alia Moldagulova Museum honours a locally born WWII sniper who notched 91 Nazi scalps before being killed in action herself. A block west of the museum, a statue of Alia provides a contemporary interpretation of her significance.

Exploring Aktobe - The older centre of town, north of the railway station, is relatively more low slung than the new, a district of quiet, tree-lined avenues. From the station, take the green and leafy Kereev Street, which heads off from behind a bust of one General Kereev at the far side of the taxi-filled square. On your left you come to the rather dry collection of rock and mineral samples housed in the Regional Geological Exhibition. One door further along in the same block is a similarly unexciting Regional Art Museum. The field gun in the square at the end of the street honours the exploits of the Aktobe citizens who served in the 312th Infantry Division and 101st Brigade. The 312th Infantry Division, established in Aktobe in 1941, was disbanded following the heavy losses suffered during the defence of Moscow. Soldiers from Aktobe fought their way as far as Austria in its successor unit, the 53rd Infantry Division.
Immediately south of the central stadium, Aliya Moldagulova Avenue crosses Abulkhair Khan Avenue. Turn right here, reaching on your right, on the side of an apartment block, the bright orange letters announcing the Aliya Museum. The museum is devoted to the life and early death of the female sniper and Hero of the Soviet Union Aliya Moldagulova.

The museum is based around a long hall, focused on a silver bust of the uniformed and frowning Aliya at the far end. Near the entrance is a painting of our heroine, together with a rather formally worded document awarding a positive assessment to the Memorial Museum of the Hero of the Soviet Union Aliya Moldagulova, opened in Aktyubinsk on 22 April 1985. The museum displays photographs and artefacts illustrating her life. There is a group photograph of a boyish-looking Aliya with other young pioneers, all holding bunches of wheat. A diorama shows Aliya leading the Russian troops across a snowy landscape in an assault on the German trenches. The museum also features Aliya tapestries, her Hero of the Soviet Union certificate and a bag containing earth from her grave. There is a model of a ship bearing her name and a photograph of the Kazakh singer Roza Rimbaeva wearing a Red Army field cap while performing her hit song Aliya'. Across the road from the museum stands a market named the Aliya Bazaar.

A block further westwards along Aliya Moldagulova Avenue, at the corner with Bratya Zhubanovy Street, stands a modern statue of Aliya Moldagulova. This provides a fine example of how the iconography of the Soviet period has been adapted to the changing tastes and requirements of post-independence Kazakhstan. Unlike the Soviet statue of her in the old town, Aliya is portrayed not as obedient soldier but as liberated young woman, almost a sex symbol. She is still in uniform, but her skirt stops above the knee and the field cap is gone. There is no Hero of the Soviet Union medal pinned to her chest. She is almost smiling. A frieze running behind the statue illustrates her Kazakhness, tracing the history of Kazakhstan from the khanates through the Tsarist period to the engineering projects of the Soviet one. Aliya is depicted leading her colleagues forward into battle. Then there is a scene depicting the post-independence period: a sapling is watered in front of different generations of Kazakhs and the monuments of newly independent Kazakhstan. Wedding couples come here to be photographed and to lay flowers at Aliyas feet.