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Central & Northern Kazakhstan

The dominant impression of Kazakhstan is of a land of endless steppe. Nowhere is this epitomised more clearly than in the Sary Arka, which translates as "yellow back" and is considered the heartland of the Kazakh people. This huge area, covering central and northern Kazakhstan, was home to the legendary Kypchak nation, a tribe of horse-masters who controlled the entire steppe from the Altai mountains to the Volga River.

Sary Arka is a huge expanse of undulating grassland, covering the central belt of this vast country: green and verdant in spring, turning yellowish-brown with the drying heat of the summer sun. The Sary Arka stretches from the West Siberian depression in the north to the Balkhash-Alakol depression in the south, and from the foothills of the Altai in the east to the Torgay valleys in the west. In some places the landscape is as flat as a pancake; in others, such as the Kazakh hill country (Kazakhskiy-Melkosopochnik), its topography is hilly, even mountainous.

This is the most Russified part of Kazakhstan but it’s also the location of the new capital, Astana, chief crucible of the prosperous, multiethnic Kazakhstan of the future and a spectacular exercise in capital-city creation that has to be seen to be believed. Kazakhstan's new capital. Astana was established right in the heart of the Sary Arka. It was considered an unusual move in 1997, but it has since proved to be a success, and the symbolism is clear: where else should people of the steppe build their capital, but in the steppe?

Karaganda Region is the largest in Kazakhstan. Its environment of steppelands punctuated by industrial cities founded on the coal, copper and steel industries is not of immediate touristic allure, but Karaganda is one of the regions which best give a sense of the emergence of modern Kazakhstan.

Until the 19th century, this region was largely untouched except by Kazakh nomads and their herds. As Russia’s hand stretched southwards, Russian and Ukrainian settlers came to farm the steppe – a million or more by 1900. In Soviet times, the Kazakhs were forced into collective farms and industrial cities such as Karaganda and Kostanay, which sprouted to exploit coal, iron ore and other minerals, and in the 1950s huge areas of steppe were turned over to wheat in Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands scheme. More settlers, deportees and prisoners arrived from other parts of the USSR to work all the new projects. Ironically half the new wheatlands were abandoned by the 1980s because of wind erosion. One of the roots of the multiethnic character of the country lies in the Stalinist labour camps found across the region, whose inmates in turn helped to establish the great industrial plants which provided key materials for the Soviet economy. In the 1950s most of the labour camps were closed, but a lot of the survivors stayed. After the Soviet collapse many ethnic Germans, Russian and Ukrainians left, but Kazakhs still number less than one-third in several areas.

The post-war leaders of Kazakhstan started their careers in these heavy industries: Dinmuhammed Kunaev in an opencast copper mine north of Balkhash; Nursultan Nazarbaev in the steel plant at Temirtau. The regional capital, Karaganda, offers a good base and has interesting Soviet-era buildings and monuments, and a fair range of hotels and restaurants. The main places to head for as regards the natural environment are a series of granite massifs, forming islands in the steppe. The pine-covered slopes of Karkaraly are a great place to spend a few days of gentle walking, and Ulytau, a land of myths and legends, whose many mausolea include one ascribed to Jochi, son of Genghis Khan, combines historical interest with beautiful scenery.

The three most northerly regions of Pavlodar, North Kazakhstan and Kostanai feel much more part of Siberia than central Asia. Along with Akmola Region to the south, they were part of the heartland of the Virgin Lands Campaign of the 1950s to grow wheat across the Kazakhstani steppe, and remain important wheat-producing areas today. They are also lands of birch woods, of numerous lakes, and of rivers flowing northwards to join the Ob and then the Arctic Ocean. Ethnic Russians form a large percentage of the population, especially in North Kazakhstan Region. There is a European feel to many of the settlements, notably the small villages of log-walled houses with attractively decorated wooden shutters. The centres of the three regional capitals are enlivened by red-brick Tsarist buildings. Pavlodar, on the broad River Irtysh, Petropavl with its associations with Ablai Khan, and Kostanai with its pedestrianised centre, all make for pleasant places to spend a couple of days. Areas of natural beauty include the pine-covered weathered slopes of Bayanaul, one of the upland 'islands' in the Kazakhstani steppe, the mixed pine and birch forests and lakes of the Kokshetau National Park, and the Naurzum Nature Reserve, home to the Schrenk's tulip and to the most southerly lowland pine forest in Kazakhstan.

The central & northern steppes also harbour surprising areas of natural beauty: the flamingo-filled lakes of Korgalzhyn; the hills, forests and lakes around Burabay; and the verdant countryside and tranquil villages southwest of Kokshetau.

The climate is sharply continental and the most pleasant months to travel are May to September. In January and February average temperatures in Astana range between -11°C and -22°C, and bitter steppe winds can make it feel much colder still.