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Petropavlovsk (Petropavl)

The most northerly of Kazakhstan's regional capitals, Petropavl (pop. 210-220,000), also frequently referred to by its more Russified name of Petropavlovsk, has the strong feel of a Siberian town. It lies just some 60km from the Russian border, and ethnic Russians form the bulk of the population. It’s a reasonably prosperous and attractive place, older and architecturally more diverse than many cities in Kazakhstan.

It was founded in 1752 as a Tsarist military fortress named after St Peter (Paul was added later) at a place known as Kyzylzhar on the right bank of the Ishim River. Ablai Khan, the leader of the Middle Zhuz, gave his approval for the establishment of the fortress in part because he wanted the Tsarist authorities to establish a market at the site, and indeed Petropavlovsk quickly developed into an important trading centre between Russian merchants and the Kazakhs of the Middle Zhuz, as well as more widely with central Asia and western China.

The arrival of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1896 gave a further impetus to the development of the town, and Petropavlovsk was to become an important railway junction. As the 20th century dawned there was a large increase in the arrival of landless peasantry from across the Russian Empire. Food-processing and leather- working industries developed, joined during World War II by some 20 enterprises evacuated here from more vulnerable parts of the western USSR. In the post-war period, Petropavlovsk was developed by the Soviet authorities as a centre for heavy machine building, focused on the military sector, with four factories producing weaponry such as the missiles and mobile launchers of the SS-21, code-named 'Scarab' in the West. Following independence, these factories in particular have struggled, shorn of their State orders, and have attempted to refocus their work on The town's newest tourist attraction, readied at the end of 2007, is the restored Residence of Ablai Khan, which has been transformed into a museum devoted to the Kazakh leader.

In summer, Petropavlovsk has a particularly friendly atmosphere, with numerous hospitable cafes and restaurants. Many young people stroll along its rebuilt pedestrianized zone on Konstitutsii St and in the park. The town has a beautiful theatre and a Puppet theatre, and it's worth visiting the local history museum in the pedestrian zone (48 Konstitutsii St), as well as the art museum in a beautiful old wooden house at 83, 314 Strelkovoy Divizii. The newly built Russian Orthodox church at 97 Komintern St is worth a visit, as is the big new mosque on the corner of Ulyanov St/Mira St-but also recommended is a tour into the surrounding taiga, especially for those who love to gather berries and mushrooms.

Orientation - The main downtown axis, Konstitutsii Kazakhstana, runs northwest–southeast and is attractively tree lined and pedestrianised – a popular hangout. The train and bus stations are about 2.5km southeast of the heart of town, off Satpaeva. 

Sights - The new Abylay Khan Residence Museum is devoted to the 18th-century Kazakh leader who spearheaded resistance to the invading Zhungars. This 19th-century building stands on the site of an earlier wooden residence built for Abylay by the Russians. Two richly decorated rooms are set up as Abylay’s private chamber and throne room. Other features include a model of the Yasaui mausoleum at Turkistan (Abylay’s burial place), Abylay’s family tree tracing his lineage back to Zhanibek (the founder of the Kazakh khanate in the 15th century) and a grand diorama of Kazakh and Zhungar cavalry armies charging into each other. No English-language explanatory material or tours, unfortunately. To reach the museum walk to the northwest end of Konstitutsii Kazakhstana (1.5km from Hotel Kyzyl Zhar), go one block to the left, and then 500m to the right along Sutyusheva.

The modernised Regional Museum occupies two of several attractive 19th century red-brick buildings along Konstitutsii Kazakhstana str. Downstairs are natural history, archaeology and Kazakh culture; upstairs it’s the region’s story from Petropavlovsk’s origins as a Cossack fort. 

The large market between the centre and the stations, makes for an interesting wander.