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Uralsk (Oral)

Closer to Vienna than Almaty and sitting on the European bank of the Ural River, Uralsk (Pop 260,000) is the first or last city for some Central Asia overlanders. The capital of West Kazakhstan Region, the city of Uralsk is one of the most historically interesting in Kazakhstan, though you do have to search hard amongst the Soviet concrete to find the remnants of this heritage. It was a centre of the Pugachev Rebellion in the 1770s, and takes pride in its status as the only city of Kazakhstan to have been visited by the Russian poet Pushkin. With some fine Tsarist architecture, it makes a good place for a short stopover.

Uralsk is the oldest town in the modern territory of Kazakhstan, but it has done much to change its image in recent years. Established by Cossacks in 1584 at the confluence of two rivers, the Ural, then called the Yaik, and the Chagan, the town of Uralsk, originally named Yaitskiy Gorodok, claims its formal year of foundation as 1613.

A famous Russian serf rebellion was launched in 1773 from a log house that is now the Pugachyov Museum. Yemelyan Pugachyov led a group of Cossacks and hundreds of thousands of serfs in a revolt against the autocratic Catherine the Great that spread to the Ural Mountains and along the Volga. The museum is in Uralsk’s oldest district, Kureni, at the south end of town, easily reached by bus 35 along Dostyk. Features include a replica of the cage in which Pugachyov was held after capture, and a spooky portrait with Catherine’s eyes and hair seemingly growing out of Pugachyov’s head.

Because of the prominent role played by the town in the Pugachev Rebellion, Empress Catherine the Great determined on the defeat of the rebellion that she would obliterate the name of Yaitskiy Gorodok from the map, and with it the memory of Pugachev. By a decree of 15 January 1775, she determined that the River Yaik would be renamed Ural, that the Yaitsk Cossack Host would henceforth be known as the Uralsk Cossack Host, and that the town would now be called Uralsk.

Under its new name, the town flourished. As it expanded northwards from its original core, smart new brick buildings appeared. It was the scene of considerable fighting during the Russian Civil War. The celebrated Red Army commander Vasily Chapaev was killed south of here, near the settlement now renamed Chapaev in his honour, while attempting to swim across the Ural River to escape White Army forces.

A number of industrial enterprises, such as the Zenit weapons factory from Leningrad, were relocated here during World War II from more vulnerable cities further to the west, further promoting the growth of the town. The discovery of a major oil and gas condensate deposit at Karachaganak near Aksai in the eastern part of the region in the late 1970s provided a further significant boost for the economic development of Uralsk and its surrounding region. Uralsk had become the administrative capital of the West Kazakhstan Region when the latter was formed in 1932. This was renamed as Uralsk Region in 1962, but reverted to its original name in 1992. While the city is officially now known by its Kazakhised name, Oral, Uralsk is still widely used.

The town is proud of its history-Pushkin, Krylov, Tolstoy and Sholokov were here, and the Kazakh composers Kurmangazy, Dauletkerey and Dina Nurpeissova all came from the Uralsk area. Three great rebellions started off on the banks of this Euro-Asian border river: The Russian Peasants' Wars under Yemalyan Pugachov, the Kazakh Liberation Wars under Srym Datov at the end of the 18th Century, and the revolts against tsarist rule under Isatay Taymanov and Makhambet Utemisov in the 1830s.

Founded by Cossacks, Uralsk has its roots in Russia, as is clear from the beautiful, traditional Russian architecture throughout the leafy centre. The remnants of the original Russian town have been renovated with considerable care; the streets and avenues in the centre appear spacious and cared for, and there are quite a few attractions for visitors, including the 18th Century Archangel Michael Cathedral, the Church of the Redeemer, the Local History Museum in the building of the old Russo-Kazakh school, the Pugachev Museum with a display about the great Russian Peasants' Revolt, and the historic building of the military academy.

The main boulevard, Dostyk, running 6km north–south, has two Russian Orthodox cathedrals and is very prettily lit at night. Pedestrianised Dina Nurpeyisova (formerly Teatralnaya), crossing Dostyk, is Uralsk’s mini version of Moscow’s Arbat.

The bridges across the river here turn Oral into an important crossroads on the border between Europe and Asia.