Situated in the center of the Eurasian continent, the East Kazakhstan oblast (region) occupies part of the Altain region and is located where four large states — Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China and Russia — come together. East Kazakhstan region covers an area of 283,300 square kilometers. The capital of region and main administrative center is Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk) with about 320,000 people. Semey, until 2007 known as Semipalatinsk, is another relatively city with about 300,000 people.
East Kazakhstan has a population of about 1.4 million people and comprises four towns and cities of regional significance and 15 districts: Abaiski, Ayagozski, Beskaragaiski, Borodulihinski, Glubokovski, Zharminski, Zaisanski, Zyryanovski, Katon-Karagaiski, Kokpektinski, Kurchumski, Tarbagataiski, Ulanski, Urdzharski, Shemonaihinski districts, towns: Oskemen, Semey, Kurchatov, Ridder.
Within of East Kazakhstan one can experience all the varieties of Central Asian landscape in a relatively small area: sandy deserts, clay canyons, classical steppes, mountain steppes, deciduous forests and taiga, alpine meadows and mountain peaks, whose heights reach 4500 meters above sea level (such as the highest point in the Altay and Siberia — Belukha Mountain).
This unique geographical and geopolitical position, in addition to landscape diversity, caused a mixing of cultures and traditions. Within the region one can meet traditional nomadic Kazakhs, members of the Kazakh fishing subculture, and Old Believers and to visit a maral nursery (a traditional Old Believers settlements as well as members of the numerous ethnic groups that live in the former Soviet Union.
East Kazakhstan’s rich bio-diversity is maintained in 24 nature reserves, whose area amounts to six percent of the total of East Kazakhstan. Rare and endemic animals include snow leopards, lynx and Tibetan brown bears. The nominal border between Asian and Siberian fauna lies within East Kazakhstan. Special attention should be paid to the territory of the Kazakhstan Altai, which is part of the Altai-Sayan eco-region, a unique and distinctiveness eco-region recognized for biological diversity.
Getting To and Around in East Kazakhstan
East Kazakhstan encompasses a large territory. Often the most outstanding tourist sites are located a relatively large distance from towns and cities (up to 500 kilometers). Taking this into consideration, the issue of tourist transport inside the region should be handled separately, as compared to transport in the other regions of the country.
One can reach East Kazakhstan region by airplane, train or car. Airports suitable for hosting international flights are available in Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk) and Semey (Semipalatinsk). In summer there are direct flights between Europe and Oskemen (Hannover — Oskemen). The rail and road routes connecting Oskemen with the International Airport in Almaty (to Moscow) operate year-round. Accordingly, there exist rather expedient options for travel to East Kazakhstan by air from Europe.
Additionally, one can reach East Kazakhstan by rail. Railroad transport fits into ecological tourism ideology as the most non-polluting. And sometimes the use of railroads is more appropriate as compared to air transport. In such a case it is possible to transit tourists from Almaty (where an international airport is available) to Semey or Oskemen. Auto transport can also be utilized. The trip from Almaty to Oskemen takes 21 hours.
Main roads in East Kazakhstan are asphalted; it is possible to drive at a speed of 70-90 km/h. Such roads are available for the greater part of tourist routes. However in some road sections, the asphalt covering is damaged. Such zones require driving at reduced speeds of 40 km/h for comfort. In some routes to tourist destinations of importance, roads are unpaved; such roads require driving at a speed which does not exceed 20 km/h and can only be traversed with all-wheel drive vehicles. For example, such a road leads to Markakol Lake (the largest lake in the Altai). In some tourist routes there are mountain roads which are difficult to traverse, where the driving speed is about 5-10 km/h.
Semey (800 kilometers north of Almaty and 700 kilometers east of Astana) is one of Kazakhstan’s most interesting places. Home to 340,200 people and know until 2007 as Semipalatinsk, it is where Dostoyevsky was exiled for five years after serving five years in a prison, the great Kazakh writer Abay Kunabaev spent much of his life and where the Soviets decided to test their nuclear arsenal (the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground lies on the steppe west of the city).
Semey (also spelled Semei) is one of the cultural, historical centers of not only East Kazakhstan, but the whole republic. The museums of Abay and F.M. Dostoevsky, the oldest museum of local lore of Kazakhstan and Western Siberia, the Museum of Fine Arts named after the Nevzorov family, a whole network of libraries. Two theaters operate — the Kazakh Musical Drama Theater named after Abay and the Russian Drama Theater named after F.M. Dostoevsky.
Semey is located in the northeastern part of Kazakhstan near the Russian border, Founded in 1718 as a Cossack fort, the gates of the old fort still exist. Semey grew steadily over the years due to its location at the intersection of trade, caravan, and railway lines. In the Soviet era, the city was known for its food processing and meat packing industries. In the late 1980s, its factories produced one-third of the Kazahk Republic’s consumer goods. Semey residents have experienced serious health problems which many blame on fallout from the nearby nuclear tests. Between 1949 and 1989, 468 nuclear devices were detonated at the nuclear test site here.
Sights in Semey
The main tourist sights in Semey are the Abay Museum, dedicated to Abay Kunabaev and other Kazakh writers; the Dostoyevsky Museum, situated next to wooden house where the writer lived while completing his forced military service in Semey; the History and Local Studies Museum, with a small display on nuclear testing; a fine arts museum; and collection of Soviet-era statues and monuments along the Irtysh River. There is a small old town with 18th century gates, a Russian Orthodox church with a blue tower and domes, a late 19th century fire station and a 19th century mosque.
East Kazakhstan Regional Drama Theater Named after F. Dostoevsky is located at Abai square, 6. (Tel: 8 (7222) 56-34-68, 56-27-23, 56-37-04). Dostoevsky’s name was given to the theater in 1975, in 1977 it became regional drama theater. In opened in the 1930s. Ticket cost in 2005- 2006 Season opening, premieres: 1-9 row-250 tenge, 10-14 row — 200 tenge, 15-16 row — 180 tenge, Plays for kids — 120 tenge, Evening spectacles:, 1-4 row — 200 tenge, 5-9 row — 180 tenge:, 10-16 row — 150 tenge, Special spectacles for schools, colleges — 150 tenge., Small hall — 150 tenge.,
Double Minaret Mosque was built in 1856-1862. It is a monument of city planning and architecture. A sample of the cult Muslim architecture of the 19th century. The mosque is built by the Tatar merchants on the Turkish project.
Museum of Fine Arts named after Nevzorovs is the former home of a merchant named Stepanova built in 1827. After the Revolution in 1917 it housed, government offices for the Regional Party Committee and regional executive committee, Leninsky district committee, and the building passport office. Since the 1990-s it is a place of Museum of Fine Arts named after Nevzorovs.
Bridge over the Irtysh River opened in October, 2000 and a and landmark of Semey city. Construction project of the bridge was proposed by Japanese Company Isakavadzima Harima Heavy Industries, Ltd and by local government of East Kazakhstan region.
Dostoevsky in Siberia and What Is Now Kazakhstan
In 1847, Dostoevsky joined a 20-member liberal discussion group that studied liberal French philosophy, professed atheism and secretly conspired against the tsar. The group met every Friday to discuss literary and political ideas. Dostoevsky and other serious members in the group planned to put out a reformist magazine, an act of treason at that time. After the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Tsar Nicholas I decided tip to repress and round up "revolutionists." On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky's apartment was raided by police while he was asleep and he was taken to a prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After a lengthy interrogation, Dostoevsky said that his subversive remarks had been unintentional and professed his loyalty the tsar and church.
After spending eight months in prison at the Peter-Paul Fortress, Dostoevsky was brought to Semonovsky Square, where disobedient soldiers were flogged and criminals executed, with 21 others on December 22, 1849 to be publicly executed. The condemned men were dressed in white burial gowns, given their last rites, and tied to whipping posts in groups of three. The men listened to a sermon and then, one by one, keeled and kissed the cross. Noblemen, including Dostoevsky, had a sword broken over their heads. Just as the drums had started to roll and the firing squad was ordered to get ready to shoot, a royal courier arrived with a stay of execution and told the men they had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia instead.
Dostoevsky spent four years in chains, from 1849 to 1854, at a labor in Omsk, Siberia doing hard labor "packed like herrings in a barrel" with low born thieves and murderers. He believed his punishments were deserved. The New Testament was the only reading material he was allowed in prison and he read it over and over. He suffered a number of epileptic seizures while in prison. Dostoevsky's experience in prison gave him a more positive outlook on life. Hist religious faith was resurrected in a mystical and humanistic form in which he equated Christ's suffering with the experience of the Russian working people and the criminals he met in prison.
After finishing his sentence in Siberia, Dostoevsky was given an additional penal term as a common soldier in Semipalatinsk, a military outpost in present-day Kazakhstan. Here, he played by the rules, and became a junior officer. In his free time Dostoevsky read books and befriended a troubled, tubercular widow, Marie Isavea, whom he later married and whom brought him nothing but grief. Finally after persistent lobbying, his friends secured his release. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1860 Dostoevsky recalled his prison experiences in the House of the Dead (1861-62), a novel about a man condemned for murdering his wife. Serialized in his won literary magazine Vremya, the work helped Dostoevsky recapture some of the fame he had won with The Poor Folk.
Semipalatinsk Test Site
Semipalatinsk Test Site (150 kilometres west of Semey), is located East Kazakhstan region. Covering 18,000 square kilometers, it is under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Between 1949 and 1989, 468 500 nuclear devices were detonated here, two third of all nuclear explosions in Soviet Union. It was closed in 1991. [Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative <~>]
There were four major testing areas at the site, along with two research reactors, supported from then closed city of Kurchatov. A total of 116 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests took place at the ‘Experiential Field,’ either detonated on towers or dropped from aircraft. After the Limited Test Ban Treaty entered into force in 1963, the Soviet Union carried out 340 underground nuclear tests in caves or boreholes at all four sites.Semipalatinsk also was the location of 9 of the Soviet Union’s peaceful nuclear explosions. This program intended to use nuclear devices to create artificial lakes, aid in mining and other large scale infrastructure projects. <~>
The first Soviet nuclear explosion occurred 50 kilometers southwest of Kurchatov city in August 1949. It was the first time nuclear weapon made in Soviet Union was tested at what became Semipalatinsk Test Site. To evaluate destruction of the explosions a lot of different technology was concentrated there and different buildings and structures were constructed. Many of the buildings or their remains are still there. Touring the site is possible. Despite the high radiation levels, it is said, short visits are not dangerous for health if basic safety and hygiene regulations are complied with such as wearing surgical boots and a mask and being accompanied by a guide. Taking metal units from the territory is prohibited.
The last nuclear test conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site took place at Balapan in November 1989. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited the site. Russian scientists and security personnel quickly departed without leaving information for the Kazakh authorities about the location of many of the tunnels or boreholes. The Semipalatinsk test range was officially closed by Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev on 29 August 1991. Semipalatinsk Test Site facilities are now under the jurisdiction of the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which is involved in civilian activities and conversion of the site to non-defense uses. <~>
Human Guinea Pigs and Nuclear Testing
Forty male villagers who lived within the Semipalatinsk site were ordered to observe the first test in 1949. They all died of leukemia and cancer. They only one who remained alive in 2001 suffered from skin cancer and liver diseases.
On September 14, 1954, Soviet warplanes drooped a nuclear bomb, more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima, on the town of Totsk, near the Kazakhstan border, to test how soldiers would react during a real nuclear war. Minutes after the explosion, about 44,000 troops dug into 140 miles of trenches were ordered into area the bomb had just exploded. Twenty minutes after the explosion conventional warplanes were ordered to the center of the inferno to bomb any "enemy" targets that might have survived.
Some civilians were told to move; others were not. Some soldiers received no protection. Villagers said they heard a deafening explosion, followed by fires and shock waves. Some people who were six kilometers away said the shock wave was so intense blood started to pour out of the ears. A Russian colonel told the Washington Post in 1994, "We already had many manuals written on the tactical use of nuclear weapons, but we wanted to see what would happen in real life—the morale and psychological response of the soldiers, and so forth."
The soldiers had to swear an oath that there would never discuss the test. They were encouraged to wash off and destroy their clothes but there wasn't enough soap and water to go around and many kept a belt they were given to commemorate the event.
No casualties figures for civilians and villagers living in the area have been made available and no rigorous long-term medical studies were conducted to check the lasting effects of radiation exposure. Some studies showed that people in the area had a five times higher rate of cancer than the general population.
Environmental Effects of Nuclear Testing
Semipalatinsk is contaminated with high levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. According to one estimate 19 million acres of land in Kazakhstan has been rendered unusable by tests. The temperature of the ground in and around the testing is higher than elsewhere in Kazakhstan, in some cases by 15 degrees C. Some places are devoid of snow in the winter and show up as hot on satellite images.
Radiation leaks out from the tunnels at the site. Scavengers have stolen copper and other metals from the radioactive tunnels at Semipalatinsk. The scale of the problem became clear in 1996 when China complained that the copper sold to it by a Kazakh company was radioactive.
An estimated 230 millions tons of radioactive waste is buried in Kazakhstan. Of this 179 million tons is highly radioactive. Most of it was created during the production of uranium for nuclear weapons, atomic experiments and fuel for nuclear power plants.
In 1956, a nuclear bomb was detonated underground to create a reservoir 65 miles southwest of Semey. Large amounts of radiation was released into the atmosphere at the time of the blast and was blown into populated areas. The reservoir is now called Atomic Lake.
Health Problems Related to Nuclear Testing
Although nuclear testing was halted in 1990, radiation poisoning, birth defects, severe anemia, and leukemia are very common in the area. An estimated 1.2 million people were exposed to above normal doses or radiation around Semipalatinsk. According to some calculations some people were exposed to the same amount of radiation as the people that people were a half kilometer from ground zero of the of the Hiroshima explosion.
One man, who lived 43 miles from the testing site, told AP that whenever a bomb was exploded he was told by his teacher to run into the steppe and lie face down on the ground. “Who would really lie down?” the man said. “We were kids. Everyone wanted to look, watch the plane, and see the mushroom.” By the 1990s, he, his four brothers and three sisters all suffered from varying degrees of stomach cancer.
The rate of stillborn births, birth defects and cancer is high among the people living around Semipalatinsk. According to some estimates, 300,000 people have suffered from the effects from the radiation, including offspring of the people that were actually exposed to radiation. Many families in the area gave one, two or three malformed children. Affects have spread to the third generation. One boy pictue, There is one boy with a distorted head, who eyes are completely swollen shut. Rates of lung, stomach and skin cancers are particularly high. Investigators, though, have a difficult time distinguishing between problems caused by radiation and those caused by poverty and other reasons and thus shy away saying there is a direct link between these health problems and radiation.
The government ordered that all radiation victims be given a one-time compensation payment based on how close they lived to Semipalatinsk and for how long. The payments ranged from 25 percent to five times the minimum monthly wages—with the money paid being as low as $5 a month—for each person who lived on or near the site.
Places Associated with the Semipalatinsk Test Site
"Stronger than Death" Monument was opened in 2001 as a memorial to the victims of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and was inaugurated on the 10th anniversary of President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev signing the decree to close the site on August 29, 1991. The monument was designed by Shota Valikhanov.
Kurchatov City – Scientific Center of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Ground (northwest of Semey) was the center of Soviet nuclear weapon development. after the World War II. Places of interest include a hotel, where scientists who came to test the ground were accommodated ; former KGB (State Safety Committee) headquarters; house were KGB-founder Laurenti Beria once lived; the testing ground museum, which has an interesting collection of nuclear-weapons-related equipments, parts of atom bombs and materials collected from detonation sites that show signs of explosive effects. National nuclear center located in Kurchatov investigates nuclear energy.
Chagan Nuclear Lake was created by the “first Soviet industrial thermonuclear explosion,” in 1965. Chagan river-bed on Balapan test site that was one of the sites of Semipalatinsk nuclear ground. Harnessing the “peaceful atom” Soviet scientists planned to create several water reservoirs to accumulate floodwaters also. The project was based in the idea that the craters produced by nuclear explosions were ideal reservoir for storing water. The scientists is seems failed to take into consideration the harmful affects of radioactivity. Today, the radiation levels make the water contaminated and undrinkable. Although radiation levels of the are above normal, short visits are not dangerous. “Atom Lake” is a popular tourist destination.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website (visitkazakhstan.kz), Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020