Travel Stories »

Backwater Kazakhstan: what is "steppe" anyway?

Sick of flying hours only to wake up in pristine Thailand or Italy, where the food is so good that it will make you cry? We were too, which is precisely why decided to take a trip to off-the-beaten path Kazakhstan

Growing up as a teenager in the UK, minor misdemeanours at school were usually punishable by making the culprit write out 100 times “I must not chew gum in class” or whatever else the scallywag was caught doing. However, one teacher was craftier, forcing a pupil to write an essay on the inside of a ping pong ball which he obviously hoped would prove trickier ” and it’s only now that I feel pity for this particular individual when having to write about the Kazakh steppe.

How do you even begin to describe an expanse of land that stretches for thousands of miles in all directions yet contains almost nothing? What is “steppe” anyway? One way to sum it up is an expanse of land not dry enough to be classed as desert, but not wet enough to sustain anything other than patchy grass. In winter temperatures here plummet and leave the entire region covered in a blanket of snow with the occasional tree poking out, indicating a nearby river.

However, this harsh climate certainly didn’t deter Nikita Khrushchev from kicking off his Virgin Lands campaign in 1954 and sending in hundreds of thousands of “volunteer” workers from across the nation – primarily from Russia and Ukraine – with the aim of showing the world that the Soviet Union would soon produce more wheat than America, and that communism would soon triumph over the evil system of capitalism. Results were less than impressive, but the legacy is that northern Kazakhstan is still heavily populated by Slavs and the once nomadic lifestyle has disappeared.

Slap bang in the middle of this white expanse is Karaganda, Kazakhstan’s fourth largest city, which sprawls out leaving you wondering when you’ll ever reach the centre ” I’m guessing that lack of space isn’t really an issue here. Founded in 1934 largely with the help of convict labour to mine the huge deposits of nearby coal, Karaganda has done its best to shake off the dour “Gulag and mining” image that isn’t helped by its remoteness, hence the old Soviet joke responding to the question “Gde? (where)? V Karagande (In Karaganda),” i.e. in the middle of nowhere; being a politer response to a well-known Russian obscenity. (Having said that, the fact that the Kazakh word for Steppe is “dala” which in Russian translates roughly as “she put out,” that leaves honors even.)

Karaganda’s main drag is Bukhar Zhirau Avenue, named after a famous local poet and is where all the main shops, bars and restaurants are located, plus a few assorted sights to keep you busy for an hour or so. Ubiquitous in most former Soviet towns, Lenin’s statue adorns the main square with the nearby TsUM selling a few Kazakh souvenirs in case you desperately wanted to buy a portrait of Nursultan Nazarbaev, or amini felt yurt to take home and show friends what you didn’t stay in.

The Central Park allows for a pleasant stroll among the trees by the lake (frozen in winter) and is not far from the city’s statue commemorating the glories coal miners. As for where to stay, the two best hotels in town are the Hotel Dostar Alem and Cosmonaut, which aren’t cheap but if you’ve spent time trudging across the steppe you’ll happily shell out for some comfort. There are also budget options, although probably not for the faint hearted.

You may struggle to find Kazakh food given that Russians heavily outnumber Kazakhs, anything “local” is probably a mix of Uzbek and Soviet ” although you won’t starve and the local Derbes beer washes down well.

Karaganda is definitely off the tourist trail (as is Kazakhstan in general) but has done a better job than most in reinventing itself following the tough years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Life is still hard, but signs of wealth are beginning to show, judging by the foreign cars, western clothing and a taste for winter holidays in the sun to escape the fierce climate. If you want to visit a place where you won’t bump into anyone you know, then this could be the destination for you.

• Getting there ” Transaero flies directly from Moscow to Karaganda four times a week overnight, arriving early in the morning. Alternatively you can fly into Kazakhstan’s gleaming new capital city Astana (where there are more frequent flights to more cities, including Moscow but also to Europe) and catch a frequent bus to Karaganda which takes three hours and gives fantastic views of the steppe.

• Getting in ” Non-CIS citizens should obtain a Kazakh visa in advance from a Kazakh Embassy, although this is now a fairly painless process not requiring an invitation; just a hotel booking will suffice.

• Find out more ” The best guidebook is Bradt’s guide to Kazakhstan, which has a chapter devoted to Karaganda and its environs, including details on the history of the area.

Luc Jones is a British-Canadian based in Moscow, after stints in Warsaw, Minsk and a series of bleak Eastern European cities which possibly inspired his love of the world’s travel backwaters. Luc has travelled to 88 countries, including Abkhazia, which for this reason he is happy to recognize as independent.

Luc Jones