Kazakhstan – Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk)

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Overall thoughts, Accommodation, Travelling around, Things to do, Dinner and lunch

Overall thoughts

Brief: industrial, old, decaying, lively, colourful, lots of greenery, fascinating, real.

Nezavisimost Avenue, Oskemen Metallurg Park, from Nezavisimost Avenue, Oskemen. Yes, that is a plane in the park.

Not so brief: I thought I would not like Oskemen, expecting it to be a nondescript Soviet era industrial town. It largely rained then snowed while I was thereKazakhstan Street, Oskemen (the latter unexpected for late April) and, at -2 with a biting wind chill, there were even fewer reasons to like it.

However, I very much liked the feel of it and I enjoyed the sense that I was seeing Soviet and even pre-Soviet Kazakhstan with a lot fewer post-Soviet buildings, vehicles and brands than in the more modern cities of Almaty and Astana.

It is very much a working town and, for a visitor, there appears to be little to do. I would not suggest Oskemen as a holiday destination; it’s an interesting and gritty place to visit if you’re travelling around.

Old Kazakh buildings around the corner of Gorkiy Street and Kirov Street, OskemenI genuinely enjoyed walking around and taking photos of bits of buildings that were unexpectedly vibrant colours, indeed it was in Oskemen that the idea of a “Kazakhstan – colours” Flickr album came about.

I also liked seeing the parks, the area where the Ulba and Irtysh Rivers converge, the War Memorial, old buildings, atmospheric industrial War memorial, Strelka, Oskemen, also where the Ulba and Irytsh Rivers convergeplants and the “Hollywood” mountains beyond (go there and you’ll find out what that is referring to!).

However, I would only recommend Oskemen if all of the above appeals to you. It is not an easy town if you don’t read or speak Russian (I couldn’t even identify what a lot of shops sold from the outside) but it is cheaper than other towns we went to and I reiterate how colourful and interesting it struck me as being, though there is a limit as to what there is to do within the town.

Be warned, it can get extremely cold and I gather there is no wintery let-up for the winter months. It is, I was told by at least three people, a hard place to be in winter as it’s so bitterly cold and dark. I also discovered the stages of winter coat, from synthetic fibres through to mink being pretty much your only saving grace when it’s -40 and virtually freezing you alive.

Accommodation

Shiny River Hotel is the white building on the right. River Ulba, from the bridge at Nezavisimost Avenue, OskemenShiny River Hotel, 8/1 Astana Street (my score out of 10 with my partner’s score in brackets, uninfluenced by my score)

Nearby amenities: 8 (5)/10 (river opposite, shopping centre c3 minute walk, c15 minute walk to centre)

Safety perception: 8 (9)/10 (nice area, lots of staff in reception)

Room: 8 (9)/10 (clean, comfortable, decent bedding)

Sleep: 7 (7)/10 (good double glazing, comfy bed)

Bathroom: 5 (6)/10 (a lot smaller than the room would suggest, pokey)

Breakfast: 8 (9)/10 (large buffet selection, eggs to order, hot and cold food)

Staff: 7 (8)/10 (friendly on reception, very good English spoken, pleasant)

Likelihood of repeat stay: 9 (10)/10 (comfortable, out of town but close to town, best hotel we stayed in in Kazakhstan)

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Travelling Around

Ordzhonikidze St, opposite Zhambyl ParkThere are trams and a lot of buses but I was fortunate enough to be with people who had a car. Other than that, you can cover a lot ofTram in Oskemen the town on foot.

We arrived from Astana on an Air Astana flight (NB the airport is referred to as either Oskemen (Kazakh) or Ust-Kamenogorsk (Russian)). The airport is very small. Once off the plane, you walk into an enclosed, outdoor area and wait in that holding place until all the luggage is off the plane and lined up in the airport building maybe ten to fifteen minutes later. You then reclaim your luggage and show an officer your luggage receipt so they can check it against your luggage to ensure you have your own case.

Don’t bother getting to the airport early on departure as it is very small and there are no facilities beyond toilets and a small kiosk.

Things to do

A statue outside the Tokhtarov Street theatre, just outside Zhastar Park, Oskemen

Start of the path from Kirov Street into Zhastar Park, leading to old houses, Oskemen A house off Zhastar Park (Kirov Street entrance), OskemenI can’t offer much insight but I very much enjoyed walking around, particularly along a street with a row of pre-Soviet buildings, Kirov Street, off which is an interesting park, Zhastar Park, the far end of which has some lovely, handsome buildings, including a theatre and a museum, and off to the left, backing on to Kirov Street, easy to miss, is a delightful collection of traditional old Kazakh houses (there is a chance that there was a notice saying not to go along that path but I’m really, really glad I did as the houses and the area was charming – they are people’s homes, I’m fairly sure). Tokhtarov Street also had some interesting old buildings.Tokhtarov Street, towards Kazakhstan Street, Oskemen

There also appears to be an ethnographic museum within a large park that also houses some interesting aircraft.

The area where the two rivers, Ulba and Irtysh (the latter which flows from China to Russia via Kazakhstan), meet, Strelka, also has a war memorial, pictured above on a very grey day, takes up a decent-sized corner of land, which I expect is very busy and green in summer.

Statue along Nezavisimost Avenue, Oskemena Soviet factory complex along Nezavisimost Avenue, OskemenAt least one tram goes out of town (in the direction of the airport) and through some fascinating industrial areas.

Oskemen was a closed town in Soviet times, playing a significant role in the post-war Soviet nuclear bomb project, and still provides a lot of Kazakhstan’s revenue from mining non-ferrous metals (particularly uranium), the proceeds of which appear to be directed at creating Astana rather than modernising the infrastructure of Oskemen. I was told by a local that Oskemen residents have a disproportionately high risk of cancer.

Google it; it’s an interesting place and an interesting area in terms of industrial and Soviet history.

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Dinner and lunch

This didn’t strike me as the kind of town where you could easily wander around and stumble across great and easy places to eat. All three places we ate at, we were fortunate enough to have a local take us to. I enjoyed all of them, largely for being different yet familiar to restaurants at home in the UK. Barbaris I enjoyed most though as it felt like a proper Kazakh dining experience.

Barbaris menu, besbarmak at the topBarbaris, Kazakhstan Street 59B (up a short track just off the main road, next to a place with a picture of Marilyn Monroe, as I recall)

I loved this restaurant. It was exactly what I’d hoped to find in Kazakhstan, not at all touristy and full of Besbarmak, traditional Kazakh dish, complete with horse meatKazakh dishes. No English but pictures on the menu, and I had help from two Kazakhs. I tried besbarmak (horse meat, including penis, in a meaty broth), laghman (lovely noodles and meat) and manti (plump, juicy dumplings, though be aware that one of the various fillings is horse). The bread was also lovely. Not expensive.

Imbeer, Kazakhstan Street 64 (back from the road, in front of the parking area for that row of shops and restaurants)

A really pleasant diner-style Kazakh restaurant that serves sushi and twists on familiar-sounding dishes. I enjoyed it for what it was. They have interesting light shades. Not expensive. I could have remembered incorrectly but I think the menu wasn’t in English but there were pictures.

BarBQ, Auezova Avenue 43

Okay food, menu in English, diner-style. Not expensive.

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