Top things to do in Karaganda: dark tourism in Kazakhstan
This post is a travelguide with the best things to do in Karaganda Kazakhstan.
Karaganda is one of those cities that feels remote. Even though it is only 4 hours from the capital Nursultan (Astana), it is at the heart of the desolate Kazakh stepppes. Karaganda is often overlooked by travellers, but there is no other place that represents the complex and dark history of Kazakhstan so well than Karaganda.
The Dark history of Karaganda
What keeps amazing me in Kazakhstan is how little in the West we know about its history. Sure I did learn about the Soviet Union and Stalin’s terror. I even heard about the gulags and labour camps. But little did I know that most of them were in Kazakhstan. I also didn’t know it was not just political prisoners that were sent there, but whole ethnic groups that were deemed suspicious. Other innocent people were the wives and children of the political prisoners that ended up in the Alzhir gulag in Malinovka.
The small town of Karaganda got the Soviets attention because of its coal mines. Stalin made great plans and found in Karaganda the perfect place to develop his network of labour camps. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union Stalin deported all Volga Germans to Siberia and Kazakhstan. A lot of them ended up in the gulags of Karaganda.
Other suspicious ethnicities and political prisoners from all over the Soviet Union followed. Among them were some great scientists. They built up the city, worked in the mines and on agricultural projects. Karaganda became the third largest producer of coal in the USSR.
After the Soviet Union most mines closed down and were replaced by steel factories. Although most people returned to where they once came from, Karaganda remains a multicultural city. It is not uncommon to see people with german features in their face.
Karaganda is definetly worth a visit, because of it’s historical value. There are enough things to do in Karaganda for one or two days, especially for those with an interest in dark tourism. Even though it is now a modern city there are some interesting museums and it is the perfect base to explore the vast Kazakh steppes.
Things to do in Karaganda
1. Soviet murals
Karaganda is a great city, especially if you love Soviet heritage. There is no shortage of grim looking Soviet flats, but look closely and you will see there is more colour to the city than what first meets the eye. Many buildings have beautiful murals depicting the mining industry and the space program among others.
Tip: the best Soviet murals are around Independence square including a mural with the Soviet cosmonauts into space.
2. Gagarin monument
Although distances have a different meaning in a country like Kazakhstan, Karaganda lies relatively nearby Baikonur. The space station is still a 1000 kilometers from Karaganda, but is close enough that it regularly sees space junk falling from the sky. Big enough that you don’t want it to end up on your roof.
It was also in Karaganda that during Soviet times the cosmonauts were given a celebrity treatment upon return from their missions into space. The Gagarin monument in Karaganda stands as a proud memory of this time.
3. Ecological museum
The small ecological museum is among the top things to do in Karaganda. However, don’t expect too much. Although it is a great initiative run by an NGO to raise awareness about the nature in Kazakhstan, it is rather small and focuses on school children. Furthermore, most explanations are in Kazakh or Russian.
The museum covers a range of ecological issues from the space debris around Karaganda to the effects of the nuclear tests around Semipalatinsk and the near extinction of the saiga antelope in Kazakhstan’s national parks.
4. Regional museum
The regional museum is a journey through time. It starts with archeological findings in the area that show the history of horsemen warriors that roamed through the steppes. Every room covers a new time period with a large focus on its nomadic past and the Soviet repression. From the famine in the 30s to the history of the gulags and the Baikonur space program. It ends with a room about all the achievements of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Karaganda has a small, but lively bazaar. Most of the city feels very Russian, but it is at the bazaar you do get a sense that you are truly in central Asia. Next to the babushka’s selling fresh vegetables you have men selling heaps of dried fruits from farther south.
Some parts of the bazaar are not for the faint hearted. Horse meat and sheep meat are popular. If you would like to buy horse sausages ask for Shuzhuk or Kazy. In summer, the bazaar is an excellent place to try Kymyz (fermented horse milk) or Shubat (fermented camels milk). Kurut is another common item at the bazaar and the dried yoghurt balls are a popular snack among the locals.
Things to do near Karaganda
1. Karlag Gulag museum in Dolinka
There is not much left of the network of labour camps that Stalin set up in the steppes around Karaganda. The Karaganda Corrective Labour camp in Dolinka was of one the largest camps in Kazakhstan. It was established in 1931 and over a million prisoners from all over the Soviet Union served in the gulag till it closed down after Stalin died in 1956. They provided the free labour for the coal mines and agricultural projects Stalin developed.
Nowadays Dolinka is a rather isolated village in the middle of nowhere. The museum in the former administrative headquarters is the only thing that still stands as a memory of the cruelty that once happened here, but it is in fact a recent initiative. When the gulag closed down it became a school, a hospital and a sanitorium before it fell into disrepair. It was only in 2007 that it was restored to house the Karlag museum.
The museum has done a pretty good job in representing the complex history. At the one hand there is a focus on the scientific and agricultural developments made in the camp by the scientists among the prisoners and at the other hand there is the focus on the suffering of the people.
Visiting the museum in winter makes it clear that the extreme climate in the steppes, certainly was a way of torture in itself. Add harsh living conditions, long working and a variety of cruel punishment methods. As a result, the children among the prisoners often did not survive for long.
Although the Kazakhs living in this area were not necessarily among the prisoners, their fate was not much better. Forced collectivization made an end to their nomadic lifestyle in which they were self sufficient. Failed agricultural projects resulted in the famine in the 1930s in which thousands of Kazakhs died. Finally, they too, became cheap labour in the coal mines of Karaganda.
How to get to the Karlag gulag museum in Dolinka
Getting to the museum by public transport is fairly easy. From the central bus station in Karaganda there is bus number 121 to Shakthinsk or Shachta 2 ( шахта 2 ) that leaves every 20 minutes. It takes about one hour and costs 150 Tenge. Get off at the Vtoroy Shakht stop.
From here you can take a taxi or walk about 30 minutes to the museum. There is sometimes the possibility to have an english guide. If you don’t speak Russian I would recommend this, because most explanations are either in Kazakh or Russian.
Temirtau is a true dark tourism destination. With heavy industry and a number of large steel factories this is one of the most polluted cities in Kazakhstan. When in 2018 black snow fell from the sky residents took to social media to express their concerns about their health.
There is not much to do in Temirtau and this place is above all, for those with an interest in aging factories and pollution in action. Most noteworthy, are the chimney stacks visible on your way to Temirtau that emitt a constant trail of toxic smoke.
How to get there: from the central bus station in Karaganda there are frequent buses to Temirtau taking less than an hour.
3. Karkaraly mountains
Karaganda is not only about gulags, polluting steel factories and dark Soviet history. Karaganda is also at the heart of the Kazakh steppes. 4 hours away from Karaganda is the Karkaralinsk Nature reserve that is relatively easy to visit for independent budget travellers. Caravanistan has an excellent post about hiking and trekking in the Karkaralinsk mountains.
How to get there: from the central bus station there are daily buses to Karkaraly (4 hours) where you can find accomodation at the Karkaraly eco centre.
Places to eat in Karaganda
Karaganda has a wide choice of places to eat. From the very cheap stolovaya’s to the more mid range restaurants serving international cuisine.
Kaganat is a chain restaurant in Kazakhstan. It is a stolovaya that stands for a cheap buffet style restaurant. There is a wide choice of salads, soups and main dishes that are Russian and central Asian inspired.
2. Line brew Karaganda
A great steak house serving European cuisine. If you are vegetarian this is maybe not the best restaurant in town.
3. Moi tbilisi
I love Georgian food and was positively surprised that even in Karaganda there is a Georgian restaurant doing a pretty good job.
Places to sleep in Karaganda
1. Hostel Ekonom
There are not a lot of budget hostels in Karaganda, but Hostel Ekonom is a very good option. Friendly people, clean and good facilities. The hostel is a little bit far from the centre, but it is very easy to reach by bus
2. Hotel Chaika
Stay where the Soviet cosmonauts used to sleep. Hotel Chaika lost most of its former glory, but remains an interesting place to stay. When the Soviet cosmonauts returned from their missions into space it is at hotel CHaika that they received their celebrity treatment.
When to visit Karaganda
Karaganda has an extreme climate with very hot summers and icy cold winters. When I visited Karaganda in March, everything was still solid frozen.
Autumn is the best time to visit, because of the pleasant temperatures and good weather. Spring is also a good time, but April and May sees more rain than autumn.
How to travel around in Karaganda
Although most things to do in Karaganda are within walking distance from each other, there is also an excellent public transportation network.
Use 2Gis to check which bus you need. It’s a very useful app when you travel in Kazakhstan, because it has maps of most cities that include public transport routes. They are also available offline when you download the cities beforehand
If you rather use taxi’s I recommend you to use Yandex. The Russian version of Uber.
How to travel to Karaganda
The best way to reach Karaganda is by train from Nur-sultan (Astana). The train to Karaganda takes between 3 and 4 hours. There are two trains in the early morning and 4 trains in the evening.
If you start your journey in Nursultan it makes a great stop. From Karaganda it is easy to catch a train travelling further south to either Shymkent or Almaty and therefore it is easy to include Karaganda in your Kazakhstan itinerary.
The train from Almaty unfortunately has rather inconvenient times. Your best option is taking the daily older train leaving Almaty at 17:36 arriving in Karaganda at 08:44 (15+ hours).
Read more about train travel in Kazakhstan in my post on how to travel by train in Kazakhstan
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