Few countries are as vast, yet as shrouded in mystery as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Once part of the USSR, it became an independent nation in 1991, yet it still retains many of the traditions and features of its Soviet past.
It has had a turbulent and fascinating history from its early times as part of the Silk Road and the skirmishes and conquests between the Central Asian Khanates; to becoming a key location in what became known as “The Great Game” – the 19th Century cold war between the British and Russian Empires. However, fate and history sent the country on the path of the far better known Cold War, and it is possible to see the route of this path through the monuments and museums charting this. The country bore witness to the darkest episodes of the Civil War and Collectivisation, and experienced the terrors of the Purges and Gulag system.
Kazakhstan was also the backdrop to the courage and skill of the first pioneers of space, and the ambitions and idealism behind the “New Soviet Man” through the vast agricultural and industrial projects started in the middle of the 20th Century. On this small group tour see how some of these projects also took a more sinister turn as the country once again played a role in the development and testing of the USSR’s nuclear deterrent and the legacy it left.
Please note that this tour will operate with a minimum of 6 persons and maximum 14 persons.
Depart London Heathrow and fly via Istanbul to Almaty.
On arrival in Almaty we will be met by our guide and transferred to the hotel. Enjoy some time to freshen up and relax before heading out on a tour of Kazakhstan's former capital. Take in some of the city's best sights, including the Green Bazaar, a huge and lively market, Panfiloy Park, the Central Museum and Republic Square. (B,L,D)
Enjoy breakfast then strike out to continue exploring this fascinating city. Today the emphasis is on the dominant Soviet architecture in particular, and we will visit sites such as the Kazakh Opera and Ballet House, the Auezov Drama Theatre, and the Wedding Palace. (B,L,D)
Take an early morning flight to Ust-Kamenogorsk, from where we will transfer to the city of Semey. Initially founded in the 18th century as a Russian fortification, in lies in the heartland of the Kazakh Middle Horde. After lunch, tour the city and learn about its fascinating past. Fyodor Dostoevsky was exiled here, and the area has produced several major Kazakh writers and teachers. Visit museums to both Dostoevsky and national Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev, and stop at the Stronger Than Death Monument to the victims of nuclear testing. (B,L,D).
Today travel from Semey to sparsely-populated Kurchatov (approx. 3 hours) which was the home of the Soviet nuclear testing programme. En route visit the abandoned town of Chagan, once home to the troops serving the nearby airforce base and today an eerie ghost town where a series of empty blocks are gradually being reclaimed by nature. (B,L,D)
Kurchatov was the centre of the Soviet nuclear testing programme and the town's environs provide an educational, if sobering, lesson about the legacy of nuclear weapons testing. Visit the museum of the test site and then head for the Opytnoe Pole test site itself. This is a restricted area, so what you are allowed to see may vary according to changing rules. You are however guaranteed to see the epicentre of the first test, which occurred on 29 August 1949 with a device code-named 'Pervaya Molniya' - 'First Lightning'. After this first success, the Soviets would go on to test over 450 devices in the area around Opytnoe Pole. (B,L,D)
Leave Kurchatov and stop for lunch in Aksu, a small town which boasts a statue park full of fascinating monuments from the Soviet era. Continue on to the city of Pavlodar, a large industrial, economic and cultural centre in Kazakhstan. (B,L,D)
Spend a day sightseeing in Pavlodar. Visit the Regional History and Military Glory Museums, the Chekov Theatre, the Cathedral of the Annunciation and the Monument to Victims of the Famine. (B,L,D)
Board a midday flight to Astana, where we will be met and transferred to the city of Karaganda. Located in the heart of the Kazakh steppe, Karaganda is known for two things: coal and labour camps. The two are connected, as the vast "KarLag" network of Stalin-era camps around the city was established to provide food and labour for the mines, and prison labour also built much of Karaganda itself. (B,L,D)
Today visit the village of Dolinka, which contains the former centre of the KarLag correctional labour camp. The newly-restored main administrative building is now a museum, exhibiting photos, personal images and stories from the Gulags, including some of the children imprisoned there.
In the afternoon undertake a city tour of Karaganda and see its most well-known sites. Few tourists visit Karaganda, so this is a good chance to see a normal Kazakh city going about its business. (B,L,D)
Take a morning flight to the new capital of Astana, from where you will be driven to Akmol. This village hosts the Museum of Soviet Repression at the former ALZHIR prison camp. This was once one of the largest prison camps for women in the Soviet Union, and today is a fascinating and well-presented museum that showcases the history of this unique site. (B,L,D)
Spend time in the modern district of Astana. Take in the Norman-Foster-designed Khan Shatyr shopping and entertainment centre, with its indoor beach and distinctive "tent" design. Walk up Green Water Boulevard to the iconic Baytarek tower and and ascend to the golden glove for stunning views across the city. Enjoy other city sites including the Presidential Palace, and then move on to the river where we will enjoy a short cruise before dinner. (B,L,D)
Transfer to the airport for your flight back to the UK via Istanbul. (B)