Semipalatinsk in Russian means ‘city of seven chambers’. It was named for the ruined pre-existing Buddhist Monastery that formed the basis of the original Russian fort.
Settled by Russians expanding into Central Asia in the early 18th Century, Semipalatinsk is a Siberian city in Kazakhstan and one of the more cosmopolitan and fascinating cities in the country.
The official name of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, is now Semey.
Semipalatinsk is rarely visited by foreign tourists as it lies of the Almaty/Astana axis. Nevertheless, this place is well worth the time to stop by and sample its delights.
To anyone from the former USSR or with a nuclear historical bent: the name Semipalatinsk is inseparable from the Soviet Union nuclear weapons program. Testing took place around 150km from here, in the ‘Semipalatinsk Polygon’. It was because of the association with this dark period of history and the negative effects on the health of the people and the region that the decision was taken to rename the city simply ‘Semey’ in 2007. Locals will use either name interchangeably, though.
For the purpose of conformity, we will be referring to Semipalatinsk as Semipalatinsk in this blog.
Today’s Semipalatinsk is a small city. It is easily navigable on foot, blessed with plenty to see and do for a visitor staying for a short visit, as well as a friendly and welcoming population.
Read on for some local facts and points of interest!
Semipalatinsk is located in the East of Kazakhstan near the border to Russia.
Deep in the steppe and sitting on the strategic Irtysh River, this spot was an inevitable site for a fortified town as the Russian Empire expanded into Central Asia.
The present site of the city can be dated as far back as 1778.
Trade between the local nomads and the settled Russians took place here, and the Turkestan-Siberia Railway also made this an increasingly important trade and transportation hub.
A brief period of regional independence followed the October Revolution, but in 1920 the area was in the hands of the Soviet Union, where it was to remain until independence for Kazakhstan in 1991.
Semipalatinsk still has a sizeable population of Russians as well as folks from various other nations of the former USSR.
Semipalatinsk has a handful of notable figures who have local associations. Such as, titan of Russian literature Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was part of the Russian Garrison here for some time (find out more about his museum of the city), Abay, the father of Kazakh poetry and a major national hero for independent Kazakhstan (also has a museum in the city).
Semipalatinsk is also the birthplace of Ukrainian Heavyweight Boxing legend Wladimir Klitschko (whose father was a military officer in the area).
What is the weather like in Semipalatinsk?
Typically for the Kazakh steppe, they get some extremes in this part of the country; very cold and dry winters, and some scorching days in summer.
Rain isn’t common and in spring and autumn it is very pleasant.
July is the rainiest month and snow in winter is common in Semipalatinsk.
How to get to and travel around Semipalatinsk?
There is no airport in Semipalatinsk, the nearest one is Ust-Kamenogorsk/Oskemen (another of those cities with two names). Semipalatinks is around 4 hours by road from here. The road between these cities is fairly decent so it is not a grueling. Flights from Ust-K go to the major cities of Kazakhstan as well as Moscow and Novosibirsk in Russia.
Semipalatinsk is well situated for a visit on the train. The Turkestan-Siberia Railway is a sprawling regional system and can get you from here to Astana, Tashkent, Pavlodar, Novosibirsk, and elsewhere.
Semipalatinsk station is centrally located and it takes only a few minutes by road to get from here to the proper centre of Semipalatinsk city.
Semipalatinsk is quite a drive from the major cities of Astana and Almaty. The roads inside and proximate to the city are in decent condition but there are areas of the Kazakh highway system where the road degrades substantially.
Still, a steppe road trip is a good fun thing to do as long as you don’t mind some repetition in the view over many hours on the road!
In the city centre, almost everything is walkable in just a few minutes.
To get to some of the slightly outlying spots there are buses and taxis, all are cheap and easy to navigate.
Download and use Yandex Taxi (a Russia app, universally used in Semipalatinsk and available in English) for rides, or just have the name of where you are going and hail a cab on the street.
Public buses are simple enough too. Although don’t expect any English to be spoken by the drivers.