Incredible journey from towers & parks to nukes & gulags

Central Asia's Giant - see parts of Kazakhstan usually ignored by visitors - many formerly off-limits to outsiders. A new, unique, and remarkable odyssey

We will take you on an unbelievable trip across eastern Kazakhstan: from the new capital (Astana) to the old capital (Almaty) and in between. This tour is an epic adventure through industrial cities, endless steppe, abandoned gulags and memorials to their victims. We will also see lakes formed by atomic weapons, the sinister and evocative Semipalatinsk Nuclear Polygon (where the nuclear arms race began), mesmerising scenery, and quirky architecture from various eras. Plus, you'll have the great chance to mix with local people and find out about their lives, enjoy nights out, and even visit a chocolate factory to round it all off!

April 2021 — 1 tour

April 30 - May 9 2021

Explore Kazakhstan | May Day to Victory Day

Enigmatic Central
Asian Giant

Kazakhstan is where a vibrant multi-cultural society meets the dark legacy
of deportations, gulags, and nuclear weapons. Come with us and see all of
the above and much more!

From 2,300 USD per person

Please apply by 20th March, 2021.

Explore Kazakhstan | May Day to Victory Day

Enigmatic Central
Asian Giant

Kazakhstan is where a vibrant multi-cultural society
meets the dark legacy of deportations, gulags, and
nuclear weapons. Come with us and see all of the above
and much more!

From 2,300 USD per person

  • Overall

    On this incredible 10-night adventure we will start in the new capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and finish in the old, Almaty.

    We will be there between two big days; May 1st (International Labour Day), and May 9th, Victory Day - on which the 'Immortal Battalion' of hundreds of thousands of locals parade in honour of their heroic relatives who fought in WWII. A stunning experience and something you can join in with, absolutely unforgettable!

    In between these two fascinating cities, we will travel by road, rail, and air as we adventure and explore parts of Kazakhstan only a few have seen before. We will be heading to the industrial base of Karaganda, the infamous Semipalatinsk (in two words; Gulags and Nukes), and Kurchatov - the Los Alamos of the USSR, where the Red Bomb was developed and tested.

    Plus, we will even get to ground zero in ‘The Polygon’; the vast nuclear testing range full of abandoned measuring platforms, bunkers, craters, buried machinery, and the scenic yet chilling ‘Atomic Lake’. We’ll get a history lesson on the darker side of this little-known land, as well as updates on what’s been going on in the cities and countryside as we pass between them seeing local life, industry, and so much more. Combining our expertise working in the country, contacts, and in-depth research, we’ve put together a tour that is like no other to offer you the best in Kazakhstan tourism.

    Dates don't suit? Check out our Explore Kazakhstan | Nur-Sultan to Almaty September Tour, or contact us for more information on private tours.

    Scroll down for an overview of our Explore Kazakhstan -  May Day to Victory Day tour highlights, tour itinerary, transport options, DPRK tourist visa information, and extra add-ons.


    Nur-Sultan (Astana) - once the centre of the Virgin Lands campaign, now national capital

    Dostoyevsky Nuclear Polygon – USSR’s testing range for atmospheric and underground nukes

    Chagan – Abandoned long-range bomber base, and garrison town.

  • Itinerary

    Day 1 of 11
    1. Fri 30th April

      Arrival Day

      • Flights to Nur-Sultan (airport code TSE) arrive from many international destinations – let us know which flight you will be on and we will arrange your pick-up and transfer to the hotel. Arriving even earlier is, of course, fine and can be accommodated.
      • Today we start the tour with a group dinner of some excellent local food, coordination and briefing session, before the adventure ahead!


      Nur-Sultan - Kazakhstan's shiny new Capital City!

    2. Sat 1st May - International Labour Day - May Day


      • Nur-Sultan is a new city rightly famed for its unique approach to architecture; in that it piles together a wide range of different styles and forms with the end result being either a glimpse at the future of post-modern cities, or a horrifying un-curated mish-mash of clashing buildings.
      • Bayterek Tower – now the icon of the city, this ornate monument has a viewing platform 97 metres above the ground (1997 is when Astana become the capital city) and is designed to evoke a folk tale about a bird laying an egg in a tree. Amazing views over the city from here.
      • Palace of Peace and Reconciliation – glass Pyramid from the eminent architect Norman Foster with the vague but noble aim of reconciling the world’s faiths and ideologies and bringing an end to violence. Even if this goal remains elusive it is a stunning building and worth exploring!
      • Hazret Sultan Mosque – the biggest in Kazakhstan (and second in the region only to the monstrous Gypjak Mosque in Turkmenistan). Classically Islamic in style and Kazakh in décor, this impressive building can house up to 5000 worshippers at once.
      • Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre – perhaps the building that architecturally sums up modern Astana more than any other. Another Carbuncle/work-of-genius (delete as you prefer) from Norman Foster, this ingenious structure looking somewhat like a lop-sided tent maintains an even temperature year-round and provides leisure facilities, shopping, entertainment in general.
      • River Ishim – we’ll stroll the banks of this waterway in the centre of town, a good way to see a slice of local life and people enjoying their time. Remember that almost all of Astana’s population are recent arrivals so a big mix of people from around the country and beyond can be encountered here

      • May Day Events – While the massive Soviet military parades are a thing fo the past there may be events going on this day. We will keep the itinerary as flexible as possible to include whatever is going on and is open to the public. We will, of course, keep those who have signed up for this tour up to date on what is planned and what they can expect in Nur-Sultan on this national holiday.


      Nur-Sultan - Kazakhstan's shiny new Capital City!

    3. Sun 2nd May

      Nur-Sultan & Train Ride

      • We take a drive out of the city to the nearby village of Akmol; home of the chilling Museum of the Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland – A sensitively-done spot telling the story of the loyal (going to such a place could often be avoided with a divorce and public denunciation) women sent here when their husbands were persecuted.
      • We see a little more of this settlement on a walk around; church, mosque, and apartment buildings now occupying this former gulag site before stopping for an excellent home-cooked lunch with a local family and a supermarket visit for train snacks/drinks.
      • All aboard! We jump onto a sleeper train making its way through the night and across the country to the city of Kurchatov - home of the soviet atomic weapons program. Comfy beds and a clean restaurant await us as well as rolling steppe outside the windows for this 800km journey. We will have dinner delivered to us on the platform at Ekibastusz Station that evening.


      On board the train – 4 beds in each room. Comfortable and clean

    4. Mon 3rd May

      Kurchatov/Nuclear Test Epicentre

      • We arrive very early in the morning in Kurchatov and head for an early check-in at a local hotel as well as breakfast and freshening up after the train ride. Then our atomic adventure begins! Kurchatov was founded in 1947 simply to make Soviet Nuclear weapons a reality. Under the control of the KGB Chief Lavrentiy Beria and scientist Igor Kurchatov, this is where the arms race became a two-horse event.
      • Museum of the Semipalatinsk Test Site – a detailed and deep explanation of what this place is, what happened here, and what affect their inventions can have. Some machines from that time are displayed here too.
      • We board our vehicle and take a drive, deep into a formerly off-limits (very off limits!) area; the Semipalatinsk Polygon – nuclear testing ground chosen due to its remoteness, lack of population, and because it seemed like a good spot to blow a few things up.
      • Our target is the Nuclear Epicentre - where the first Soviet Atomic Bomb was tested: Ground Zero. We stop at markers, increasingly-destroyed bunkers and towers, as we make our way to ground zero; the epicentre of this bang heard around the world. Radiation is only higher than normal in one spot and we provide protective gear of course.
      • We spend some time checking out more of the relics of this ground-breaking (literally) test before returning to the Kurchatov once more
      • Next stop is Chagan – once a deeply secret long-range bomber base. Now a deeply abandoned former long-range bomber base. See the massive runways, the remaining ammunition hangars, and the collapsing main buildings of the base. Plus the garrison town nearby which housed the base staff from 1954 to 1994 and now stands completely stripped like a spooky post-apocalyptic warning. A bit of UrbEx here to finish the day.

      Overnight | Mayak Hotel – not named for the site of another nuclear disaster - see here. Mayak means ‘Beacon’ and was a common name for places and institutions in the USSR. This 1980s beauty belongs to the Kazakh Institute of Atomic Energy. Fans of the Soviet Aesthetic will adore this place!

    5. Tues 4th May

      Atomic Lake/Kurchatov

      • We again go deep into the Polygon, this time we head for the sinister-sounding Atomic Lake.
      • We’ll make a few stops on the way through but most significantly Atomic Lake – caused by a deep underground nuclear blast – this was in fact made deliberately and is known as the world’s first and only use of industrial nuclear weapons. Find out what on earth they were thinking and also meet some fishermen looking for three-eyed fish in the 180m deep lake.
      • We’ll have a Roadside Picnic (note to non-literature lovers, this is a joke – read this book and you will find some eerie similarities to this part of the trip) and continue to see some relics of the testing program. A local expert will also be with us to explain in detail, answer questions, etc.
      • We arrive back in Kurchatov where we’ll have a walking tour of this semi-abandoned settlement dotted with monuments, fascinating buildings, and of course locals going about their lives.
      • A free evening to explore the town – there are cafes and bars, the locals are friendly and curious. It’s walkable and hospitable (one shop even has town souvenirs). Get out there and enjoy it!

      Overnight | Mayak Hotel

    6. Wed 5th May


      • Back to Kurchatov Railway Station for a 2 hour ride in comfort across the steppe to the nearby city of Semipalatinsk.
      • Semipalatinsk is actually the former name of this city, correctly it is now referred to as Semey, we explore with a city tour of this little-visited settlement.
      • Once upon a time Semipalatinsk was a wealthy trading city, situated between China and Russia, as well as acting as a gateway to the Central Asian territories added to the Russian Empire in the 19th Century. We will explore mainly on foot and see buildings from various eras, statues and monuments, mosaics and a little-known part of history. All explained to us as we make our way around this unexpectedly-charming place. Sites we visit include...
      • Lenin Alley – a common sight in Kazakhstan’s smaller cities; a collection of Lenins in a nice park setting. The central piece is particularly impressive.
      • Victory Park – with statues, tank monument, and a hang-out place for locals.
      • Dostoyevsky Museum – the titan of Russian Literature was exiled out here in Semipalatinsk and this museum explains the importance of his works. Pro-tip: read Crime and Punishment before your visit.
      • After lunch we liberate you for free time – a couple of recommendations include;​​​​​​Fine Arts Museum – not just the best collection in Kazakhstan but also a display of abnormal anatomy, something quirky and troubling (especially with our trip to the nuclear test site coming up)
        Stronger Than Death Monument – in the Tatar section of town (itself an attraction we will explore some more) – shows the resilience of those who live and have lived in this remote part of the world.
      • We plan a special addition to the local experience on this tour too, see for yourself on the trip!

      Overnight | Semey Hotel – very Soviet-style place with an aesthetic unlike what you may be used to! All the charm of the late-USSR but with free wifi! You’ll love it!

    7. Thurs 6th May

      To Karaganda

      • We rise early and drive a mere 250km east to Ust-Kamenogorsk. Our destination is simply the airport where we board a local flight to take us over the test-sites, abandoned gulags, coal mines, fields, and miles of endless undulating grasses that make up eastern Kazakhstan. Our final destination today is the city of Karaganda. We will find time before the flight for a quick walk in a local park with an excellent collection of Lenin Statues and Soviet-era tanks
      • An introductory walking tour of the city centre - focusing on the architecture, history, and local culture of this city (all of which is varied and fascinating), we’ll visit the central park as well and see and mix with locals spending leisure time here.
      • Karaganda is a large city but with a very walkable centre – the Russian/Soviet influence here is strong and our guide (a local to this place) will tell us all about the city, you’ll find it fascinating for sure! He can also recommend good spots for dinner/evening socialising/etc

      Overnight | Chaika Hotel – amazing brutalist Soviet monstrosity. Real time-warp stuff. One part of the hotel was built specifically for the visit of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The rooms are comfy and modern, the building itself is timeless!

    8. Fri 7th May


      • We drive an hour out to the museum of KarLag, the local gulag system – a dark part of history indeed told through the rooms of this former NKVD HQ. State ‘enemies’, departed nationalities (a vast number of whom were dumped in central Asia due to Stalin’s paranoia about enemies within – the largest numbers being Germans from the west and Koreans from the east. Their stories are told here in this chilling memorial to the all-too-recent evils.
      • The village around this museum is made up largely of former Gulag barracks, admin buildings, and medical centres, we will take a look around and also visit the depressing cemetery for children who died in this cruel system.
      • The nearby town of Shahtinsk hosts us for lunch and some views of local industries; coal mining primarily, but also steel production and agriculture.
      • In the afternoon we offer the choice between free time to further explore Karaganda city or a trip to a former execution ground (what a choice, we know!) marked by tasteful and meaningful memorials to the various nationalities whose people were among the unfortunate souls to perish here.
      • In the evening we will board the modern Spanish-made overnight train for a trip to the south of Kazakhstan, and the largest of the nation’s cities - Almaty, 1000km away through the night.


      On the train. Comfy beds in small, but modern and spotless rooms

    9. Sat 8th May


      • We arrive in the morning in the cultural capital (and former actual capital) or Kazakhstan. The beautiful city of Almaty. Nestled against the precipitous Tian Shan Mountain range and dotted with parks, theatres, boulevards, and much more, this is a modern multi-cultural city wrongfully ignored too little-known.
      • Almaty Metro – one of only two subway systems in the whole of Central Asia (the other is the Moscow knock-off in Tashkent) this system opened in 2012 and strikes a balance between Moscow opulence and modern efficiency.
      • Green Bazaar & Rakhat Chocolate Factory – these neighbouring sites are local institutions. You can smell the sweetness from the latter all across this part of the city. Banter and barter with sellers in the market, pick up the apples that Almaty if known for as well as all manner of other delicious local delicacies. Get your sweet tooth into action with the terrific and very affordable selection at the chocolate factory (ideal for gifts too!)
      • Panfilovets Park – Almaty's main place of leisure. Very pleasant and marked with stunning and evocative monuments to the Kazakh soldiers who fell while fighting to defend Moscow from the Nazi invasion. Zenkov Cathedral is also located in this park.
      • Central Mosque – With its broad ethnic mixture and clear secularism it is easy to forget that Kazakhstan is a majority-Muslim country. We’ll have a look at the main mosque in Almaty to see how the locals worship and what their faith means to them.
      • Arbat Street – every good former USSR town has one; a pedestrian area ideal for promenading, window shopping, café culture, public art sales, and so on. This one is very modern and it lined with some great examples of brutalist apartment buildings.
      • Kok-Tebe – a cable car ride up to a mountain overlooking the city. Amazing views, a statue of the Beatles, A Ferris Wheel and toboggan ride, small zoo, bars, and entertainment in general. Simply put this is the city’s best spot and a very popular area for local families, youths, and everyone really. We’ll have a final lunch of the tour here. A fitting relaxing end to an intense, mind-blowing week!

      Overnight | Hotel Kazakhstan – a towering monstrosity offering great views over the city as well as faded-luxury. An iconic structure in an iconic city; ideal for finishing off our Kazakhstan adventure. 

    10. Sun 9th May


      One of the biggest days in the Kazakh and general post-soviet calendar; May 9th is the anniversary of the end of World War 2, known here as the Great Patriotic War. While the territory of Kazakhstan was not the scene of any battles still a great many men from this part of the USSR were called up and deployed to the front, of course, many never returned.

      This morning the Immortal Battalion marches; this is the name given to those who keep the memories of their family members who took part in this civilisational struggle and every year gather to hold pictures of their heroes aloft and march through the city in their hundreds of thousands, cheering, singing, celebrating, and marking their memories and sacrifices. It is a touching, magnificent, and unforgettable spectacle. and it is open to anyone who wants to march along, take photos, join in as much or as little as you like.

      Committing the whole morning to this experience is customary, so be ready for an exhilarating time with the families of those who took part on the Soviet side of WWII, often-overlooked int he west, joining the Immortal Battalion will give you a sense of how much the bravery of these people matters to their relatives decades later.

      The rest of the day is yours to do with as you will; locals flock to bars and coffee shops, sit around in parks or simply go home. Mae the most of this national holiday at your leisure there are concerts and events in parks sometimes, lots to see and do, or just park yourself at one o the cioty's amazing cafes and unwind after an amazing experience!

      Overnight | Hotel Kazakhstan, Almaty

    11. Mon 10th May

      Departure Day

      Flights leave from Almaty airport to various destinations both international and domestic. Let us know where you are going and we will get you there in time!

      You may also wish to spend more time in Almaty, a truly lovely city – walkable, friendly people, lots to see and do. We recommend continuing at least one more day to make the most of the trip – you won’t regret it!

      Don’t forget that Almaty is also very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan – the capital city of Bishkek is just a few hours away and there are buses and shared taxis plying this route very frequently. We can help with this if you like and can recommend a visit to Bishkek too

      TOP RECOMMENDATION – However this is the best choice – Join our tour to TURKMENISTAN! If you take this option you would miss out on part of the Turkmenistan tour but you would be there in time for the trip to the amazing Darvaza Gas Crater, as well as some of the sights of Ashgabat and beyond. The flight from Almaty to Ashgabat is at 02:00 this day so an early start but all the better to make the most of the continuing adventure. So, join the ranks of Koryo Tours’ extra-special veterans and extend Central Asia adventure with us – it’s the best way to see the most amazing parts of the region!


  • Extras

    • Upgrade to your own room in Kazakhstan

      All hotel rooms on our all-inclusive group tours to Kazakhstan feature twin beds, and will be shared. If you'd like a room to yourself then you can upgrade for an extra $30 USD per night

  • What is / is not included?


    • English-speaking local guide Western tour leader
    • Meals other than those taken at leisure
    • Accommodation Internal flight Internal train
    • All included sight - seeing All taxes & entrance fees to areas where special permits are required
    • Airport transfers
    • An amazing time in a fascinating country!


    • Tips for local guides and drivers Incidentals, extra drinks, etc
    • Optional single supplement: USD 30 per night
    • Visa fee - depending on nationality – most western nationalities do not need visas to Kazakhstan
    • Please do check first to be sure
    • International flights to/from Kazakhstan not included
  • Notes

    How to Apply: To apply simply click on the application button listed with this tour and fill out the online form, upload a passport copy and photo (or send to us by email) and you can consider yourself to be booked on this adventure! For any questions, comments, etc about this trip get in touch with Simon Cockerell at [email protected] We ask for application to be complete a minimum of one month in advance of the tour, ideally six weeks or more if possible: Please also indicate where you plan to join the tour from and finish the tour by going (we can offer advice on this, drop us a line to discuss it) We also require a deposit to be paid at this time as we start taking on administrative costs as well as an obligation to pay for the visa invitation as soon as we send off an application. We ask for a deposit of 50% of the tour fee. Cancellation & Refunds: Please note that if you require a visa for Kazakhstan you will need to pay this fee yourself. Most visitors do not require visas though. Check https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_policy_of_Kazakhstan We practice the same cancellation policy with this tour as we do with our DPRK tours. This is listed on our website T&C. However we do not seek profit from people who cannot go on tours but we do make arrangements and commit to payments in good faith once a booking is received and payment is made. So we always try to refund more than the minimum. As with any trip it is best to be as sure as possible that you will be able to attend the trip when making the final booking. If the tour is cancelled by Koryo Tours for any reason then a full refund is of course made. In all cases we return as much as we can and we do not take a fee for client's cancellation. Please be sure that you will definitely be joining the tour when you send all application details.

Please apply by 20th March, 2021.

Next tour departure dates

Explore Kazakhstan | May Day to Victory Day

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[email protected] | + 86 10 6416 7544
Room A409, Jucai Building. No. 76 Caoyuan Hutong.
Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100027, PR China

中国北京市东城区草园胡同76号聚才大厦A 座409 室,
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