This town in eastern Kazakhstan
served as the HQ for the Soviet Union
's atomic bomb testing
programme conducted on the adjacent Polygon
or Semipalatinsk Test Site. Once a "closed city", Kurchatov town can now be visited, albeit only by special arrangement.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Kurchatov is the established name of one of those infamously "secret" and "closed" cities connected with the development of nuclear weapons (and other such WMD projects) in the Soviet Union
. At first the place didn't even have any name at all, just a Semipalatinsk post code.
The town's train station is still not called Kurchatov, but Degelen (like part of the Polygon
's south, i.e. far away) – an intriguing little relic from those days of secrecy and somewhat reminiscent of Baikonur
Eventually though the town was named after the head of the Soviet nuclear programme, Igor Kurchatov, and the name has stuck to this day, i.e. the place has not been included the renaming frenzy after Kazakhstan gained independence, which gave us all those new names for old places, like Semey
Kurchatov town was founded alongside the establishment of the Semipalatinsk Test Site
, for which it served as the administrative, logistical and scientific centre for ca. 40 years. At its peak, it had up to 40,000 inhabitants. But after the closure of the test site, and the departure of the Soviet military, numbers dwindled to about a quarter of that.
With the disappearance of most of the basis for the town's economy, its infrastructure crumbled too. Much of the town now has the appearance of a ghost town
. However, people still live here – mainly in the southern part of "downtown" Kurchatov. And the economy still revolves around nuclear technologies, albeit no longer of a military nature.
The National Nuclear Centre of the Republic of Kazakhstan is based in Kurchatov. And apart from overseeing the decommissioned former test site, it is engaged in all manner of current atomic activities, not least research into civilian nuclear power generation, as well as waste management.
Hence, there's still a lot of secrecy and restrictions for normal mortals. In fact, when I visited, my guide indicated in a few vague remarks that he had the impression that things were being tightened up again, with more bureaucratic obstacles introduced than in the last decade or two; and he speculated that maybe Kurchatov could go back to being a "closed city" again in the not too distant future. But I'm in no position to either confirm or deny this. What I can confirm is that the place does indeed have very much a remote outpost atmosphere. It's certainly the kind of place that you'd want to visit as part of a pre-organized guided tour rather than independently, in particular if you a) want to stay overnight and b) gain admission to the Museum of the Test Site
At times, so I was told, the town really seizes up with security restrictions, namely when there's some mysterious loading or unloading activity going on at Kurchatov's train station … I presume that's when nuclear waste containers arrive or depart.
What there is to see:
apart from serving as a natural base for any excursions into the actual Polygon
test site, the main point of interest for the nuclear tourist is the local museum, which is mainly about nuclear testing.
Furthermore, the town is also of particular attraction to those dark tourists who get a kick out of ghost towns
and dereliction. That is because Kurchatov's population has dropped by about three-quarters since the closure of the test site and its associated "industry" of military nuclear testing. With the closure of the test site and the departure of the Russian (formerly Soviet) military structures, most of the jobs disappeared, as did the majority of the people.
Many buildings thus stand abandoned and derelict, some are boarded or bricked up, some are half collapsed. But a few are accessible for some "urban exploration" in a very unusual location.
In particular, there are a former hotel and a former Palace of Culture, located next to each other on Tauelsizdik Street. The ex-hotel still has the word "gostinitsa" (Russian for 'hotel or guest house') on the front together with a year: 1953. Yes, that would have been more or less around the "heyday" of nuclear testing (see under Polygon
). The crumbling former Palace of Culture still bears numerous little details reminiscent of the olden golden days too, such as Soviet stars on the columns inside as well as on a big relief on the outside facade. But overall, it's more about the brilliant atmosphere of general dereliction. One has to take care, though: parts of the buildings are clearly unstable – and in particular on the upper storeys, the floors are unsafe. But the staircases appear to have been built solidly enough to last longer …
At the other end of the scale, there's the modern, and thus far perfectly shiny new architecture of the "Park of Nuclear Technologies" (PNT) of the National Nuclear Centre (NNC). The most remarkable older edifice is the spotlessly refurbished local Akimat (municipal administration building). In front of the latter stands a proud large red marble statue of the town's namesake, Igor Kurchatov, featuring him with his famously flamboyant beard in its fullest glory.
Further to the south-east from the Akimat, near the river (and partly overlooking it), stands what used to be the villa of Lavrentiy Beria, the infamous former chief of national security under Stalin
who was later appointed to oversee the establishment of the USSR
's nuclear programme. So it's one of the oldest houses in Kurchatov town. Ironically, the building now serves as a Russian Orthodox church – complete with a tiny little onion-shaped blue dome added to the roof in recent years. Beria, who as a staunch Stalinist must have been an atheist through and through, will probably be spinning in his grave at nuclear-fuelled velocity!
Not far from Beria's ex-villa-turned-place-of-divine-worship, high up on the embankment of the river Irtysh, can be found a bizarre little structure that is also worth a look – and a listen! It's a complete sphere, made of some indeterminable special material, that must once have housed some sort of military equipment, maybe listening devices, who knows. But anyway, when you step inside, any noise you make is fantastically amplified through the reverberation off the spherical walls. Step on a piece of broken glass – there's plenty strewn about – and it sounds like gunshots! A spiral staircase winds its way to the top through a hole in the roof, where there's a tiny crow's nest outlook over the river. It's very wobbly up there, though.
Next to the sphere is another strange object which presumably must have had some kind of military or scientific function. In this case it's more like a giant drum in shape, mostly sunk into the ground. Stairs must once have led down the circular drum shape that descends down. But the stairs have disappeared, part of the railing at the top too (so be careful) and the bottom of the pit is filled with debris and rubbish.
A bit inland away from the river is Kurchatov's obligatory war memorial – only in this case it's an odd find, compared to other towns' memorials to the Great Patriotic War (WWII
) which you can find in virtually any settlement across the former Soviet Union
. That's because normally these monuments honour the sons of the respective towns that have fallen in battle as soldiers (i.e. "heroes" – as dead soldiers are almost by reflex declared heroes). But in this case, the town didn't even exist at the time of the war. So who is there to honour? Still, Kurchatov's planners must have felt that no Soviet town could possibly be complete without such a monument, justified or not.
The rest of the town is a mix of still lived in residential blocks and more abandoned structures. There's still some town life going on here, but it very much has the look and feel of deprivation – except at one building in front of which stands a freshly painted military monument … and a mosque that also looked more recently done up.
in East Kazakhstan
, on the river Irtysh, ca. 100 miles (150 km) west of the region's capital city of Semey
(formerly Semipalatinsk), and almost immediately adjacent to the Polygon
to the west.
Access and costs: no longer a "closed city", but still remote and partly restricted.
in theory, one can now freely travel to Kurchatov (there are regular train and bus connections to Semey
), but in practice things are a little more complicated, in particular if you want to make the most of it. That's mainly because the Museum of the Test Site can still only be visited by special arrangement, and accommodation for overnight stays (necessary if you want to carry on into the Polygon
). Or, much better still, go through a specialized agent (e.g. see under Polygon
in general for details), who can make a visit to Kurchatov part of a more comprehensive trip – in particular one including an excursion into the Polygon.
Accommodation options include a nameless guest house to the south of the Akimat, which is where I stayed – and found it an exceptionally pleasant place, with enormously spacious rooms, decent facilities, and quite palatable food. They even had wifi Internet access. All rather the exception than the rule in any remote part of Kazakhstan
There's also a Hotel Mayak (I find the name somewhat astonishing, though I don't know whether there really is any connection with the nuclear disaster place of the same name in Russia
– see Mayak
under places not to visit
) – but I was told that that hotel is not as good as the guest house. The NNC can also arrange further places to stay at.
Accommodation is typically on a full-board basis. Otherwise there'd be a few basic bars/restaurants as well as simple grocery shops in town too – but you're unlikely to need them (other than for stocking up on supplies for the road the next day perhaps).
Time required: half a day should do to see the museum and poke around some of the ruins and the other few points of interest in town.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
obviously the Polygon
, i.e. the Semipalatinsk Test Site itself that Kurchatov was the administrative service town for. Within the city of Semipalatinsk, now officially called Semey
, there's a monument to the victims of nuclear testing, and the Medical University features an especially chilling anatomical museum
where the gruesome effects of radiation can be seen in most graphically shocking bodily forms …
Those who like the semi-derelict elements of Kurchatov will love nearby Chagan
, which is a completely deserted ghost town. However, you can't actually poke around inside the ruins there, as they are in an even more derelict state of near collapse.