Posted by: TomA | 1 June 2008

Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk / Семипалатинск)

It is barely over a month until we leave London for Mongolia. I’m hoping over the next few weeks to find the time to do some research on some of the regions/towns/sites we’re hoping to visit on the way, which will give you an idea of what lies ahead for us!

Having had a flick through the Lonely Planet Central Asia guide last night, I thought I’d start with somewhere near the end of our route, Semey (Семей) in Kazakhstan (our last Kazakh destination in before crossing the border into Russia).

semey

The reason for my curiosity regarding Semey? Well, from 1949 until 1989 the USSR used the steppe to the west of the city as a nuclear testing ground, at the Semipalatinsk Polygon. They weren’t fussed about moving the locals out it seems, hence the area has abnormally high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects etc. The test site itself is large (the size of Wales) and having looked at the map the road we need to take passes through the eastern edge of it. As far as I can tell (and these areas are apparently completely unmarked) the core of the test site, where Geiger counters and radiation suits are essential, are far enough away from where we’ll be to not worry. However, the road we take passes beside Lake Chagan, the result of an underground nuclear test in 1965. Testing towers and bunkers are scattered around the area, so if we’ve time I’m rather looking forward to investigating the lake and exploring the towers. If we’ve time I’d like to head west 100 miles or so from Semey towards Kurchatov City, the laboratory centre for the Soviet tests, abandoned at the close of the program and only now starting to be redeveloped.

Before we leave I’ll need to do a bit more research, I’m unaware exactly where we’d be allowed go (and importantly where we’re not). I don’t expect we’d be welcomed with open arms if we stumble upon the old KGB buildings within the test site for example…

Some great panoramic photos of the lake and surrounding area can be found here.

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