Kazakhstan Polygon Tour

Aug 17, 2023
Aug 20, 2023
4 days


Heard of Chernobyl? You know, possibly the most famous accident in recent history, so disastrous that it’s almost unbelievable. Well this is Kazakhstan’s answer to Chernobyl – but it was done on purpose. The test site at Semeypalatinsk, or the Polygon, is where the Soviet Union did the majority of their nuclear testing, performing 456 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989, with a total of 2,500 times the power of the bombs dropped at Hiroshima. The area used to be closed off, but is now open to those with permits.

Although our tour is centred around exploring the test site and surrounding areas, we’ll start off in futuristic Nur Sultan (formerly known as Astana, formerly known as Akmola, formerly known as Tselinograd, and soon to be something else), and end in the cosmopolitan city, and former capital, of Almaty.

View the full itinerary

If you'd like to see some more of Central Asia while you're here, check out our Central Asia Mega Tour which covers Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and more of Kazakhstan.

If you like the look of this tour but the dates don't work for you, or you'd like to do part of the tour, please get in touch and let us know. All our tours are able to be split into smaller sections, we're always scheduling new tours and your dates might work for one of them, or we can always organise an independent tour.


Accommodation in twin share at roughly 3 star hotels/guesthouses, breakfast included

Permits for Polygon Test Site Area

Transport as per itinerary

Entrance fees to most sites (as per itinerary)

SAIGA guide and local guides



Visa fees if necessary

Visa support if necessary

Meals other than breakfast

Transport to and from the start and end of tour

Personal expenses such as souvenirs or any optional activities

PCR Tests and any other COVID related expenses


See the surreal Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site

Visit the futuristic purpose built capital Nur-Sultan

Find Lenin: Although hidden there's still much left over from the Soviet Union

Day 1Thu Aug 17
  • We will spend today exploring this very spread out, but ridiculously impressive city.
  • Built in 1997, Astana resembles in many ways other cities such as Ashgabat, or to a lesser extent Baku. Clearly built from nothing at the snap of a finger, several of the world's most iconic architects were given carte blanche and tasked with the epic job of designing an incredibly unique city.
  • We'll start the city tour with a visit to Bayterek. Sometimes referred to as the “Chupa Chup” because it looks like one, Bayterek has become a symbol of Astana. From the viewing platform, which is 97 meters high, symbolising the year of the city becoming capital, you can get spectacular views over the new city.
  • Next we'll visit the Palace of Independence, the shopping and entertainment centre "Khan Shatyr", probably Astana's most famous building. The building is in the shape of a giant, slightly lop-sided tent, and it's got everything inside that you might want. Restaurants, luxury shops, and even an aquapark which has sand imported from the Maldives.
  • What's in a name? Although currently known as  Astana, it was known as Nur Sultan (after the first President of Kazakhstan Nur Sultan Nazarbayev) from 2019 until 2022, before that the city was known as Astana for the first time. Before 1997 it was Tselinograd, and before that it was Akmola or Akmolinsk in Russian.
  • We'll have an early dinner and head to the train station to catch an overnight train to Kurchatov.
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Day 2Fri Aug 18
Nuclear Test Sites, Kurchatov
  • We'll arrive at Degelen Train Station early in the morning. For anyone following a map, or familiar with these locations, you might be wondering why we're getting off at Degelen, a town 130km south of our actual destination of Kurchatov. During the Soviet Union, this was one of the most prestigious and important towns in the whole country, but it was also equally as secretive, and they literally named the train station after a different town so that the location wasn't given away.
  • Leaving the town, we'll start seeing the nuclear sites themselves . Our first stop is the famous atomic lake. This lake was made by an explosion 25 times greater than Hiroshima. While it might look like the lake was an interesting consequence of the testing, it was in fact an intentional side effect, as the experiments were designed for earth-moving purposes to artificially create lakes, harbours and canals. Unbelievably, locals fish in the lake, despite warnings by authorities that it is hazardous.
  • We’ll then head back to Kurchatov, a formerly closed city, named after Igor Kurchatov, the founder of the Soviet nuclear programme, where the headquarters of the nuclear testing was based. And we'll spend the evening exploring this eerie and bizarre town. Due to its importance and the stature of the residents, this was a resplendent town, full of grandeur - wide boulevards, impressive buildings with grand entrances, the most expensive housing available. Most of the town is derelict now as there is no employment to sustain the town’s population, so it's a great place to explore and get your abandoned Soviet stuff fix.
  • The accommodation tonight will also be a very Soviet experience, in the only hotel in town.
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Day 3Sat Aug 19
Kurchatov, Polygon, Semey
  • Before leaving Kurchatov, we’ll visit the Museum of the Semipalatinsk Test Site, which not just anyone can visit – they require a permit organised in advance, but don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for. This small museum gives you an idea of the history and effects of the nuclear testing done here.
  • We’ll then continue on to more of the nuclear test site – known as the Polygon . 456 Nuclear tests were conducted here, and the effects can be witnessed first-hand with the destroyed surroundings and large craters caused by the explosions.
  • We’ll explore the bunkers used by those performing the tests and the epicentres of the explosions.
  • In the afternoon we’ll check on the Chagan abandoned airbase. During the Cold War this was home to one of the Soviet Union’s main air force bases for the deployment of long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons. The location is interesting as it’s on the Chinese border. Part of the reason for its location was the rising tensions due to the Sino-Soviet split.
  • We'll arrive in Semey in the evening. Semey is definitely not on the normal tourist trail, though it will feel a lot more like civilisation compared to Kurchatov. Some will know it by its Russian name – Semipalatinsk. Semey is the epitome of Soviet Kazakhstan and was formerly one of the main cities in the north of the country, although it’s now overshadowed by nearby Astana (Nur Sultan). Semey is also said to have a much stronger Russian character compared with most of Kazakhstan, owing to the closeness to the Russian border and the large scientific community.
  • We’ll take a look around town admiring the mosaics and public art. We'll stop at the "I Love Semey" sign, see examples of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture, and the "Stronger than Death" anti-nuclear monument. We'll end up at what will probably be a highlight of Semey - the famous Lenin Alley. It's literally a line of Lenin busts and statues.
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Day 4Sun Aug 20
Semey, Almaty, End of Tour
  • Free time in the morning.
  • We head south today, and while it would be great to go overland, the distance we’ll be covering would take a couple of days, so instead we’ll catch a flight to Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and until 1997, its capital. As is becoming increasingly common in Kazakhstan, Almaty was formerly known as Alma-Ata and before that Verny.
  • This brings us to the end of your Polygon Adventure. If you'd like to see some more of Kazakhstan while you're here, join us for the rest of the Kazakhstan Mega Tour .
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