My home in Kazakhstan (1997-1999)Karatau, Kazakhstan

Karatau means Black (Kara) Mountain (Tau) in the Kazakh language.

Karatau is a small Kazakh town with a population of roughly 30,000 people. It was one of the dying towns in Kazakhstan when I lived there between 1997-1999. Many people have left for better jobs in the bigger cities leaving behind many empty buildings. Still, I miss this quiet town where I spent two years of my young adult life.

I worked at the Karatau Lyceum for two years where I taught English to the 6th - 9th grade students. I also lived with a Kazakh host family during my time in Karatau.

The photos below were all taken around 1997-1999 during my first year in Karatau. The photos were developed in Kazakhstan and later scanned in the US.

Read the captions for my story about these images. None of these pictures were edited.

The original Welcome to Karatau sign
This is the original "Welcome to Karatau" sign. It was actually blown down after a storm in January, 2013, and replaced with a new sign. When I lived in Karatau, I got so used to seeing this sign. When I saw it, it meant that I was back home. This photo was quite popular with many people that left Karatau. I saw it posted across the different Karatau sites.
Late 1990s road in Karatau
When I think of Kazakhstan in the late 1990s, this is the image that comes to my head. This is near the center of Karatau.
Karatau Akimat
The Akimat in Karatau. I met the Akim several times during my two years in Karatau. He was very important for me in helping me craate the Talas Region English Teachers Association before I left Karatau.
View of the Karatau Lyceum in Autumn, 1997, before the apartments were demolished
The Karatau Lyceum in the distance. The apartment buildings will all be demolished before 1998.
Outskirts of Karatau
Many townspeople in Karatau moved outside of the town. Electricity was sporadic so it was easier to stay warm in these homes with coal fires. They could also easily heat up water here so there were many banyas, Russian saunas.
Thunderstorm in Karatau
This is the Karatau Lyceum where I taught for two years. I took this photo because of the unsual thunderstorm. Rainstorms were so infrequent here that when it did rain, local kids would go dancing outside in it. I am from rainy Seattle, we would never do something stupid like that (^_^).
Demolished apartments in Karatau (1997)
So many buildings were demolished in my area. I got a bit depressed early on because I was not used to seeing this much destruction in a short time. The Peace Corps Medical Officer visited in Spring, 1998, and mentioned that they would never had sent a volunteer to Karatau if they knew this would happen. Four to five more PCVs were sent to my site after me.
More demolished apartments in Karatau (1997)
More demolished apartments. Notice the plume of smoke in the distance. This meant we had heat. Winter came early in 1997 so the town was not ready for it. 1997-1998 Winter was very harsh.
Demolished apartments and coal plant running in Karatau (1997)
More the same. Despite it being winter, we did not get a lot of snowfall. Southern Kazakhstan had warmer climate but it still got cold. We had days where you got to around 20 C for 30 or more minutes and then drop below freezing. They call this extreme continental climate.
People's Victory Monument in Karatau
In Russian, the translation is roughly People's Victory to commemorate the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany.
People's Victory Monument (in Kazakh) in Karatau
Zhenis is victory in Kazakh.
The Akimat and Palace of Culture in Winter, 1997
The Akimat and Palace of Culture after the first snowstorm. My school was celebrating its anniversay at the Palace of Culture on October 31, 1997. I remember this day well. During the day it was very warm, in the 70s F. When we left in the evening it was already below freezing. The next morning it snowed. Then it got really cold and miserable. I nearly quit the Peace Corps that week. My Kazakh host family had no idea I wanted to leave but another Peace Corps Volunteer from Taraz, Ruth, made a surprised visit. She cheered me on and convinced me to stay. I did, barely.
The unfinished Karatau Mosque in 1997
This is the unfinished mosque in 1997. The story of the Karatau Mosque is that Turks ran out of money and left. The Kazakh Muslim community just prayed at their older mosque on the outskirts of town. Then one day in Spring, 1998, I heard the call to prayer from this mosque for the first time. The Muslim community decided to move into this mosque. In the 2000s they finally finished construction of this mosque. I have yet to pray in it.
Victory Parade in 1998
This was one of my last photos I took of Karatau in 1998. My students were marching in the Victory Parade.
Outskirts of Karatau in Spring, 1998
Now it is roughly spring time in 1998, some of Sharizat's students decided to take me for a walk to Zhartas (cliff in Kazakh), a manmade lake on the outskirts of Karatau. This was my second and last time walking to this side of town.
Zhartas Lake outside of Karatau, Kazakhstan
Some local people out in a boat in the Zhartas. I imagine this is a deep lake since it was a former mine in the past..
Zhartas recreational area, Karatau, Kazakhstan
A recreational area on the lake.
View of the unfinished Karatau Mosque from my host family's apartment
One of the views of the unfinished mosque from my host family's apartment. I remember taking this photo after hearing the call to prayer (azan) for the first time.

Memories of Karatau in 2021

What I find strange today, May 22, 2021, is that I do not have many pictures of Karatau in 1999. I have photos of my students in 1999 but most of my pictures were taken in 1998 or earlier. I think it was because I was traveling a lot to Taraz on the weekends.

I left Karatau in late June, 1999. My Kazakh host parents took me to Taraz.

Asan and Adigul Orazimbetov - My Kazakh Host Parents
My Kazakh host parents taking me to Taraz. I would meet them one more time in November, 1999. Unfortunately my host father passed away in 2019.

Karatau on

Here is a 2019 broadcast on Karatau. The town has completely changed.

Karatau in 2019 from
Screenshot of Karatau from clip.

Karatau in 2021

This shocks me a bit. I could not recognize Karatau in this recent video. It seems that there was a lot of investment going on in Karatau by the government.