The long, Z-shaped Bukhtarma Reservoir was created in the 1960s by damming the Irtysh River east of Ust-Kamenogorsk. While the main purpose was to provide energy for a 675-megawatt hydropower electric station, the reservoir has become a very popular holiday spot for locals who like fishing in its waters or sunbathing and grilling meat on its shores.
The 600-kilometre-long reservoir has a surface area of 5,490 square kilometres, making it the fifth-largest reservoir in the world by the second metric.
A multi-purpose reservoir which not only supports the power plant, Bukhtarma has a storage capacity for 49.8 cubic kilometres of water. It accounts for a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total freshwater fish production, and sturgeon, sterlet and carp are among its species.
Bukhtarma is not only the largest reservoir in Kazakhstan, but among the largest of its kind in the world. Thanks to Soviet construction engineers, only a small slice of land was lost when the Irtysh was diverted.
The large-scale project was created by filling the valley with rocky subsoil, providing the East Kazakhstan region with a clean, natural-looking lake. Located approximately 120 kilometres from the city, it is a weekend resort for urban residents. They come to relax, swim and watch pretty sunsets. Bukhtarma boasts many resorts on its coasts, including Ayuda, Altai and Goluboi Zaliv.
Local authorities are trying to promote fishing tourism, particularly around Zaisan, a large freshwater lake in the eastern part of the region fed by the waters of the Black Irtysh from China and in turn feeding into the main Irtysh. Zaisan has been incorporated into the reservoir.
Bakhytzhan Zhakupov, 34, a power engineer from Almaty, is one of many locals who has fond memories of his trips to Bukhtarma. He recalled his summers on the reservoir.
“Maybe that sounds idyllic, but Bukhtarma is really part of my life. I was only three years old when my parents brought me there for the first time. Of course, I don’t remember that period of my life, but my family spent time there every summer,” he said.
“My father was a power engineer and he had tonnes of work to do in summer. That is because all serious overhaul works are usually made in summer. So, it was really hard for him to get a vacation in summer. It was a pain in the neck every time and I remember how my mom was nervous. But my dad got the vacations in summer periods every year to bring me and my sister to Bukhtarma,” he added.
Zhakupov enjoyed summers with his family and later his friends.
“They were great vacations. My sister and I were born and raised in a city. We have always lived in apartments. At Bukhtarma, however, we had an opportunity to live in a wooden house right in the mountains surrounded by a soft-wood forest. And, of course, swimming everyday was the best thing,” he said.
“We got older and when I was 16 years old, my classmates, who by the way were my best friends, planned our first trip to the reservoir for the first time. It was not organised well, as we were kids. We didn’t know how many things our parents used to bring with them and how they are useful. But anyway, this trip was great; no, GREAT! Because we were on our own, without parents and we could do anything we would like to do. And we did, by the way!” he added.
As an adult, he realized how hard his parents worked while the children vacationed.
“Many years passed and I travelled there with my wife and my kid. I had to travel with a lot of different things and stuff, because you have to bring them as you are a family guy. I understood that there are many things to do such as cleaning, cooking and looking for a kid all the time. Finally, I understood how much effort my parents made to make vacations so comfortable for us, their kids. I understood that they didn’t relax at all, but made their best to make our time spent at the bank of the reservoir so happy,” he said.
Alexei Nikitin, 36, a dentist practicing in Astana, noted Bukhtarma has always been an affordable option.
“Today almost everybody in our country has travelled to Turkey, as it is not far, has great all-inclusive hotels and is not expensive. But 20 years ago, most people in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford to travel abroad. It was very expensive. That is why most of them travelled to local lakes and reservoirs. Bukhtarma was one of the best,” he said.
“After I travelled to more than 10 countries and got used to comfort and high level of service, I decided to travel to the Bukhtarma Reservoir with a couple of my friends when I visited my parents who live in Ust-Kamenogorsk. I had nostalgia and according to my memories the place was wonderful,” he added.
The spot was enjoyable, but as an adult he viewed it through a different lens.
“In reality the place was wonderful, even amazing. I was proud that such spectacular places are located near my home city. But I found that almost nothing changed since the 1980s. Those old-style wooden houses still look very nice, but the level of comfort there is quite low. The infrastructure isn’t developed and I don’t think that somebody is going to improve it,” he said.
“Of course, there some high-class resorts and I am almost sure that they are comfortable. But I researched and spoke to my friends and fellows and made a conclusion: high-class resorts at Bukhtarma cost as much as high-class resorts in Turkey or Egypt even taking into account payment for aircraft tickets. That is why people prefer to vacation abroad if they are going to spend money and they prefer to rest at the Bukhtarma if they can’t afford foreign resorts.”
“Also, I found that domestic high-class resorts are popular among very busy people who can’t have long time vacations and prefer to spend a couple of days or a weekend in such a beautiful place,” he added.
Oleg Kuznetsov, 48, a businessperson from Ust-Kamenogorsk, enjoys the clean air.
“Like many other Ust-Kamenogorsk inhabitants, I visited Bukhtarma every year. I have two daughters and as you know air in our city is quite polluted. So, I always preferred for my children to spend as much time at the reservoir rather than to sit at home during summer holidays,” he said.
He is so fond of the area he decided to make it his summer get-away.
“I worked in construction for many years and I found that I spent a lot to rent a tiny house for three months. That is why I decided to buy a land lot and construct a big house for my family and friends,” he said.
“All my friends and relatives spent time in the house and people I didn’t know got to know that I have such good house and I was asked to let it out for money. So, I started to let the house and decided to construct the second and third houses, which were smaller, but comfortable, too. Now, 20 years later I have eight houses and this is my business,” he recounted.
“It is worth saying that the reservoir is extremely popular among tourists from Russia. Every seventh car in Ust-Kamenogorsk has a Russian license number; that is, so many tourists come to our city. Their main destination is Bukhtarma. Sometimes, you can find that every third person you meet at the reservoir’s resorts is from Russia. And as for me, that is a very good trend! The tourists bring money to our country and a lot of money,” he added.