A country of anomalies
Kurghalzhino Nature reserve, 150 k m south west of Astana, Kazakhstan
Here it is, the blog I had such good intentions of writing last night until we got collared by our vodka swilling friends. Since Jo doesn’t drink and my mother doesn’t like swigging back glassfuls of vodka, it was left to me to do the toasts keep the union jack flying high. Unfortunately that meant no blog, no video diary, a rather pie-eyed attempt at Badminton and no intended run.
I feel like I have hardly written a blog recently, having got so into the habit in China, our writing has slightly fallen by the wayside in Kazakhstan. This week my excuse is that I have been busily writing a piece for the Mail on Sunday, which should hopefully be in the review section this weekend. Its been a bit of a pavlova, as Jo would say, with a flurry of emails going back and forwards between myself and my friend Anna at the Mail. Thank you so much Anna for all your help and can’t wait to chat about normal, non- work related things next week xx.
Back to Balkash, where I last put pen to paper, as it were. In a perverse way, Balkash was one of the most interesting places I have ever been. A few months ago I read AA Gill’s excellent account of his visit to Moynaq, on the shores of what was once the Aral Sea in west Kazakhstan. He describes it as the ‘worst place in the world’, with the rusting ghosts of fishing boats languishing in the middle of the desert, 150 km from the edge of the sea they once fished. Lake Balkash, Central Asia’s 4th largest lake, is going the same way and a UN report in 2004 stated that over 2000 km2 had already been lost, largely thanks to over use of the Ili River in China. For the visitor, this is not yet apparent, but the pollution and poverty are. In the 1930’s the Russians set up Copper smelting works in the town, on the north shore of the lake, and these grim chimneys still pump out poison into the atmosphere daily. Chromosomal diseases are on the rise, and many of the residents of Balkash complain of constant headaches. I even noticed it, the acid smoke getting in the back of your throat and causing you to choke. Our new friend Maxat, told us that the factory is one of the biggest in the world and employs 17 different nationalities and that British and Canadian pollution experts are currently working to reduced the impact of the factories on the environment. Until then, it remains yet another example of the Russian legacy to Kazkakhstan, along with the shrinking Aral Sea and the nuclear testing ground at Semey.
(Quick interlude, my new friend Morgea just brought us some freshly caught fish for breakfast, so kind.)
Yet despite the pollution, the filth, the dereliction and the disintegrating apartment blocks, Balkash had its good points. As Jo has already written, we were saved by a young Kazakh called Maxat, who found us a mechanic and filled the holes which my elementary Russian couldn’t cover. Neither of us can get over how kind and generous the Kazkahs are, they will go to any lengths to help you and make you feel welcome in their country. At times, however, this can go a little far. Whilst navigating our way through Karaganda two nights ago a white Mercedes drew up beside us. The blacked-out window wound down to reveal a gleaming set of gold teeth owned by a handsome young Kazakh. "Where are you going?" He shouted in Russian. For the next ten minutes we drove in precarious tandem to our hotel, me attempting to dodge the oncoming traffic while simultaneously conducting a conversation with Goldie next door. Later that night the same man, dressed head to toe in pin stripes and moc-croc, burst into our hotel room brandishing beer and insisting he showed us round the local hotspots. After much polite negotiation, we declined and he was off as rapidly as he had appeared. How he found his way to our hotel room remains a mystery.
The Kazakhs also have a nerve-wracking habit of pulling up beside you at 60 mph, so close you could tweak their moustaches, and firing a barrage of questions at you, “Where are you from? How much was your car? Where are you going? Do you want to come and stay with me?” The more persistent ones force you to pull over and have impromptu photoshoots, the encounter ending with a handing out of phone numbers and insistence you pay them a visit. Yesterday it was two cars full of ‘Polizi’, all apparently called Eric, the day before a BMW crammed with well-fed men, whom I felt sure were up to no good.
We have spent the last 36 hours in the Kurghalzhino Nature Reserve, famed for its pink flamingos, of which we have seen not a whisker. It’s a strange place, a cursory attempt at eco-tourism which doesn’t quite work. We are the only people staying here and the rest of the inhabitants are builders and random, slightly drunk men. Our arrival here the other night was even odder. Having driven along the longest, straightest road from Astana (where I had completely lost my rag after getting lost for ages) we came to the town of Khurgalzhino, which we assumed must be where the reserve was. It was 8 pm and the sun was sinking rapidly in th sky. After a brief diversion from the village drunk we ascertained that in fact the reserve was another 45 km’s up a dirt track…so off we sped. Atlast, out of the gloom, appeared the gateway to the ‘famous’ reserve, which we had been assured was well signed. As we pulled up, a ruddy faced, inebriated looking Russian limped out of the wooden hut, clearly wondering whether he was hallucinating or not. We quickly discoved that the reserve was closed for the night and we would have to wait till the morning to get in. We looked around despondently – nothing for miles. Just the lonely steppes. Eventually, after much pleading and gesturing that my mother was far too old and delicate to camp (which she isn’t), and a series of phonecalls to the ‘Director’ our luck changed. Nikolai, the limping Russian, who smelt exceptionally sheepy, gave us our tickets, relieved us of $60 and off we went, assuring us that 8km beyond was a Gostiniza, with soft towels and moonshine. As we tukked off down the track into the darkness (it was now 10pm) I found it hard to believe that there was any civilization in such a place, let alone hot water and a place to lay our heads for the night. What we found, was a strange collection of wooden hurts, a single yurt and a lot of drunk Kazakhs. After haggling for another half an hour over the costs of our simple hut, we hit the sack, exhausted.
Its eight weeks on Sunday since we left Bangkok, amazing. Neither Jo or I can believe it. Even stranger is the fact that we’ve been in Kazkahstan for ten days, and it seems like only yesterday that we were sitting by Saryam Lake mourning the end of our passage through China. In two days we will be in Russia, leaving Asia firmly behind us. Kazakhstan has been a curious experience, it’s a country of anomalies where nothing quite adds up, neither Asia or Europe, but betwixt and between. It’s the ninth largest country in the world, yet with a population of only 15 million, and falling. Its (benevolent) dictator Nazarbaev, has a grandiose economic plan for the country “Kazakhstan 2030”, yet everywhere you go poverty stares you in the face. I saw a perfect example of this in Balkash. In front of a decrepit tower block stood a huge “Kazakhtan 2030” sign, the golden snow-leopard peeling off the blue-paintwork. It seemed a microcosm of Kazakhstan, trying so hard to escape the shackles of poverty and the Soviet era, but not yet able to shed its old skin.
Kazakhstan is also full of anomalies in other, minor ways. In Karaghanda two nights ago, a steppe town famed for coal and gulags, we found ourselves in a Belgian restaurant, serving Hoegarden and waffles. And in Almaty last week, we had a pint of Guinness in an Irish Pub called Mad Murphy’s where a trio of maudlin Russians sang bizarre renditions of Beatles songs.
That’s it for now. We’re off to Astana today and my Ma flies home tomorrow to leave us to Russia and its rhinoceros sized mosquitoes. xx