Stage 1 – Ukraine, Russia & Kazakhstan: To The Altai Mountains [2/2]
Kazakhstan. The world’s ninth largest country. Holder of a considerable proportion of the world’s known gas and oil reserves. Rich in minerals. Home of the apple, and quite possibly the tulip too. Sadly, Kazakhstan seems known in the western world more for a certain fictional character. To Russians its name also has often negative connotations; vast, uncivilised steppes, gulags, wasteland. Kazakhstan has turned out to be one of my favourite countries in the region. To date, I’ve made five visits. I love the solitude of steppe, the long days of driving across featureless wilderness. Delve a little deeper in this country however, and one finds many delights; ancient petroglyphs, testament to millennia of continuous inhabitation; ruined cities of the old Silk Road which hint at past glory and, in places, a budding cultural renaissance. The Soviets viewed Kazakhstan as a void in which to exile dissidents, test nuclear weapons, and operate vast industries and ill-conceived agricultural projects without regard for the local environment or population. The centuries-old nomadic culture of the Kazakhs was ruthlessly eliminated in the early twentieth century in favour of disastrous collectivisation. By the time of independence, which was something of a windfall for the country, Kazakhstan was a neglected backwater. Today Kazakhstan has by far the most dynamic economy in Central Asia and, led by the highly popular Nursultan Nazarbayev, is making an entry onto the world stage. The country is not exactly bursting with historical or cultural attractions, but in this modesty lies for me perhaps its greatest appeal. One certainly doesn’t run into too many other visitors here.
On the 30th June 2007 I cross the border with surprisingly little fuss, and enter Kazakhstan for the first time. The soil immediately becomes thinner, sandier, far less productive, and one can see quite clearly here where the border would have been drawn between the Russian settlers on their fertile Siberian soils, and the Kazakh nomads herding livestock over the sparse grasses of the steppe. As a consequence, the settlements here are even more spread-out than in Russia’s sparsely populated Altai Territory immediately to the north. The land looks wilder, and the vistas longer. The marvellous desolation is broken only when I approach the first city, Semey. Formerly known as Semipalatinsk, the city was established as part of a line of fortresses during the southward expansion of the Russian Empire, with the lonely Yamyshevsky Gate the only surving part of the city’s eighteenth century fortress. The name Semipalatinsk is however synonymous with nuclear weapons testing, as it was at a site around 150 kilometres away that the Soviet Union conducted its test program from the 1940s to 1990s. The city also hosted Fyodor Dostoyevsky during his exile, and was most likely the setting for Raskolnikov’s exile in ‘Crime and Punishment’. It’s an interesting introduction to Central Asia; although in reality, it has culturally more in common with the Russian cities to the north than with cities of southern Kazakhstan such as Taraz or Shymkent, it does feel a step closer to the bustle and colour of Asia.
The city shows clear signs emerging from a long period of economic slumber, with new buildings popping up in the centre along roads which look like they have been bombed; a smorgasbord of large holes filled with muddy rainwater. The atmosphere seems to be optimistic however, and is far more relaxed than Russia. I spend my time exploring the bustling and colourful bazaar, which definitely brings me a step closer to the Orient than to Russia, and retire to my hotel room with delicious kebabs and cold beer. Life is pretty good.
One thing which certainly catches my eye here are the young Kazakh women; often thin, elegant and pretty, with strong oriental features tempered only slightly by a refined Asian softness. In subsequent travels in Kazakhstan, I would start to notice that these women, in addition to being highly attractive, were often markedly more ambitious, worldly and industrious than the men, whose interests usually seem to lie more in drinking, cars and money. It was a pattern I would see repeated in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.
Two things have brought me to Eastern Kazakhstan; the glorious Altai Mountains (which sit on the four-border area of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China), and the prospect of getting a look at the former Soviet nuclear weapons institute out in the wilderness, close to the actual test site. I had once read a newspaper article which described a rather gory museum in the nuclear institute which included among other things, a collection of jars containing various parts of unfortunate animals which were tethered close to nuclear explosions. From the moment I read the article, I was determined to visit. The town which hosts the institute is named after Soviet nuclear scientist Igor Kurchatov, and is reached by a road which follows the lazy Irtysh river, and passes through semi- and wholly abandoned villages where today the remaining inhabitants suffer from an unusually high incidence of genetic defects. The landscape is utterly desolate; to the southwest is a low range of hills where many of the actual tests were carried out. It rather looks like the kind of place one would test nuclear weapons.
Reaching Kurchatov I locate the institute after some initial communication difficulties. The guard in the entrance building where I turn up unannounced is naturally suspicious of my motives, but takes my passport in and returns after twenty minutes with a note, in English, inviting me for a private tour later that afternoon. I spend the intervening time looking around the numerous abandoned buildings; apartments, shops, schools, even scientific laboratories, where trees and waist-high grass sprout out of the broken concrete pavements and yards. Mature shrubs grow in the roofs of the apartment buildings, sad shells of what was once a busy town. It’s tempting to think that some terrible nuclear disaster wrought such widespread dereliction to the town, but it’s just another victim of the collapse of the USSR. Much of Kurchatov’s population (which shrank from around twenty-five thousand to eight thousand) were Russian Army personnel, who returned to Russia after 1991. In time, I would find a number of semi-abandoned cities, but Kurchatov was the most intriguing.
At the agreed time I return to the institute and begin my tour of the museum, conducted in Russian by a senior scientist, accompanied by a translator and another woman who keeps a very close eye on me lest I sneak a photograph, or perhaps pocket some of the exhibits. The museum turns out to be pretty good. There’s a macabre model of the first nuclear test site, with the bomb suspended in a gantry above the ground, surrounded by tanks, aeroplanes and other military hardware, simple buildings and a total of 1350 tethered animals; dogs, cows, pigs, horse and even a model camel sits on the diorama (though I feel the latter may be just to cater to local tastes). In glass jars of formaldehyde are the remains of some animals, with bluntly clinical labels such as ‘dog bladder-wall haemorrhage’, ‘third-degree burns of sheep head’, and my personal favourite, ‘multiple haemorrhage of dog thorax wall’. Among the less traumatising exhibits are a series of still images from a high-speed recording of some atmospheric tests, showing the development of an apocalyptic mushroom cloud, and a two centimetre thick cylindrical steel shroud which has been twisted in one of the tests like a piece of scrunched-up aluminium foil. At the end of the tour, the staff enquire after which organisation has sent me here to visit, and it takes a couple of attempts to explain that I am an independent visitor. The reaction is one of bewilderment however, rather than suspicion; that I would have driven all the way here from the UK to visit this forsaken and crumbling town in the middle of absolutely nowhere. My voyeuristic urges well and truly satisfied, I head out of town back towards Semey. A natural mushroom-cloud gathers silently beyond the broken rooftops, discharging occasional lances of pink lightning. It seems fitting for an area with such a violent history.
There’s something rather special about the Altai Mountains, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s said to be one of the ‘world energy centres’ and possible location of Shangri-La, and while I’m no fan of new-age mysticism, I do agree that they have a quality which I’ve not found anywhere else. I personally attribute it more to their remote, highly continental location well away from any cities or industry, a rich animist history (there are still practising shamans in the region), and a kind of fairytale neatness to the landscape. The Kazakhstani section of the Altai Mountains, which lies on the southern side of the highest peaks, is one of the least-visited areas, requiring a border permit application to be made months in advance. I collect my permit in the town of Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk), where I have a run-in with the authorities when I attempt to register. After a few hours of difficulties, which end with being escorted by a friendly and heart-stoppingly attractive young Uyghur woman to the appropriate authority, I have all my paperwork in order and may (somewhat reluctantly) proceed. The road out of Oskemen climbs gently into the foothills which have an extraordinary beauty of soft, green rolling hills strewn with wildflowers, clear rivers and idyllic Siberian villages of wooden homes. While the Russian Altai is somewhat stark and severe in its beauty, the land here is subtly different; benign and liveable and populated by Slavs and Kazakhs. In the town of Katon-Karaghay I stop in the early afternoon to make another registration at a national park office, where I meet Alia, a German-speaking entomologist gives me the details of a local family up in the mountains who hire horses.
Leaving town, the landscape gradually pulls in, with unspoilt ridges of dark green pine forest appearing either side of the road. An hour up a side track into the forest I reach the village of Yazevka, where I turn up wholly unannounced at the house of the Lupshchanov family, with nothing but a hand-written letter from the entomologist explaining what I wish to do. The family are very welcoming, and I’m soon being fed delicious smetana (sour cream) on fresh bread with wild-strawberry jam (easily the best I’ve ever tasted), all home-made.
The following morning I’m given a horse and a horse and a guide in order to reach the utter end of Kazakhstan; a salient of land sticking into Russia at the foot of Mount Belukha, the seldom-seen giant, perpetually snow-clad highest peak in Siberia. The horse trekking doesn’t start too well; the weather is cool, with low clouds pouring rain. This doesn’t however deter the swarms of midges, mosquitoes and horseflies, which are present in a volume I’d previously thought impossible. Never before (and never since) have I seen such biblical swarms of biting insects. My guide Farhat immediately begins drinking vodka when we leave the family home, though seems to be holding it well until he chooses to have a quick nap under a tree, while his horse runs off into Russia. Worst of all however is my Kazakh saddle; hard, unpadded leather which by the end of the day is cutting into me. After following a barely discernible path for several hours, which at one point veers into Russia, we stop for the night with some relatives of Farhat, the Bazhenovas who in traditional Kazakh-style are on summer pastures in their yurt (tent).
Conditions of weather and insects improve the next day, but sadly the condition of my posterior remains grave. The scenery is astounding however, as we track up the milky Belaya Berel river and finally steeply up a hillside into the Kokkol valley, a gorgeous grassy amphitheatre filled with orange, purple and magenta wildflowers, perched above a pristine waterfall. Huge Siberian snowpeaks loom a few kilometres to the north on the Russian border, capped with views of the rarely-seen southern side of Belukha. It’s absolutely sublime, and has been worth all the effort of getting here. The area is pristine, untouched but for the few Kazakh families who herd animals nearby, and some tumbledown remains of an old Gulag; grizzly Soviet history overcome once more by stunning natural beauty. An old turbaza (mountain refuge) reveals that this was once a place people visited for recreation, evidenced by extensive Soviet-era graffiti, starting in the early 1970s but abruptly stopping in 1991. I leave an inscription, and wonder how many other visitors ever make it this far.
Retracing our steps back towards Yazevka, we pass the jewel-blue Lake Yazovoye, where Farhat and I get into an abandoned pedalo and are rewarded with an even finer view of Belukha from out on the lake. In the evening, after an early supper I say a fond farewell to a sober Farhat and his delightful family (his mother gives me a jar of fresh wild-strawberry), and start my journey towards the south.
Initially, the route takes me back the way I came, through Katon Karaghay, but before reaching Oskemen I take a road to the south, which becomes increasingly quiet and isolated until it ends at a rusting ferry pontoon on the shore of the Irtysh, here a wide reservoir held up by the Bukhtarminskoye Dam. After ninety minutes an old ferry arrives, and about twenty cars cram on. It’s rather an odd sensation being on a ferry at one of the planet’s most continental points, which takes people from nowhere to nowhere, but any respite from the country’s atrocious roads is most welcome.
The road from the far side of the reservoir joins the M38, which runs to the north-western corner of China, but I turn off short of the border, heading southwest, into a vast open landscape, with the distannt Tarbagatay mountains to the south just visible through the cooling late-afternoon air. At the foot of these mountains, at an indeterminate distance is a wide lake which reflects the lengthening sunlight with a metallic sheen. Overhead a thin stratum of cloud is dissipating into the cooling air to reveal streaks of cirrus, adding to depth of the scene. This long-distance scenery, seen alone from an empty road is really quite stunning, and I soon stop to have a break, feeling deeply serene and humbled by an awesomely vast 360-degree panorama of muted natural beauty.
The road runs for just over a thousand kilometres south-west to Almaty and as the hundreds of kilometres slowly pass (for the road condition is generally awful and my springs are still broken), one notices subtle changes in the landscape; distant mountain ranges shimmer on the Chinese border, the occasional small, squalid town or assortment of roadside shacks serving food pass by. The land flattens, then rises gently and starts to undulate. A herby, bittersweet scent fills the car as the shrubby sub-Siberian wilderness gives way to the wormwood steppes of central Kazakhstan. Wormwood has become one of the most evocative of scents for me; the merest hint of it transports my thoughts straight onto the sere steppes of High Asia.
A lone tree, or a car glinting far off in the distance are the only things which may catch the eye, and the journey once again has that soporific ocean-voyage like quality, the senses dull, and thoughts start to swell in the mind. Grassy hills draw level with the road and I start to see shepherds leading sheep to graze along the valley floors. Towns of size start to appear; not of chocolate-box Siberian cottages, but of shady streets lined by tall, elegant poplars and neat courtyard houses. The people in these small towns are almost entirely Kazakh, with elderly men wearing white topis (Muslim head caps) and sitting idle at the roadside. Hanging in the air is the omnipresent smell of woodsmoke rising from shashlik (kebab) braziers. I’m in Central Asia.