Stage 21 – Russia & Kazakhstan: The Eurasian Steppe

21

My main goal for 2010 was to spend a long summer in Mongolia and Siberia, several thousand kilometres from my starting position in the North Caucasus. My journey to the Altai Mountains, the entry point to Mongolia, would take me right across the vast Eurasian Steppe, from the torrid lowlands of the Caspian Sea, up the Volga, lazily meandering through the very heart of Russia, and across the huge, near-emptiness of northern Kazakhstan to the southern edge of Siberia. While the destinations were rarely spectacular, the endless, gentle undulations of the steppe and the soothing lack of visual stimulation were a very memorable attraction in themselves.

Road P281, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Road P281, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

It’s the 3rd June 2010, and I have just left the town of Khasavyurt, putting behind me the Caucasus mountains and heading for the plains of northern Dagestan. Gone are the lush green surroundings of the mountainous south, replaced with a flatter, drier environment which becomes increasingly arid and scrubby as I head north. Passing the town of Kizlyar, famed for its ‘cognac’, I start to leave civilisation; rivers dry out, the canals disappear, and the distances between settlements greatly increases until it becomes true steppe; flat, hot, featureless scrubby grassland dotted with occasional isolated collective farms; long, low buildings with roofs stained orange with lichen. In this desolate, harsh environment the wonderful smell of wormwood – the quintessential fragrance of the Eurasian Steppe – fills the air, the hardy plants managing to grow in the poor, hard-baked steppe soil. Crickets somehow teem in this marginal rangeland, and in places the roads are painted red with their crushed bodies.

I cross the tiny Kuma River, the border into the Republic of Kalmykia in an utter void of a landscape. After a few kilometres, in the forlorn village of Artezian, the highway to Astrakhan simply ends, having been deliberately destroyed, and a sign marks a very spurious ‘Border Zone’ with warnings not to enter without the correct permits. This leaves just a small provincial road which cuts across the steppe towards the Kalmyk capital, Elista. As I progress north-west, further from the Caspian Sea, the steppe becomes subtly beautiful; painted in shades of khaki and yellow with occasional purples from short-lived wildflowers. The road, smooth, quiet and arrow-straight pierces the steppe under a huge, open sky streaked with thin high-altitude clouds; this is a big change from the rough, winding mountain roads on which I have been for the last few months. My hay fever stops, and I’m thrilled to be back in the serenity of the steppe, though I do have to remind myself that I am still in Europe.

Temple, near Komsomolskiy, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Temple, near Komsomolskiy, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Just past the isolated town of Komsomolskiy, I come across something yet more un-European; a tiny, white, cubic Buddhist temple topped with a simple Mongolian-style pagoda roof. Next to the temple stands a small, dead-looking tree, kept in place by a pile of votive stones like a Mongolian ovoo (shamanistic cairn), and tied with a few colourful prayer rags. Approaching the temple, a rather parched-looking shepherd emerges, asks for some water, and after taking a brief slug from my flask returns to his position of repose in the temple’s meagre shade. I am rather taken with this highly premature introduction to Mongolian culture, or rather, to the Republic of Kalmykia: Europe’s only Buddhist republic.

The Kalmyks are indeed of Mongolian ancestry, descended from the Oirats, the westernmost of the Mongol tribes, coming from the Altai Mountain region of western Mongolia. The westernmost sub-tribe of the Oirats, the Kalmyks migrated west in the early seventeenth century from eastern Kazakhstan, and settled in this Lower Volga area. The Kalmyks became allies of Russia, guarding Russian territory from the raiding Turkic tribes (principally Nogais and Kazakhs) to the south and east. The Kalmyks eventually became full subjects of Russia, but had a tumultuous relationship with the imperial power. Like the nearby Ingush (and many other groups), the Kalmyks were viewed as fifth columnists by Stalin and were systematically exiled to Siberia and Central Asia in 1943. With perhaps 50% of Kalmyks surviving to return to Russia in 1957, an autonomous Kalmyk Republic was established in 1958. Today Kalmykia is yet another interesting republic within Russia, all but unknown to the outside world. Running the republic is multi-millionaire businessman come politician Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, also president of the world chess federation, who is famed for his devotion to the game and for announcing that he had been abducted by extraterrestrials in 1997.

Lenin Square, Elista, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Lenin Square, Elista, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

In the town of Yashkul, I turn east and travel through slightly lusher, greener country to the capital, Elista which rises suddenly from the steppe. Elista seems to be a lovely place; a tidy, provincial Soviet city of Mongolian faces and oriental pagodas and gates in the distinctive crimson and yellow shades of Mongolian architecture. There is none of the tension of the North Caucasus here, I am not harassed by the police, and despite the steamy, suffocating heat, the streets are filled with beautiful girls; tall, thin oriental beauties.

At the centre of Elista is the quirky and manicured Lenin Square, a mix of preserved old Soviet architecture, pagoda-style gates and a large fountain with giant metallic lotus flowers as a nod to the official Buddhist religion of the republic. Out on the edge of town is the highly unusual ‘Chess City’, something of an Olympic Village dedicated to the game, built somewhat controversially by the idiosyncratic president. Chess City even houses a Mongolian Consulate, but after several visits the pleasant though timid secretary, who seems not even to know what a visa is, admits that the consul has left, and that his whereabouts and date of return are unknown.

Golden Temple, Elista, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Golden Temple, Elista, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Kalmykia’s most impressive edifice is the 2005 Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume (‘The Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni’), known colloquially as the Golden Temple. Huge and rather gaudy in the interior, it is Europe’s largest Buddhist temple, and reminds me of the temples built to house the monks sent by various buddhist countries to Bodh Gaya in India.

My host in Elista is Tseren, an amply-sized Kalmyk doctor who is a heavy drinker and smoker, and welcomes me to his apartment by cooking a meal: drowning four eggs and a considerable quantity of pork steak in hot oil with a tin of peas, and serving with a small loaf of white bread and a bottle of cognac, a present from one of his patients. We spend evenings hitting-up gambling establishments with his brother, or drinking heavily into the small hours. On my third evening, Tseren convinces me to accompany him to a banya (Russian bath), despite my insistence that I am not interested in making use of the ‘girls’ for which he graciously offers to pay. As we sit, pickled equally by alcohol and the fierce steamy heat of the hot-room, I momentarily wonder, half-seriously, if I would really refuse the advances of one of the Kalmyk beauties I had seen out on the streets in town. However, as a rather unattractive Russian woman of middle years enters the room, I assure Tseren that he is free to enjoy himself as he pleases; and that is indeed what I can faintly hear as I recover in the cold plunge-pool for the next few minutes.

Assumption Cathedral, Astrakhan, Astrakhan Region, Russia

Assumption Cathedral, Astrakhan, Astrakhan Region, Russia

Luckily, to relieve me from these debaucheries, I am joined the next day by Karolina, the Polish volunteer whom I had met and stayed with for two days in Georgia, two months earlier. Enduring a long railway journey from Warsaw across Ukraine to Volgograd, then a minibus down to Elista which is essentially the middle of nowhere, Karolina has chosen to join me for the quite spectacularly unspectacular crossing of the vast emptiness between here and the eastern borders of Kazakhstan. On my way to the bus station to meet her, I make a discovery which rather sours my time in Kalmykia; that someone has broken into the back of the truck and stolen my tool kit.

We leave Elista, heading due east into the brackish and fly-infested delta region of the Volga, Europe’s longest and largest river, to the city of Astrakhan. A fertile area in a vast region of forbidding steppe, the Volga Delta has been the capital of the Khazars and Golden Horde, and the city of Astrakhan emerged as the capital of the Astrakhan Khanate in the mid fifteenth century. The Russians first conquered Astrakhan in the mid sixteenth century, and for a long time it was the southern outpost of Russia, at the end of the Volga, a trade and staging post for expansion into Central Asia in the nineteenth century. Walking around the city centre, this history is evident in being visibly one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Former USSR. The early eighteenth century buildings of its central Kremlin, built and preserved in the style of those in the Russian ‘Golden Ring’ east of Moscow, is sufficient however to very much give it the impression of being ‘real’ Russia.

Wooden House, Astrakhan, Astrakhan Region, Russia

Wooden House, Astrakhan, Astrakhan Region, Russia

Astrakhan is situated astride the mighty Volga, which here is almost 900 metres wide in places. River docks still pulse with activity in the centre, lying at the far end of the river which directly connects a great number of Russia’s most important cities and, via canals, Moscow and both the Black and Baltic Seas. Around the port is the historical centre Astrakhan, an area of brackish air and lumpy streets of often very beautiful old Russian houses; single storey brick homes, whitewashed and slowly being eaten away by damp, or two-storey wood-panel houses in wonderfully textured, damp-stained wood, occasionally subsiding dramatically in the boggy earth. The area is run-down and raffish and unusually extensive in modern Russia, where all too often such neighbourhoods are charmlessly architecturally gentrified. Piercing this rabble of old houses are brightly painted orthodox churches, and an early twentieth century mosque of teal-painted wooden panels with a simple minaret resembling a church steeple, giving a slightly Asian air to the area’s otherwise quintessential Russian-ness.

For the next 800 kilometres we will follow the right bank of the Volga, winding through the heart of what I consider one of Russia’s most endearing regions; Povolzhye, literally meaning ‘along the Volga’. Leaving the northern outskirts of Astrakhan, we enter the stretch of farmland which runs along the river, dotted regularly by timeless Russian villages. Set a few hundred metres from the road, these traditional villages, their peasants out tending fields, are a string of pitched-roofed brick houses set along an old cart track, dotted by tall green willow trees and water towers, and occasionally by beautiful and recently restored cathedrals whose onion domes stand out like sentinels on the steppe. They are the sort of villages one imagines when reading Gogol or Chekhov, and life there, despite the tribulations of the Soviet period, has in all likelihood changed little since the lives of the great authors.

Kalmyk Monks, Tsagan Aman, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

Kalmyk Monks, Tsagan Aman, Kalmyk Republic, Russia

As a break to this Slavic quaintness, a finger of Kalmykian territory surrounds a ten-kilometre stretch of the Volga, incorporating the historical (but restored) temple in Tsagan Aman. Karolina and I stop for lunch in the town and after eating at a simple canteen, brave the pestilent swarms of black-fly to visit the monastery. Here we are welcomed by two kind monks, whose crimson robes of the Mahayana rite of Buddhism, common in northern and eastern Asia, seem rather acutely out of place here: more of the hidden charm of deepest Russia.

After several hours of driving through the sweltering heat, we arrive in the city of Volgograd, better know by its previous name of Stalingrad; the city at the heart of the battle which reversed the fortunes of the Nazis and, according to virtually any citizen of the Former USSR, won the war. Unlike Astrakhan, Volgograd is a sprawling linear settlement occupying only the right bank of the Volga, at the point where the river dog-legs to the north-east. From the point at which we enter the city, in its flooded southern industrial suburbs, a sea of cooling towers, electricity pylons and pipelines, it is more than sixty kilometres by road to the city’s northern limits.

Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd, Volgograd Region, Russia

‘The Motherland Calls’, Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd, Volgograd Region, Russia

Volgograd is a pleasant Soviet city with some elegant boulevards, but it is dominated by the memorial complex of Mamayev Kurgan, marking a hill which was bitterly fought over, and which changed hands several times during one of the very bloodiest battles of human history. Completed in 1967, the complex is in terms of the hallowed sanctity of its territory, the reverence with which people come to visit and pay their respects, and the scale and cultish style of its monuments, the most sacred temple in the fanatical remembrance and worship of the Second World War, or rather the Great Patriotic War; the closest thing the Soviet Union had to a state religion.

One enters the complex from the city’s main street, walking up flights of stairs onto a paved, tree-lined walkway which crosses the railway lines, then climbs to the sculpture ‘Fight to the Death’; which portrays in concrete the herculean torso of an infantryman who has become one with the ground beneath him. Then up more steps, flanked by the ‘Walls of Ruin’, to a long rectangular pool of murky water, around which are statues of heroic soldiers and a weeping mother cradling her dead child. At the far end is a vast martial mural with valiant defenders of the Motherland overlooked by Lenin. Below this lie steps which lead south and up onto the hill itself, on which stands the centrepiece of the complex; the towering ‘The Motherland Calls’ sculpture; an eastward-facing statue of Mother Russia, holding aloft a giant stainless-steel sword, face determinedly turned north towards the capital. In 1967 this was the largest free standing statue in the world, and it is quite staggeringly large, even in the vast openness of the steppe. Though its grace is very slightly detracted from by a cartoonish face and rather oddly-set breasts, the statue is a masterpiece of Soviet art, representing the unimaginable scale of the battle, and the unthinkable sacrifice and suffering which the Soviet people endured.

Remembrance Hall, Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd Region, Russia

Remembrance Hall, Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd, Volgograd Region, Russia

After circumambulating the statue, paths lead down to a very unprepossessing memorial hall, which once entered has a cathedral-like atmosphere. Gentle, funereal music is piped continuously as pilgrims descend a perimeter walkway. Around the circular walls are crimson plaques displaying what must be just a tiny fraction of the Soviet casualties, set against a background of golden mosaic tiles. Two guards stand facing each other on the black marble-tiled floor, in front of a central pedestal supporting a giant hand which grasps an eternal flame. Families take photos of themselves, perhaps lay flowers for a relative, before departing into the blinding summer light outside. I emerge suitably moved by my unexpected Soviet religious experience.

In the afternoon, we continue our journey north up the ‘Mother’ Volga, deeper into the heart of Russia. The Volga Dam at the northern end of Volgograd transforms the river beyond into a deep blue reservoir, at times almost nine kilometres wide. The land becomes dryer and even more sparsely populated, supporting vast praries of yellowing grass. We arrive in Saratov in the early evening, though our host Mikhail actually lives on the left bank of the river, in the separate town of Engels.

Apartment Building, Saratov, Saratov Region, Russia

Apartment Building, Saratov, Saratov Region, Russia

Saratov is an unremarkable city on the Middle Volga, typically Russian except perhaps for a slight Teutonic orderliness to the place, which may or may not be evidence of the large community of Volga Germans who used to reside here. Indeed, the city of Pokrovsk – known as Engels today, and where we are staying – was the capital of the long-dissolved Volga German Republic. Deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia by Stalin, few Volga Germans ever returned to the region, with survivors mostly finding their way back to Germany. Aside however from the remarkably Germanic-looking conservatory there seems very little trace of them.

Nevertheless, Saratov retains a lot of its Soviet neatness and charm, and as we walk back in the late afternoon across the three-kilometre long Saratov Bridge, passing the beautiful sandy beaches of a riverine island on which hundreds of locals are sunning themselves, I feel that Saratov is amongst the nicest of Russia’s cities, lacking both the ugly, runaway commercialisation which has spoilt many of Russia’s cities further west, and the corrupt and over-policed atmosphere of the cities of the North Caucasus. We retire back to Mikhail’s flat, and together with his girlfriend, the four of us lie back on our beds and listen to Pink Floyd whilst smoking a little cannabis; a very pleasant end this particular visit to Russia.

The following day we leave Engels, the Volga, and the Russian heartland, and almost immediately enter country which is visibly neglected. The farmland lies idle, much like the very occasional village out on the steppe which sits inactive through the heat of the day. Physically, this would be the landscape for much of the more than three thousand empty kilometres ahead, to the far side of Kazakhstan. We cross the border with little fuss near the forgotten village of Ozinki, and arrive in the afternoon in the provincial capital of Oral, a city which sites astride the Ural River, and thus occupies both Europe and Asia. As with most Siberian cities, Oral was originally founded by Cossacks, and is today a sleepy and rather dull, though not unpleasant place. Around half of the city’s inhabitants are Russian, and almost all still refer to Oral by it’s Soviet name, Uralsk.

Wooden House, Oral, West Kazakhstan Region, Kazakhstan

Wooden House, Oral, West Kazakhstan Region, Kazakhstan

Our stay in Oral is however made memorable by out host, Ash. Half Kazakh, half Jewish and openly gay, Ash is endlessly generous, giving us our own apartment free of charge, and even inviting us to celebrate his birthday with two Russian friends at a small resort out of town, located on a muddy tributary of the Ural River. After five days of relaxation however, we are ready to leave Oral, and get back onto the highway for another monotonous and featureless drive of almost 500 kilometres to the next city, Aktobe.

To describe Aktobe as an interesting city would be an exaggeration, but with Kazakhs here making a clear majority, it does at least feel more Asian than Russian. Our Kazakh host Rysta and her cousin Marat live in a modern apartment, but still offer us a traditional Kazakh welcome, preparing a huge beshparmak; a delicious and filling dish consisting of chunks of boiled beef and horsemeat served on square sheets of pasta, with potatoes and raw onions.

First President's Park, Aktobe, Aktobe Region, Kazakhstan

First President’s Park, Aktobe, Aktobe Region, Kazakhstan

We explore the city the following day, starting with the bazaar which has the atmosphere of Central Asia: stalls of colourful dried fruit, Korean ladies selling pickled salads, and open air stands cooking shashlik, filling the air with greasy smoke. Amongst the jostling women out on shopping trips are the usual rogues and loiterers, and even a traditional stone healer. We visit the local museum, and are guided around its modest exhibits by an English-speaking guide, free of charge, though I am slightly surprised to hear her refer to the Russian colonists as ‘invaders’. There is little else of interest in the city, but as the sun sets, we find ourselves in the newly-opened ‘First President’s Park’, which has a large shanyrak (the traditional roof-piece of a yurt) held aloft on pillars resembling a yurt’s wooden outer struts, as tribute to the (now almost vanished) nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakhs. Across the road is the glitzy new Nur Hasir Mosque, not far from a newly built Orthodox church; a demonstration of inter-ethnic harmony and religious tolerance. The park is full of young Kazakh couples and families, most of whom have children; evidence of the recent baby boom across the country. It’s all a rather endearing and convincing demonstration of a confident and progressive country which as a sovereign state is less than twenty years old.

Leaving Aktobe, we are back on the long, featureless highway. The road is in pleasingly excellent condition however, in stark contrast to the appalling broken asphalt I had encountered in the north-east of the country three years earlier. Not far from the city limits, a road sign reminds us of the vast scale of the country: ‘Almaty 2304 km’. We drive through a massive, empty landscape past Khromtau (‘Chrome City’) with its piles of grey-green mine tailings, the only thing to catch the eye for scores of kilometres around. We fill up with fuel in the junction town of Qarabutaq, then turn north towards Kostanai. The land flattens further and we enter an absolute nowhere.

Lisakovsk, Kostanai Region, Kazakhstan

Lisakovsk, Kostanai Region, Kazakhstan

Telegraph lines recede into the distance where the land ends and there is only the glare of the sun through the accumulated kilometres of air. Tracking the Russian border, the road slowly deteriorates and we pass crumbling Slavic villages of once pretty white-washed homes with light blue window frames, now often abandoned and raided for building material. Some have Ukrainian names such as Kievskoye or Don, reminders perhaps of Kazakhstan’s painful Soviet history as a place of exile. There can’t be many countries whose ethnic make-up – with descendant populations of Russian, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Koreans, Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Turks and many more – has been so influenced by the paranoiac machinations of one man.

Our destination, which we reach in the late afternoon after 678 mind-numbing kilometres, is Lisakovsk, a small mining city of some 36,000 people on the Tobyl River; an accumulation of Soviet microrayons (microdistricts) out on the steppe amidst endless golden field of swaying grass. Despite owing its existence to extensive iron ore deposits, Lisakovsk is not a grim, industrial disaster-scape of belching chimneys and slag piles, but rather one of those delightfully isolated oases of Soviet apartment buildings, parks, and little else. Our Russian host Tatyana barely meets us before giving us the keys to our own fully-furnished apartment – free of charge again – and departing, leaving us to enjoy a full day walking around the town and the pleasant, silent surrounding countryside.

Steppe Road, near Atbasar, Akmola Region, Kazakhstan

Steppe Road, near Atbasar, Akmola Region, Kazakhstan

Our onward journey continues past the similar mining town of Rudny and then Kostanai, the provincial capital, from where the road heads south-east across yet more hundreds of kilometres of nothingness. A modest patch of pine forest near Esil provides a few minutes of genuine excitement for us, and then later an impressive storm breaks over the steppe near Atbasar, but otherwise the journey is simply hundreds of kilometres of soothing monotony. The land here in this sub-Siberian belt of northern Kazakhstan is very slightly damper than that to the south, and the area was the focus of Khrushchev’s 1953 ‘Virgin Lands Campaign’, a plan to dramatically increase the wheat harvest of the USSR. Though early years were sporadically successful, the marginal soil was soon depleted of nutrients, yields dwindled and Kazakhstan lost millions of tons of topsoil as a result of wind erosion. Today the area is largely fallow, subtly changed from the wild, virgin steppe to the south.

Our destination is the national capital Astana, but as night falls we are still far away and the road suddenly deteriorates to a rough track until we are close to the city limits. Here, in the early hours we come against crooked police who deliberately delay us in the hopes of extracting a bribe, but fail of course to succeed. Finally, at around 03:00 we arrive at the luxury housing complex in the ‘Triumph of Astana’ building, and are graciously received by our Ukrainian host Marta, who works here as a corporate lawyer.

Bayterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan

Bayterek Tower, Astana, Kazakhstan

Astana is the impressive show-piece of Kazakhstan’s post-independence economic boom, almost entirely constructed since the mid-1990s out in the middle of the steppe, in a windy and fiercely cold location. Originally named Akmolinsk, the city was re-named in 1961 to Tselinograd, acting as capital of the Virgin Lands Campaign. Renamed Akmola at independence in 1991, this sleepy, nondescript provincial town became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, taking the title from Almaty and changing its name yet again to Astana. While Almaty was fairly reasoned to be too congested and unsuitable for major urban expansion, at risk of seismic activity, and tucked away in a far corner of the country rather close to the Chinese border, many also saw the desire of President Nazarbayev to construct his own city largely from scratch, and for it to be his lasting, tangible legacy to the country.

The Triumph of Astana, the 39-storey skyscraper in which we are hosted, is itself one of the more impressive and recognisable buildings in Astana’s rapidly-evolving skyline. Built in the Socio-Classical style of the USSR’s earliest, Stalinist-era skyscrapers such as Moscow’s State University, Kyiv’s ‘Hotel Ukraina’, and Warsaw’s Palace of Culture, it’s an elegant, if rather odd throwback to a period of time in which Kazakhstan’s population was ruthlessly collectivised, and the country viewed by the leadership as a vast penal colony. Astana’s centrepiece is a large, perfectly manicured park surrounding the striking Bayterek Tower, a tapering, vase-like white mesh structure supporting a giant golden sphere, representing an ancient Turkic legend in which a bird of happiness lays a golden egg in a poplar tree. Around the tower are various ministries, the opulent presidential palace, plush governmental residential blocks and a collection of skyscrapers including the Northern Lights Towers which look like slightly irregular stacks of books, and the tubular Kazakhstan Railways building.

Across the small, brown flow of the Ishim River, Astana has expanded and includes a number of more original structures such as the pyramidal Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and the building of the Kazakhstan National University of Arts, a glass-panel structure with the form of an sloping volcanic cinder cone. Although there is still plenty of nasty gold-tinted glass and cheap siding panels on old apartments, the overall impression of Astana is not of Ashgabat’s monstrous, megalomanical monuments, nor Tashkent’s rather tacky post-independence structures, but of more genuine, confident nation building. It’s slightly less ostentatious than I had imagined, though like any new city it lacks somewhat in atmosphere. But with an ever-expanding urban area and population, Astana might one day conceivably eclipse its southern rival in terms of cultural and economic importance.

Thermal Power Station, Karaganda, Karaganda Region, Kazakhstan

Thermal Power Station, Karaganda, Karaganda Region, Kazakhstan

However, thanks to the useless absentee consul in Elista, I must leave this sea of modernist architecture, green grass and perfectly maintained flowerbeds in order to pursue once more a Mongolian visa. Having not yet bothered to move their diplomatic representation to the new capital, this involves a journey all the way to Almaty. I foolishly decide to undertake the journey by bus; seventeen mind-numbing, tedious and uncomfortable hours each way, on which Karolina very bravely accompanies me, but we return within 48 hours with a visa in my passport, ready to complete this summer’s plan.

Following two more nights in the luxury of Marta’s apartment, we head south to the much older, and altogether less glamorous city of Karaganda, synonymous with coal mining and the large KarLag labour camp which operated from the 1930s to 1950s. The steppe south of Astana soon reverts to a wild, uncultivated state, though approaching Karaganda we pass the heavy industry in Temirtau (‘Iron City’), a blighted landscape of smokestacks and blackened earth where President Nazarbayev began his career as a steelworker. Karaganda is again a pleasant though featureless place, with its large red-granite statue of Lenin and pastel-coloured ‘House of Culture of Miners’ giving it a clear Soviet pedigree and less of an air of economic dynamism. We stop for a night, then head east once more onto an unpaved road which leads across a green, marshy area of steppe towards the first trace of topographical relief I have encountered since leaving the Caucasus: the forested granite outcrops of Bayanaul, a hilly ‘island’ in this sea of steppe.

Volcanic Rocks, Bayanaul, Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan

Volcanic Rocks, Bayanaul, Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan

After thousands of kilometres of flat grassland, Bayanaul is a welcome change of scenery with its gently forested hills backing a warm turquoise lake whose sandy beach understandably attracts tourists in this vastly inland environment. After a very Soviet canteen lunch at the lakeside sanatorium, we head off in the truck into the hills to explore the bizarre volcanic formations whose rounded and wrinkled contours lend them a form something like giant sheep droppings. With us are our American host Mary, a Peace Corps Volunteer from New Orleans, and her rather eccentric Kazakh landlord who acts as our guide. Away from the central ridges around the lake, the surrounding prominent, oddly-sculpted hills are dotted with small fir and birch trees, and their obvious attraction in such an otherwise featureless environment is marked by pre-Soviet Kazakh graves, and far more ancient Scythian-type burial complexes consisting of a recessed central crypt surrounded by large, standing megalithic slabs partly submerged in the soil. The like of these may be found across the grasslands of Eurasia, from eastern Siberia to eastern Europe, attesting to very expansive nomadic empires of old.

Our trip finishes in Toraigir (which marks the 100,000 kilometres mark on my journey), a small, ramshackle village of whitewashed farmhouses behind leaning picket fences, surrounded by rusting Soviet agricultural equipment and battered cars in various states of decay. We are invited in here for tea with home-made bread, smetana (sour cream) and varenya (fruit conserve) by a lovely Russian family who still farm this area in deepest Kazakhstan, perhaps a century since their ancestors settled here, in spite of many of their kin leaving and heading for the cities of modern Russia. In these people one sees the old pioneer spirit of the Russians, which allowed them to colonise such a vast and truly inhospitable swathe of Eurasia, and we experience also their genuine warmth and hospitality.

Mashkhur Jusup Mosque, Pavlodar, Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan

Mashkhur Zhusup Mosque, Pavlodar, Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan

Karolina and I make our last drive together, leaving Bayanaul and heading north towards Ekibastuz, then east to the city of Pavlodar on the Irtysh River. We stroll around yet another of Kazakhstan’s provincial cities, this one reminding me of Semey with its air of recent resuscitation from deep economic slumber. The otherwise featureless streets of the city are enlivened by the newly built Makhshur Zhusup Mosque, an unprecedented, modernist mosque with heavily fluted, tapering circular walls arriving at a smooth upper dome, all covered in gleaming turquoise tiles, and surrounded by a courtyard with four needle-like minarets in soft yellow brick. It’s a pleasing final example of Kazakhstan’s newly independent identity.

In the morning, I drop Karolina off at the station, from where she will return to Astana, then fly on to Poland. At once I’m sad to leave her smart and charming company, but on the other, I’m looking forward to crossing the Altai Mountains and finally reaching Mongolia. I leave Pavlodar, heading north-east on a road which crosses fallow grassland towards the Russian border at Sharbakty, more than five thousand kilometres after leaving the North Caucasus, and from where I will enter Siberia proper.

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