September 2009


Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

Outside the Blue Mosque, the red flag

On the way back from Kazakhstan, I stopped for two-and-a-half days in Istanbul. It was my first time in the former Constantinople.

It’s a fascinating place with so many different layers of history piled up on top of each other — Byzantine capital, Ottoman imperial city, teeming Turkish metropolis.

After Aktau, I was jumping for joy to be in a real city, where one could get non-instant coffee and find a newspaper not in Russian. Since I hadn’t seen any of the tourist things, I approached the hordes and dove in.

Here are a few snaps I took scurrying from one site to the next:

Seaside idyll?

Seaside idyll?

“You would gaze around and feel so dreary that you might well hang yourself.” –Taras Shevchenko (1850)

Landing in Aktau, in far western Kazakhstan, on a Saturday at noon, and taking a cab into town from the airport, I could well sympathize with Mr. Shevchenko’s sentiment on being exiled to this parched region back in 1850.

The Ukrainian poet had run afoul of the authorities, who in good Roman fashion, decided to send him packing to some God-forsaken place. Lacking piles of rock in the Mediterranean, the czar picked a more-than-suitable alternative, a stretch of barren land on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea – my home for a week, Aktau.

But then it wasn’t Aktau back then; I don’t believe it was much of anything, except scrub, flies, rock, wind-blown sand and perhaps a camel or two. In fact, later on, the covert settlement that would spring up in 1961 when the Soviets discovered there was uranium in them thar’ hills simply had a number as a moniker. Two years later it was baptized Shevchenko, after the region’s reluctant former resident.

Shevchenko ponders his fate

Shevchenko ponders his fate

My introduction to the place was not, shall we say, auspicious. After a pretty stress-free flight on Air Astana (which wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, and in fact better than some Delta planes I’ve been on) I grabbed my suitcase off the creaking conveyor belt and headed out into the blinding sun. I nodded at one of the more reputable-looking individuals among the gaggle of men offering rides into town.

Being very clever I thought, given how poor my Russian is, I asked him to write down the price he would charge for his service. 300 T was entered into my little blue notebook – a steal! Especially since my two-year-old guidebook said it’d run me about 1,000 tenge, the local coinage. Oh, foolish traveler…

We set off down a brand-new road that looked suspiciously like the one that leading from Astana’s airport to its city center, complete with new streetlights every five feet and billboard after billboard featuring the glories of either: 1. Kazakhstan (usually with children, old women or veterans in the photo), 2. The President (usually surrounded by children, old women or veterans) or 3. Astana! This national PR campaign had gotten out of hand.

My driver kept talking to me like I could understand what he was saying, at one point saying something about the hotel and holding up five fingers. OK, since the hotel was actually outside of Aktau, I thought he was bumping the price from 300 to 500 tenge, just €2.30 – still, a steal! Oh, naïve visitor…

Road to nowhere

Road to nowhere

The taxi sped through this wasteland – a post-apocalyptic landscape if I’ve ever seen one. (Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” came to mind.) There is no fresh water here; the city has to desalinate all it uses. The ground is so hard, I read, that jackhammers have to break up the soil before trees can be planted.

As we approached town, the already-gusty wind grew in force, clawing at the small trees and whipping up dirt and dust, throwing it in the faces of the figures making their way across the rocky shoulder. Russian pop blared from the car stereo, which the driver didn’t feel the need to turn down when holding any one of several mobile phone conversations, he’d just yell into the thing.

Aktau itself doesn’t present her charms readily. The city was born at an unfortunate time in Soviet architecture (err, was there a fortunate one?) and the crumbling apartment blocks don’t look better here than they do anywhere else in the former eastern bloc; except here, they were getting lost in a sand storm. We skirted the downtown area and headed south toward the Dostar Hotel, the compromise (and in the end, bad) choice since the other business hotels in town were not within the budget. Being an oil and gas town, Aktau’s prices are surprisingly steep.

Finally, a bit of blue unfolded to the right, and then unfolded some more – and the sparkling waters of the Caspian Sea brought a modicum of relief from this arid landscape, at this stage broken by three-story barracks-like apartment blocks in front of a distant blur of factory smokestacks. The salt-water sea is a lovely sight, a blue and bright oasis under the unrelenting sun.

Enjoy Soviet-style accommodation!

Enjoy Soviet-style accommodation!

Pulling up in front of the hotel, I handed my driver the 500 tenge and all hell broke loose. He thought I was trying to cheat him; I thought he was trying to cheat me, and it turned ugly, degenerating into our yelling at each other in languages the other didn’t understand.

In the end, thanks to a barely bi-lingual hotel receptionist, I learned the man is just this side of illiterate, and thought 300 spelled three thousand. I gave in to that, but refused to go up to 5,000, and that was that. He stormed off in a huff, I marched off indignantly to my room. Welcome to western Kazakhstan.

Aktau, what does one say? After a week, her charms were still somewhat elusive. Perched as she is on the edge of the desert, she’s got a dust problem. But at least the Caspian keeps her cooler than the oven behind her and back in hammer-and-sickle days, her coast sported an elite resort for Soviet higher-ups. In the winter, she doesn’t get the bitter Siberian winds of Astana or other places on the steppe; it rarely snows. The streets are kept relatively clean by a brigade of women wrapped up like rubber-booted mummies who sweep the sidewalks.

There are long stretches of relatively uncrowded beach and the hotel balcony allowed for pre-sunrise views of the twinkling lights of tankers waiting to dock in the far distance among the rhythmic red and blue flashing of buoys. At the other end of the day, the sun’s slide down under the watery horizon would set off a tumult of breathtaking colors in the sky.

Proletariat housing

Proletariat housing

Oil in the region has given Aktau a leg up, and while the old apartment blocks are still there, they’re interspersed with new business centers and luxury apartment blocks under construction, plus a plethora of big single-family homes in various states of completion, McMansions that would feel at home in any high-end US suburb — well, save the two that appear to have been built for King Arthur and Zeus.

The Kazakh people were a little hard to get a read on. Some were very warm and hospitable, such as those I worked with. But others, particularly in the public sphere, could be pretty unpleasant. I’ll stop complaining about German shop staff now. The hotel personnel at the Dostar combined incompetence with discourteousness – always a winning ticket.

Perhaps it’s that Russian way I’ve never really appreciated or understood, although Kazakhs I spoke to say they are very different than Russians. The women, one group told me, treat their men like kings, whereas Russian women do not. Do the Kazakh men deserve such an attitude, I asked? Not from what I’ve seen.

An outing with the girls

An outing with the girls

No matter, the fairer sex here will stand by their men, and preferably perched on very high heels. As in Mongolia, the women under 40 here are generally decked out in at least three inches of heel, often more.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a trip to the supermarket, a walk along the beachfront, a trek through cityscape of crumbled sidewalks and dirt lots. When I said most women where I come from prefer flats for everyday wear, the looks were incredulous – but heels, they’re part of being an attractive woman.

These Kazakh women, with their highly developed sense of balance, are always en pointe – hoping, I guess, to impress the royalty who cross their path.

Heroes of coal

Heroes of coal

When I would ask my interpreter what Karaganda was like, since she had studied there for a year, she would only say “industrial city.” So the picture in my mind was pretty grim as we left Astana in a hired taxi for the three-hour drive south, crunched in the back seat of an old VW Golf, Pink Floyd edition. But after a week of the capital’s empty shine, I was ready to move on, even if it did give me black lung.

After what seemed like an eternity on a road straight as a steel rod but disconcertingly dotted with memorials to fatal car crashes, complete with photos of the deceased, a smudge appeared on the horizon. Thank heavens we’re there, I thought, retangling my legs into another position. That relief turned to horror as the very epitome of industrial squalor began to come more clearly into view.

A jumble of smokestacks, the biggest one spewing a thick cloud of black smoke, was rising up from the empty steppe like some malevolent oasis. I must have made some sort of “oh” sound because my translator said, “that’s not Karaganda, don’t worry.” Whew.

Turned out, it was Temirtau, one of the world’s largest steel plants, built back in the Soviet era and still carrying all that

Insalubrious

Insalubrious

period’s charm. It’s also one of the country’s biggest polluters, has a very high accident rate, and according to the UN, has dealt with a major intravenous drug problem, with a syringe of the local drug mix cheaper than a bottle of vodka. The lure of a blissful narcotic escape from those hellish surroundings is understandable enough. I snapped a shot from the window, which was about all the interaction with Temirtau I was interested in.

The arrival in Karaganda was a much happier event, although this city built on coal and prison labor is not likely to win any beauty contests soon. It has its share of giant, Soviet-style apartment blocks in various states of decrepitude, there are older buildings from the 1930s and 40s that line its main tree-lined thoroughfare. Several parks and greenbelts give it some breathing space. And the people are friendlier, it seems, than in Astana.

It sits on top of an enormous coal basin, and coal, along with prisoners, are what built the city. It’s renowned, or notorious, for the KarLag prison camp system set up by Stalin to send those who fell out of favor with him or his regime. It was a whole network of camps, which got going in 1931 and whose last admin center didn’t close until 1961. At its peak, the system covered an area bigger than France.  One afternoon we visited a memorial to those who died in the camps.

Gulag cemetery

Gulag cemetery

It’s a mass grave out on the steppe, marked with crosses and small monuments from countries whose citizens died here – from Romania to Germany to Korea and Japan – hundreds and hundreds of thousands. Somewhat chilling, besides the cold, cutting wind blowing over the flat landscape, were the military exercises the Kazakh military were holding about 40 feet behind us. The sound of rumbling tanks kind of overwhelmed the solemn atmosphere of the place.

When those prisoners weren’t being taken to giant pits dug in the frozen ground, they were breaking their backs building much of what is now Karaganda, or digging coal for the Soviet state. After the camps were shut down, many people who had been sent to the region decided to stay here. And many of those walking on the city’s streets today are descendents of the one-time prisoners. Karaganda used to have a large ethnic German population, since many of the Germans who had emigrated to Russia centuries before were exiled to remote Kazakhstan when World War II broke out. There are still some around, although many have left, a good percentage having gone back to Germany under a repatriation program offered by the German government.

Despite all that history, and the fact that the eastern Karaganda state region is radioactive thanks to Soviet nuclear tests, the city seems to be getting on with things. Miners are still around and the city’s local heroes, although the pits are out of town and their numbers are declining.  There were a couple of decent restaurants that served food that wouldn’t take five years of your life. One hip café we frequented, Chic Orange, had a photography exhibition going on and seemed to be the gathering place for Karaganda’s hipster scene.

The people at the TV/Radio station are really on the ball, and their work is admirable. It’s an independent station that

Still standing

Still standing

ran afoul of government censors and got its news programs jerked off the air. It’s going back on next month and is determined to go ahead with its mission, although admitting it will have to dance a little cautious two-step with the authorities, since it doesn’t want to see suited men from the National Defense Committee (shudder) descending on its premises again.

One of things I liked was all the Soviet-era imagery left around the place, like murals and statues and mosaics – all featuring those valiant workers striding toward a socialist Utopia. Fun stuff. The biggest Lenin statue in Central Asia is here, which was going to be taken down after Kazakhstan gained independence but Communist die-hards held protests and sit-ins, and the statue stayed. This week, there was always a little bouquet of fresh flowers propped up in front of Vlad.

Astana

Futuropolis?

I didn’t know much about Kazakhstan before getting here. For most people, the ‘stans just kind of blend together in some vague blur (umm…over by Russia…somewhere?), if they even register at all. Kazakhstan did get some publicity – unwelcome by many – as the home of the Borat.

But it’s pretty much considered a backwater…even the Soviets thought so, using it as a home for a sprawling labor camp network and then a nuclear test site. Despite the less-than-charming recent history, when Kazakhstan was offered as a three-week gig, I took it. Central Asia, why not? (Slide show below)

Arriving in Astana at 4:00 a.m. on the red-eye from Istanbul, I wasn’t really in the mood to face the scrum of people jostling for places at passport control or the severe-looking matrons from customs barking at me in Russian. “Anglisky?” was my feeble rejoinder, always met with a stern “nyet!”

Slightly traumatized, but really too tired to care, I waved off a couple of shady guys asking if I needed a taxi and grabbed an official-looking one which took me on a smooth-as-silk ride into town. Unremarkable? Perhaps. But the June trip from airport to town in Mongolia, just to the east, involved lots of pothole dodging on dimly lit roads. I expected a similar experience here.

Go Astana!

Go Astana!

But no, not in President (18 years and counting) Nursultan Nazarbayev’s showcase capital, plopped down in the middle of the steppe, like some gaudy oasis. The roads were lit to near daylight levels, billboards along the road screamed about the wonders of Astana (the self-promotion was immediately suspect), and passing through the new part of town, the “Left Bank” (roll eyes here), was like getting a guided tour of bad 80s American architecture.

Astana, whose name — its third since 1961 — simply means “capital,” was a provincial town of limited importance up in northern Kazakhstan, the more undeveloped part of the country. But Nazarbayev decided back in the 1990s that he wanted to move the capital from Almaty, down south, up to the wind-swept plain.

Why on God’s green earth? Well, the government said it was because Almaty was seismically unstable, was too close to China (those marauding Reds could overtake the capital in two shakes) and Mr. N. wanted better transport connections with Russia, Kazakhstan’s past political and current cultural overlord. And What Mr. N. wants, Mr. N. gets.

So, in 1997, the capital up and moved, and Astana began its transformation. Maybe it’s comparable to Berlin, which underwent its own metamorphosis when the capital was moved back there after all those post-war decades. But at least the Germans had historical reasons for doing so, and a little more taste.

All that glitters...The telecommunications ministry looks like gold lighter, a 36-floor one. The finance ministry resembles a dollar sign, the national music academy a grand piano. Walking down toward this architectural conglomeration of (expensive) kitsch one day, I happened upon a building that’s a dead ringer for the Jupiter 2 from “Lost in Space.” It was the new circus, which features a fountain that would have been right at home on Mr. Jackson’s ranch.

Many of these confections in glass and steel are found on Nurzhol bulvar, an east-west axis that is meant to be Astana’s showcase mile. At one end is the sweeping edifice of KazMunayGas, the company exploiting the country’s rich oil, gas and mineral reserves and which has, to be fair, pulled it away from the economic abyss the rest of the ‘stans are teetering on.

Through its grand arch, one sees the new pleasure palace being built called Khan Shatyr, shaped like a oversized tent, or maybe Kazakh yurt, under whose canopy Astanites will be able to enjoy summer temps even while its -30 out. Down the grand axis past raised flower beds, fountains and walkways already kind of falling apart, one marvels at huge towers rising and whose style might be described as Islamo-Western-Soviet-Logan’s Run-Gothic.

A strong hand

A strong hand

At the other end is the gargantuan Presidential Palace, and behind it, a large glass pyramid, sporting the understated name of the Palace of Peace and Harmony.  Oh, lest I forget, in the middle rises the Bayterek, the symbol of Astana emblazoned upon just about everything in this city. It looks like an oversized lattice vase with a gold ball up top and reflects an old Kazakh legend about a bird that laid a magic egg high in a poplar tree. The egg contained all the secrets of happiness, but which were beyond human reach.

Not anymore. Under Mr. N., visitors can pay $2.50 and ride up to the egg, reflect on, I don’t know, the symbolism, and lay their palm in a golden handprint the president has left as you look out onto his residence. I thought it was creepy; many Kazakhs love it. It’s a must-have photo for newlyweds.

What is interesting is seeing how Astana ends as suddenly as it appears — beyond the gaudy glitz lies empty steppe as far as you can see.

All in all, Astana is an odd place. Several of the Kazakhs I’ve worked with this trip agree, saying because of its artificiality, it’s rather sterile and doesn’t have much character. They say the people can be brusque and have little sense of community because most of them are transplants, having come from other places for work. Of course, bad taste aside, my lack of initial warmth for the place itself was  compensated a great deal by the warmth of many of the people I met at the radio station.

KZ girl group belts one out about Astana

KZ girl group belts one out about Astana

My main problem with it is the feeling in the air of authoritarianism, which is definitely Nazarbayev’s style. (Journalists at this radio station are forced to put some kind of positive story about the president first in their newscasts. A similar good news story about the government has to come second. Only then are they free to write what they want, or what is actually news.

The president’s grand axis reminded me not of Paris’ own Axe historique, but the axis one sees in the mock-ups of the Nazi visions for post-war Berlin, the planned world capital of Germania. Not that Nazarbayev has much in common with Hitler, but there is a certain megalomania going on here, a sweeping sense of self-aggrandizement and the brooking of no dissent set in steel.

In fact, I just learned today that parliament (such as it is) voted in 2008 to rename Astana “Nursultan,” Nazarbayev’s first name. The prez humbly said that now was not the time, but did not reject the idea that some future generation might rechristen the city yet again.