“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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.