Cultural Learnings Of Glorious Great Nation of Kazakhstan
I’ve been to Kazakhstan before, but only the southern rim. This trip is new and different.
The country is enormous: a million square miles (about the size of western Europe), the largest landlocked country in the world and the ninth largest overall, but with a population of only eighteen million.
This is my fifth trip with Koryo, my fave tour outfit – maximum fun with minimum suffering. My fellow travelers are all highly experienced – no complaining aloud.
I have used Delta points for an up-front experience on Aeroflot. Well worth it – apart from the humane seating is delicious food and attentive service by attractive crew in spiffy retro uniforms.
After a connection in Moscow, I land in Astana, the shiny new capital, where I am met and transported to a not-so-shiny or new hotel.
Our first meet group activity is dinner atop the Ritz-Carlton. Koryo is starting things right! The restaurant overlooks the Baiterek: the symbol of Astana that is supposed to be an expression of a national myth about the sun, the tree of life, and a golden dragon’s egg, but looks like a gilded golf ball on a wind-proof tee.
The city is an old Russian settlement that twenty years ago was chosen as the relocated capital. Its old town is rather compact: the former Lenin Prospect and Karl Marx Prospect – usually the grandest avenues of Soviet cities – here are but minor streets. Fueled by oil revenues, the new city sprawls across the steppe; the population has more than tripled to more than a million inhabitants. With striking architecture and residential high-rises, it is reminiscent of Dubai.
The next day is the start of the tour proper. We visit the new mosque and the new Russian Orthodox church.
Then, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a/k/a the crystal pyramid. It was built to make an architectural statement, but now what to do with it? There is a conference room at the apex that looks like the chambers of the Jedi Council. Largely empty, the entire building is available for booking, so keep that in mind for your next wedding or Bar Mitzvah.
The natural segue is an elevator ride to the top of the golden golf ball. Two decades ago it probably dominated the landscape; now it’s almost lost amid the skyscrapers. From the top, one can gaze across the new city and up to the surrounding buildings.
In the center is a platform with a impression of the president’s hand. Having seen Prometheus and The Tommyknockers, I figure the correct handprint will cause the entire structure to levitate, but I guess mine is not big enough. (Calling Donald Trump!)
Followed by a sumptuous lunch of Georgian cuisine.
The day ends early at the Khan Shatyr, another signature building. It’s a 500 foot tall lopsided tent that encloses a 35 acre shopping and entertainment center, including an indoor beach. The latter is especially appreciated because Astana is near the geographic center of the Eurasian continent and the second coldest capital city in the world. It is already May, yet at sunset the temperature dips towards freezing, the cold exacerbated by the wind whipping in from the steppe.
The next day our trip takes us from the future into the past. A few miles outside the city is the former Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland, a quasi-prison for women whose husbands ran afoul of Stalin. It is now a memorial and museum.
Families of purged officials were deported from Moscow, Leningrad, and European Russia to this remote and desolate corner of the Soviet Empire, where they were expected to live off the land while undergoing interrogation and reeducation.
After that bit of cheerfulness we return to town to lunch with a local family. I already know to avoid the kumis – fermented mare’s milk – but the rest of the repast is abundant and delicious. The main course: horsemeat. For those who have never enjoyed dinner with Mr. Ed, it is both tender and tasty.
In late afternoon we board a sleeper train for an 800km journey to the northeast. Around 8:00 AM we disembark at a small station marked “Degelen.” However, there is no such place. (Actually, there is, but it is hundreds of miles away). It serves the formerly secret city of Kurchatov, named for the father of the Soviet atom bomb. That is the modern name; during the Cold War it was so secret it had no name and a Moscow postal code. This was the home of the Soviet atomic weapons program.
The city was founded in 1947 for one purpose: to develop and test atomic weapons. The program was under the personal control of KGB chief Beria. It remained active until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when most of the personnel – about 80% of its inhabitants -- decamped back to Russia. Today much of the city consists of abandoned buildings.
The Central Staff building is now town hall and Beria’s house has been converted into a Russian Orthodox church.
We stay in the only hotel in town. Owned and run by the Kazakhstan Institute of Atomic Energy, it was built for visiting engineers and such: each room is a four-room mini-suite designed for long-term stays. Of course, we are the only guests.
Our program begins with a visit to the museum of the history of the site and program. Lots of cool stuff.
Then we proceed to the “Polygon,” the actual nuclear testing ground. It’s been 66 years since the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty ended open-air testing, but the ground is still radioactive. Before entering the hot zone, we stop to don protective gear. The purpose is not so much as to shield us from radiation as to prevent ingestion of radioactive particles or inadvertently transporting dust out of the area. Here I learn what a bunch of atomic geeks I am travelling with: six people have brought their personal geiger counters, radiation meters, and gamma-ray detectors.
Our goal is the nuclear epicenter: Ground Zero. As we get closer we pass increasingly-destroyed concrete towers built to hold cameras and test instruments. The absolute center is a shallow crater (the bomb was placed high atop a tower to simulate an airburst) surrounded by twisted metal.
After a fun few hours of exploring, we doff our suits and drive to the once-secret Chagan long-range bomber base. For forty years it was one of the principal bases of the Soviet air force. Now it is completely abandoned, as are the adjacent housing blocks. Miles-long runways of crumbling concrete, empty hangers, bomb bunkers and a ghost town.
We have a second fun day venturing into the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Zone. This time our destination is the Atomic Lake. On the way we stop for a picnic lunch at the ruins of the command bunker, which now looks like the cave at the beginning of Iron Man.
During the “Atoms For Peace” era, the Department of Bright Ideas came up with the notion of using atomic bombs for civil engineering projects. In 1965 they planted a 140 kiloton device next to the Chagan River. The resulting crater forms a nice circle a quarter-mile across and 300 feet deep. There is only one problem: it’s too radioactive to be used for anything.
We don fresh protective gear and stroll its shores. The extra layer serves an additional purpose: insulation from the constant near-gale-force wind and near-freezing temperature.
We are only traveling a hundred miles or so, but the journey takes all day. Harsh conditions and thirty years of neglect have turned what was once a smooth-paved road into what one finds in Africa decades after the colonials departed. As we bump across the potholes, my silver-lining thought is that, as that this road will probably never be repaired, future visitors will have it even worse.
The next day we reboard the train and continue to its terminus at Semey, almost at the Russian border. This is a university town of some 300,000, still well below its population in the Soviet era. After a stint in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was exiled here in 1857 and wrote The Brothers Karamazov. A Dostoyevsky Museum (one of seven in the former USSR) surrounds his preserved log cabin. The museum makes up for a dearth of actual Dostoyevsky artifacts with a fine display of souvenir matches from hotels around the world.
It’s getting close to Den Pobedy ("Victory Day") commemorating the end of The Great Patriotic War (WWII). As the actual event recedes further into history, the nostalgia grows greater. Billboards are everywhere as the ubiquitous war memorials are decorated for the upcoming events.
From Semey it’s a five-hour bus ride to Ust-Kamenogorsk, the closest place from which we can catch a flight our next destination. We arrive early, giving us time to stop and visit the Lenins.
Various communist-era statues have been collected from around the city and region and placed in a park along with an impressive collection of Soviet military hardware.
Our flight is to Karaganda, once the second-largest city in Kazakhstan, its population swelled by ethnic Germans and other suspect minorities deported en masse by Stalin. Many have since emigrated, leaving this as now only the fourth-largest city.
We check into the very cool Chaika Hotel, constructed in the latter days of the USSR to host an economic conference of the fraternal (i.e, communist) nations. It is the height of late Soviet-era luxury. The city hosts the recovery team for manned spacecraft, and the returning cosmonauts were welcomed back here.
The next day is Victory Day. We celebrate by joining in a patriotic demonstration: a march organized by "The Eternal Brigade".
Participants wear replica Red Army regalia and carry photos of their forebearers who fought and died. (Note that most of the photos are of middle-aged and older men who survived the war, which stands to reason since the millions of dead youth did not leave many descendants.)
In the afternoon we drive out to Dolinka, where the central administrative building of the regional gulag (here “KarLag) is now the Museum of Political Oppression Victims’ Memory. The forced collectivization of the farms and compulsory settlement of nomads resulted in the starvation deaths over a million people, almost half the population. The numbers were bolstered by mass relocations of other ethnicities under Stalin as well as Russian immigration.
In the basement are the dungeons and torture chambers of the NKVD. Yerlan, our guide, shares a joke from his youth:
Q: What is the tallest building in any city?
A: KGB headquarters, because even from the basement you can see all the way to Siberia.
Apart from its remoteness, a major reason that the labor camps were located here is the region's abundant coal resources. At the edge of the city the slag heaps and elevator towers begin. Some of the mines are still active, but most are played out or abandoned.
Slave labor from the camps (including German POWs) built the Miners’ Cultural Palace and some of the grander buildings in the city.
The city center boasts heroic statues and murals glorifying labor.
There is also a monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
We board the modern (sort-of) high-speed train to our final stop, Almaty, the country's largest city and commercial capital. Its location at the base of the Tien Shan mountains in the southeast corner of the county offers a far more temperate climate than the steppes of central Asia.
It is also considered to be in a geologically unstable area as well as uncomfortably close to China.
Victory Day was yesterday, a Sunday. Today, school groups are still trooping to the very large war memorial where the soldiers' profiles form a map of the Soviet Union.
Our digs are in the Hotel Kazakhstan, the 20th century showpiece of the city and nation, recently renovated and now managed by Moevenpick. (So, no jokes about Soviet-quality service here.)
I was here for a couple of days last time, so there is not much new for me. Our final group meal is at an elegant restaurant atop Kok-Tobe Hill, overlooking the city and reached by cable car. Here, one can pose with a hunting eagle and, for some inexplicable reason, The Beatles.
Finally, a bit of shopping: some native garb, highly useful should I decide to become a wizard in a cold clime (though it's a bit warm for Florida).
Epilogue: My scheduled flight home arrived in New York too late for the last flight to Jacksonville so I planned to overnight at a hotel near JFK. Instead, a flight delay on my connecting flight results in laying over instead in Moscow (hotel courtesy of Aeroflot). Because I do not have a visa to enter Russia, leaving the airport means a pickup at an airside gate, driving out through a security gate to the nearby Novotel, where I check into the “aviation security” wing. Accompanied by guards, we enter the hotel through a side entrance and are escorted to a sealed corridor. Keys are handed out at a tiny reception desk and I go to my room. Meals are delivered to the room. Early in the morning the phone rings to announce that the bus will be here in thirty minutes. The route is reversed and we are returned to the gate where I make my way to the lounge await my flight. I arrive in New York too late for my scheduled flight to Jacksonville, but Delta quickly accommodates me on the next one (instead of direct, connecting through Atlanta). All in all, a minor and not entirely unpleasant inconvenience.
Trip date: May, 2018