Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kazakhstan 2018


We needed to wake up early this morning to go to the railway station to catch the train to Semey, usually still known by its Soviet-era name of Semipalatinsk.  There is only one easterly moving passenger train each day that stops in Kurchatov (or more precisely at the station which is in the nearby hamlet of Degelen), and it was the continuation of the same train service that we had used a few days ago when we arrived in Kurchatov from Astana.

We checked out of our hotel at 5:30am, but our departure was a little delayed because the one women on duty in the hotel had to visit each room to check that the full quota of towels, bed sheets, cups, light bulbs, coat hangers (each one labelled with its allocated room number), and anything else that might be removed were still in the room.

The Atomic Institute’s bus was used to transport us to the station, so in the same manner that we had mastered when we first arrived, we all got into the bus, filling every seat, and then our luggage was loaded to fill the passageway and every other nook and cranny in the vehicle.  A five-minute drive brought us to the station, after which the luggage was unloaded so that we could in turn disembark.

The train arrived right on time, and once again our allocated carriage was situated a long way from the station’s very short, low platform.  We carried our luggage across the rough rocks beside the railway line almost the length of the train and then had to climb up the steep steps into the carriage with our luggage as quickly as we could in the drizzle so we were all inside before the train’s departure time of 6:44am.  As it happened, the train left about three minutes late, but still managed to arrive right on time in Semey at 9:21am.

We quickly transferred to our hotel, the Hotel Semey, where we had time for a quick (but really quite inadequate) breakfast before starting an exploration of the city at 11:00am.  The hotel was in an excellent, central location, meaning that everything done today (apart from the transfer from the railway station to the hotel) could be completed on foot without needing a bus, even though the weather was very fickle with frequent shifts between sunny conditions and light rainfall.

Our walk began across the road from the hotel in Victory Park, where a fairly typical Soviet war memorial that included an eternal flame was located.  At the far end of Victory Park, a beautifully restored Soviet T-34 tank from World War II had been placed on a pedestal as though to welcome visitors entering the park from the south-western end.

Further walking took us past the mosque (built in Russian Orthodox style) and a museum (built to resemble a mosque) before we arrived in an area with a significant number of old Russian-style timber log houses with ornate window frames.  We had about 15 minutes to wander through this area and admire the houses before moving on past the theatre to a museum devoted to Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Unfortunately, a visit to the museum was included in the program, and we spent the next hour or so looking at static displays of old photos, old books and old documents, painstakingly explained by a museum guide.  A two-storey house where Dostoevsky lived for three years (1857 to 1859) had been renovated, and we were shown through.  The house was full of 19th century furniture and artifacts, none of which were Dostoevsky’s, but were included to typify the era.  We were told that we would be charged a fee of 150 tenge (about 60 cents) for each photo taken inside.  It is a comment on both this high fee and the interest level of the display that as far as I am aware, not a single photo was taken by anyone in the group.  My overall verdict of the museum would be to give it a generous one star out of five.

A short walk brought us to a restaurant where we had one of the best lunches I have enjoyed on this trip through Central Asia – superb diverse salads, soup, meat with pasta, and even a caramel cake-like biscuit with a cup of tea to finish.  Maybe my enjoyment of the meal was increased by the poor nature of the hotel’s breakfast, but there seemed to be a general consensus that this was a great lunch.

After lunch, we jumped into five taxis for a short trip to the Nevzorov Family Museum of Visual Arts.  This relatively young museum (it was established in 1985) boasts a collection of more than 2,000 exhibits, many of which are excellent works of art, though almost all are by less well-known artists.  The museum is usually closed on Mondays (like all museums in Kazakhstan), but special arrangements were made to provide us with a guided tour.

The collection is impressive and diverse in style, with separate galleries devoted to Western European painting and graphic arts from the 16th to 19th centuries, Russian paintings from the end of the 18th century to the first half of the 19th century, Russian paintings of the second half of the 19th century, Russian paintings and graphic art from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, Russian art of the Soviet period (1960s to 1980s), and visual art of Kazakhstan.

Another factor in going to the Nevzorov Museum was that on an earlier trip in May this year, James had met an English teacher, Mrs Yelena Mikhyeva, and her students at the Dostoevsky Museum.  Yelena teaches in the Access Program for economically disadvantaged students between the ages of 13-20, supported by the US Embassy in Kazakhstan.  During that meeting in May, it had been agreed that our group would spend some time with Yelena and her students during our walking tour of Semey, and they would help introduce their town to us.

We met the students outside the Nevzorov Museum where they were instantly recognisable by their white T-shirts emblazoned with the image of an eagle with one wing comprising a Kazakh flag and the other wing comprising a US flag.  Most of the students we met were aged between 14 and 17, and they were surprisingly confident with their English language skills.  They joined us for the tour of the museum, and several short speeches were made before a group photograph was taken.

For those who wished, a walk around Semey followed by a performance was planned, but as it was getting dark and several of us wished to visit one of Semey’s more unusual sites – a park lined with busts of Communist leaders (mostly Lenin) – we left the group and reached the park just as car headlights were being turned on for the evening.

Located right behind our hotel, the white busts were lined up in two rows facing each other somewhat like rows of gravestones.  At the end of the rows, a very tall dark grey standing statue of Lenin that used to stand in the nearby square seemed to preside over the surroundings.  I thought it was fascinating that local authorities would go to such great pains to remove the statues from public places and yet erect them in this small public park.

I was very glad that I had broken away from the student performances to see the park, as we will leave Semey before dawn tomorrow morning and this was my only chance.  To be frank, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why it was not included in the group’s program – all of us who visited commented that it was probably the most interesting thing we had seen in Semey and the highlight of our visit.

Sadly, our time in Semey was too short, and there other places I would have loved to have visited, such as nuclear memorial erected in 2002 for victims of the nuclear tests.  I have heard that the centrepiece of the monument is a marble statue called ‘Stronger than Death’ showing a mother covering her child, while above it billows a mushroom cloud from a nuclear test in The Polygon etched into a 30 metre high black tombstone.  Speaking personally, this would have been of far greater interest that either the Dostoevsky Museum or the Nevzorov Museum.  Moreover, with its potential to engage in critical thinking and evaluative discussions, I think meeting with the students at the nuclear memorial would almost certainly have been a far better learning experience for the students in the English language Access Program than following us around the art museum, even acknowledging the worthwhile one-on-one conversations that did occur there.

Day 13

Kurchatov to Semey


24 September 2018