Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Kazakhstan 2018


Our early morning starts are getting earlier and earlier.  I woke this morning to my alarm at 4:00am to prepare for our meeting time of 4:40am.  A tepid shower was sufficient to wake me up, so I completed the little last minute packing I wasn’t able to do last night, went down the stairs with my suitcase (because the tiny lifts in the hotel were so slow), and loaded my suitcase onto the bus for a three and a half hour drive to cover 250 kilometres to Ust-Kamenogorsk.

The first half of the journey was completed well before dawn, so combined with the heavy overcast skies and light drizzle, it was easy to nap in the comfortable, spacious seats of the large bus we were using.  At 7:20am, we arrived in the tiny hamlet of Privol’noe, an appropriate name I thought as the main purpose of our stop was to use the corrugated iron privy.  It was a very basic structure – essentially a timber platform over three squared-off holes in the ground – hence the valuable advice I was given before I walked into the dark, unlit interior: “Aim straight” and “Don’t fall in”.  It was valuable advice which I was determined to follow and successful in achieving.

Alongside the privy was a small café.  It was so cold outside that as soon as I walked through the door my glasses steamed up and I was walking blindly.  However, they offered cups of warm instant coffee in porcelain mugs for just 500 tenge (about 20 cents), for which I was very grateful.

At 7:40am, with the sun probably but invisibly rising behind the thick grey clouds, we continued our journey, leaving the seemingly incessantly flat steppes for more interesting countryside of gently (very gently) rolling hills with a scattering of trees.  Unfortunately, photos were impossible, partly because it was so dark, and partly because the condensation between the two panes of glass on the double-glazed windows never cleared.

We arrived in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk (also less commonly known as Öskeman) at about 9:40am.  Even through the drizzle and the obscured windows, it seemed as though Ust-Kamenogorsk with its population of a little over 300,000 people was probably a more interesting city to explore than Semey where we had spent the day yesterday.  There were some lovely gardens and public buildings, but we didn’t have the day to explore the city – we had just 20 minutes before we had to leave the city centre and go to the airport to catch our flight to Karaganda.

Happily, we made excellent use of the 20 minutes.  We stopped the bus beside a huge, fairly new mosque with a translucent blue dome that looked wonderful even in the dark light of the morning drizzle.  Apparently many of the Muslims in Ust-Kamenogorsk are Hui (Han Chinese who are Muslim) who migrated to Kazakhstan in the late 1960s and early 1970s to escape Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.

The mosque was situated beside a large green area known as Central Park (formerly Lenin Park).  Although Central Park was not due to open until 10:00am, by which time we had to be on our way to the airport, Yerlan spoke to the guard at the entrance and arranged for us to have early entry.

It would have looked wonderful in sunlight, but even in the light rain the park was beautiful.  Entering the park, the first thing that caught my eye were two small airliners and a helicopter parked off to the left.  The aircraft, an Antonov An-2 biplane, a Yakovlev Yak-40 trijet regional airliner and a Mil Mi-2 early Soviet helicopter, were in excellent condition, and provided suitable compensation for the ban on photography at the airport we were about to pass through.

Even more interesting sights awaiting us a little further into the park.  There was an ensemble of Soviet-era tanks, surrounded by rose beds, and a line of interesting Soviet statues.  Like yesterday’s park in Semey, Lenin dominated the numbers, but there were several others of interest, including what I thought was the most extraordinary of all, a large metal bust of Felix Djerzhinsky, the reviled founder of the NKVD, precursor of the KGB.

A short ten-minute drive brought us to Ust-Kamenogorsk Airport, where we checked in and boarded our flight to Karaganda.  The flight was on a 50-seat SCAT Air Bombardier CRJ-200 (registration UP-CJ004 for the multitudes who are curious).  The flight to Karaganda was 659 kilometres and took just on one hour.  We flew over the Polygon, and although we couldn’t see anything because of the cloud cover, it was interesting to reflect on what had occurred in the area immediately below us in past decades.  It was somewhat sobering to realise that until recently, this was one of the most forbidden, off-limits areas on the planet; it is only as a result of recent changes that we are allowed to fly over (let alone visit the surface of) this zone, and I have heard that this open access is contested within Kazakhstan and could be reversed in the future.

We landed at Karaganda at 12:30pm under crystal clear blue skies and a temperature of 14°C.  We collected our luggage, boarded another excellent, spacious bus, and drove into the city, arriving at our hotel at about 1:30pm.  The Chaika Hotel has been accurately described as ‘an amazing Soviet brutalist Soviet monstrosity’, seemingly dropped straight from a 1980 time warp.  I am one of the fortunate few, however, who was allocated a room in the old building that was built specifically for the visit of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.

“Chaika” was Tereshkova’s call sign when she undertook her solo orbit of the earth.  It means ‘seagull’ in English.  She orbited the earth 48 times and logged more flight time in one flight than all the US astronauts who had flown before her.  ‘Seagull’ is also a poetic image, as birds often symbolise a woman’s striving and passion for freedom or happiness in Russian poetry.

This old building of the Chaika Hotel was used to accommodate cosmonauts when they returned from their missions in space, as Karaganda is the closest city to the landing sites used by Soviet (and later Russian) space missions.  The old wing of the hotel has smaller and simpler rooms than other parts of the hotel (I guess cosmonauts tend to be compact), but they have been renovated since they were used by the cosmonauts, the bed seems firm and there is water and wifi.  In the centre of the building is a lovely, wide, carpeted staircase, and the landing at the top features photos of cosmonauts who have stayed in the building.

We reconvened at 2:00pm and took our bus to a beautiful restaurant near the centre of the city to enjoy what must be one of the best (and largest) lunches we have had on the trip – an array of different types of salads, tongue and liver, borscht, cherry dumplings, eggplant and mushrooms, and horsemeat with potatoes and tomatoes as the main dish.  I had missed breakfast this morning and following this (late) lunch, I didn’t need dinner tonight.

We finished our lunch at about 4:00pm and began what turned out to be a short walking tour of the city centre.  Several of the buildings in Prospekt Nurkena Abdirova near our restaurant featured large Soviet-era murals and mosaics in beautiful condition, so we stopped to admire several of these.  One featured Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space), another featured an ardent-looking couple looking confidently into their bright future with their new born baby, while another featured a quote by Lenin surrounded by an athletic couple holding raised hammer and sickle, a dove of peace, some creative people thinking and some scientists doing experiments.  Given the large, sharp decline in educational standards in all the former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR, maybe that mural will cause some useful reflection on the need to invest in education once again and stop the decline.

A short walk to the corner of Prospekt Bukhar-Zhiray brought us to another interesting monument commemorating the Kazakh pilot Nurken Abdirov.  A native of Karaganda, he fought in the Soviet Air Force during World War II.  During the Battle of Stalingrad, enemy fire disabled his plane, and he deliberately (and it is said heroically) steered his plane into a column of German tanks, thus killing hundreds of soldiers, some tanks and some trucks, all at the cost of his own life.  He was posthumously given the award of Hero of the Soviet Union, and today one of Karaganda’s main streets is named after him.

We walked northwards from the monument, but the walking tour degenerated a little after that.  Two members of the group wanted to visit the Ecological Museum, so Yerlen (our guide, who incidentally comes from Karaganda) decided to accompany them so he could translate the information in the museum.  It was the end of the walking tour for the rest of us, so while some decided to walk back to the hotel, others went on individual explorations while others looked for cafes or bars.

I continued my walk northwards along Prospekt Nurkena Abdirova past some lovely mosaics, the independence monument, the performing arts theatre, then taking a side road to visit the memorial to Yuri Gagarin.  Karaganda is a lovely city of half a million people, and it was looking its best this afternoon in the golden sunlight under the clear, blue sky.  My walk concluded at the hotel at a little after 5:30pm; it was good timing as the light was just starting to fade a bit.  I was ready to enjoy a good rest in the cosmonauts’ former abode.

1st afternote: Until Astana had its recent growth spurt, Karaganda was Kazakhstan’s second largest city (after Almaty).  Based on the mining industry (especially coal), and the site of several gulags during Stalin’s time, Karaganda was briefly named as Kazakhstan’s capital to replace Almaty in the early 1990s.  The decision was reversed after just one week in favour of Astana because (a) large areas of Karaganda must be kept undeveloped to protect the underlying coal resources, and (b) whereas Karaganda lay on a main road, Astana lay at the junction of several roads.

2nd afternote: I think we got out of Semey just in time – the forecast maximum temperature there tomorrow is -3°C.

Day 14

Semey to Karaganda via Ust-Kamenogorsk


25 September 2018