07.08.2013 - 20.08.2013 22 °C
We've been in Kazakhstan for nearly a week now, arriving last Wednesday on the train from Moscow. We left Moscow late in the evening on the Monday, and the train ride took two and a half days, with the four of us (friends Emily & Duncan from Darwin, and Lachlan and myself) in a kupe together. The kupe was a small compartment with four bench style beds (two upper and two lower on each wall) and a small table below the window. The two lower benches lifted open so that luggage could be stored under the seat, and there was some more storage space above the door, in an alcove accessible from the upper bunks. There was a toilet cubicle at each end of the carriage, and at one end we could get hot water from an old fashioned boiler with a small fire lit in it. We brought a lot of food on the train with us, from Moscow, but it was also fun to hop out at the platforms where we stopped, to see what was being peddled. Usually as the train pulled in to a town, babushkas would appear carrying buckets of berries, handfuls of dried fish or bags of windfall apples, and young men with sack-trucks of used banana boxes full of chocolates and souveniers would scurry up on to the platform, ducking their way under the stationary trains on the adjacent tracks.
The scenery along the way felt rather depressing, with most buildings along the railway line being surrounded by weeds and looking vacated or at the very least, unloved. When we went through small towns, we saw muddy tracks between droopy wooden houses, untidy wood stacks (as opposed to the beautifully neat ones we saw in Estonia), gardens that looked scarily overgrown, and particularly in bigger towns there was a lot of rubbish in vacant areas along side the train tracks. Outside of the towns, everwhere seemed low lying and marshy, with hardly a sign of agricultural production anywhere. About a day and a half after leaving Moscow, the landscape became hillier and more open, with some fields of sunflowers, as we crossed the southern end of the Ural mountain range. At the two day mark we crossed in to Kazakhstan and by the morning of the third day the landscape had a different feel, with grassy plains and space everywhere.
Our train trip ended in Astana, which is Kazakhstan's 'new' capital city. The old capital is Almaty, which is in the very south, near the border with Kyrgystan, and we will pass through there later in our travels. After dealing with the bustle of pedestraians on Moscow's streets and subways, Astana's footpaths felt very empty, both in the older part of town where there was a traditional soviet style street scape and in the new developing suburbs, where amazingly sculptured high-rise buildings and department stores reach in to the sky. Astana is hosting the 2017 world Expo, and it is out to impress - there was a real air of Dubai's architecture in the new city centre. The highlight of Astana (for Lachlan, anyway) was a peculiar phenomen regarding the traffic lights - they stopped every afternoon after lunch, and intersections turned in to mayhem, with traffic jams and constant horn honking. A policeman would then appear and start directing the traffic - and I guess eventually the traffic lights would come back on again but we never saw that bit.
From Astana, we travelled south to Karaganda, which is a city about half the size of Adelaide (or six times the size of Darwin) in a mining area of Kazakhstan, in the heartland of the steppe. Here the country side is flat and almost treeless, and peering to the horizon through through the hazy air you can see conical piles of mine waste and tall chimneys puffing smoke. Karaganda was really a stop over for us, as we continued on a side trip to a much smaller town named Karkaraly (or Karkaralinsk or Qarqaraly, depending on which map you are looking at) which is adjacent to the Karkaraly mountains. At Karkaraly, above the town on the south side there are pine trees growing twisted and gnarly on slopes of granite pancake rocks which are shaped into amazing conical knolls. To the north, the steppe rolls away in to the distance, dotted with an incredible diversity of flowers in shades of purple, pink, yellow and white. Cows and horses graze the slopes around the town, roaming as they please.
We spent three nights camping, packing up our tent each day and leaving our rucksacks in the forest so we could wander and explore. The weather was thundery and a bit wet at times, but the rocks were sculptured and eroded fantastically, providing dry spaces in the rock overhangs which made perfect lunch spots and places to shelter from the rain. We collected water from creeks running down the rocky hills or from one of the pumps in the town, after Lachlan worked out how simply they operated (just push the handle down and wedge it there with a bit of wood, tied to the pump for that purpose). In the town the dirt roads between the houses were puddly, like in the rural Russian towns we saw from the train window, but the houses were of solid stone, gardens were not so overgrown, and wood stacks were neat again. We were in Karkaraly over the weekend and we saw many people busy doing things in their yards or to their roofs. On the Sunday there were also a lot of people in the forest, including families, picking mushrooms into plastic shopping bags.
Travelling in Kazakhstan has been hard work, because there seems to be no tourist information available in towns and it is not clear where to get a map (if one exists). When we have access to Wifi, we can look up accommodation options but generally there is no on-line booking system - we would need to ring the hotel to make a reservation, and we may not be be able to communicate with the receptionist on the other end of the line. That said, we have met an incredible number of helpful people, who have approached us as we struggle with our ticket purchases, offering their help to translate or make enquiries for us. Thanks to the phrase book and Bert's little yellow Russian dictionary, we have managed through a variety of situations where no-one has spoken English. For effort in being understood, the prize so far goes to the woman in the Hotel Sozvezdie here in Karaganda, who wanted so hard to explain our dinner options that she imitated a chicken
Kazakhstan has a lot of flat space, with just a fringe of mountains to the south-east, thanks to the Altay mountains dropping in from Russia and several smaller ranges that poke in to the country from neighboring China and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan's development relies on its mining and oil resources. Russian is widely spoken in cities and used in signage and labeling. Exposure to English language comes via western music and some television, and for some people, as a university subject. Conditions of roads are variable, with some so pot-holed that 40 kph was maximum bus speed. Food is delightful, with many affordable options from street vendors. Deep fried oval shaped pockets of bread dough containing grated or mashed potato are a favourite!
From here in Karanganda, we are heading to far eastern Kazakhstan (and hills), where we will take part in a three day orienteering event at Tainty, outside of Ust-Kamenogorsk (also called Oskemen).
Best wishes and much love to everyone,