Saturday, July 02, 2011

Steppe Outside

The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world by area by a considerable margin (more than twice the size of Canada at number 2). When it split into its 15 constituent republics the lion's share of that went to Russia, but Kazakhstan still managed to become the 9th largest country in the world (just a Croatia shy of Argentina at number 8). Kazakhstan is a big country. And with most of the 16 million population concentrated around the edges a lot of it is taken up by the wide, flat steppe. In the dryer, hotter south the predominant colours are already yellow and brown, with a little pale green mixed in, as the summer has already set in for a while, but as you head further northwards the deep green of growing grass takes over. The landscape is easy on the traveller, affording you long moments without changing much, allowing for plenty of time for reading and sleeping.

In the middle of this green monotony, springing out of nowhere (relatively speaking, because you can already see it from over 30km away) is Kazakhstan's new capital Astana. Previously the capital had been Almaty, but 14 years ago that title was transferred to Astana (called Akmola at the time, but since the name means White Tomb - not a particularly auspicious designation for a capital - it was renamed, using a great deal of imagination, to Astana, which means Capital), ostensibly to have a more central capital with closer links to Russia, which is still the most important trading partner, although more cynical people claim the real reason to be Nazarbayev's desire to consolidate his grip on power as Almaty was too large and independent to bow to his whims. There were drawbacks to this move though, the mains ones being the vicious winters of the area (temperatures in January often fall to -40 degrees, not counting windchill, as devastating winds come sweeping in from Siberia, making it the second-coldest capital in the world), and perhaps more importantly, that it was a small, provincial town. Since then there has been a frenzied level of construction to create a showcase capital causing the population to triple in 10 years. The skyline has been transformed with new, fanciful towers springing up every year often designed by the who's who of contemporary world architecture, the only constant being the forest of cranes that whir and hum at break-neck speed. All this has come at a price, estimated to be around 10% of the national budget every year. Some of the buildings are indeed beautiful, but there is no over-arching harmony so instead the place feels rather soulless. Some of the more interesting creations include: a giant, indoor aquarium/sea-life centre which includes a 70m long underwater walkway where you can get up close and personal with sharks and other creatures of the deep (must have cost a ridiculous amount as the sea water had to be shipped in especially, and Astana is thousands of kilometres from the nearest sea); a giant 150m high tent with a transparent roof that is home to a shopping and entertainment centre; as well as an entirely new governmental complex with grandiose ministry buildings (although, as opposed to Ashgabat, it does look like these are getting some use).

Shiny new skyscrapers in the new administrative centre of Astana may look pretty...

And whilst Astana may look sleek and shiny, with plenty of chrome and glass, it has done nothing but reinforce my dislike for planned cities. Not only has the pedestrian been completely ignored in the whole planning process, with impractical distances and no real centre, but the glitter is superficial and masks a large number of shoddy workmanship. Whilst walking around yesterday it rained for half an hour in the afternoon. The town planners though, in all their wisdom, had failed to include a decent drainage system and so there were puddles of standing water all over town and tanker trucks were scurrying about vacuuming them up for the rest of the day - not clever. The designers were also fond of polished granite, an admitedly beautiful building material, but it is generally used as a cladding material, and generally in thin slabs at that, which means that many are already cracked and broken. Or some clever soul decided to use the polished slabs on a raised walkway, and then once it was built people realised that it was too slippery to walk on when wet and so the entire surface had to be sanded down. The more time you spend in the city the more such idiocies you spot around every corner.

...but under the veneer the city is rather shoddily put together (here a truck is "vacuuming up" rainwater as there is no adequate drainage system.

Many of the other cities of the steppe are even less pretty, the reason for their existence often being visible far before the rest of the city comes into view in the form of belching smokestacks and vast mining complexes. This is mining country. Many of these places date from the days of the Soviet Union and started their lives as labour camps, part of the infamous Gulag Archipelago. The most famous of which is Karaganda, which was home to one of the largest such camps, known as KarLag, that covered an area the size of Wales. "Undesireables" of the Communist regime were sent here from all over the country, mainly Volga Germans, but also Poles, Ingush, Chechens, Ukrainians and many others from all over the Soviet empire to mine the rich coal deposits in the harsh and unforgiving Kazakh steppe. Even after the Gulag system was finally dismantled the town remained largely German and Russian until the break-up of the Soviet Union after which the Germans packed up and left for Germany. Nowadays the town has gained a majority Kazakh character, like most other major towns in the country (the population decreased by 2 million following independence as the ethnic Europeans left, increasing the Kazakh majority, and the population still hasn't reached the Soviet peak). All around the town for miles upon miles huge mine shafts dot the otherwise featureless landscape. Nowadays of course the labour isn't forced but is run by multinationals, in this case ArcelorMittal, the Luxemburg-based steel giant.

Interestingly, this shameful episode of history is not swept under the carpet but is instead remembered in a moving and informative museum (probably the best in the country) housed in the old KarLag administrative building. Indeed, Kazakhstan is unique amongst its Central Asian peers in that the most negative episodes of Communism and its devastating effects are openly commemorated in several museums throughout the country, covering the repression of the intelligentsia, purges of the 30's and even the imprisonment of female relatives of "subversives". In the other 'Stans the Soviet era is seen as a golden age of employment, relative prosperity, stability and grandeur. And although in comparison to their current, miserable political situation that's probably true, the Soviet past is viewed totally uncritically, which cannot be good in the long run. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has managed to emerge as a multi-ethnic, (somewhat) liberal and (more or less) functioning state, although its status as such is threatening to dissolve as it continues to suffer a skills and minority drain, which would be a shame, as there are few other places in the world where you might meet a person who is a quarter Finnish, quarter Ukrainian, quarter German and quarter Mordvin* and yet feels that they belong to another country altogether.

*A real ethnic smorgasbord and the true family tree of a person I actually met. In fact many people who are considered Kazakh often have other ancestry, including Uyghur, Bashkir, Tatar and, of course, Russian.

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