Through the steppe

Almaty, 23.06.2019

Leaving Nur-Sultan for Almaty, almost 1.300km of steppe lay ahead of me. From my last visit I remembered the flat land, desert, and Soviet ruins. This time the road led through another area though. The steppe turned out to be a giant cemetery. About half an hour from Nur-Sultan lies the Alzhir museum and memorial complex of political repressions and totalitarianism victims. The former camp for interned women from all over the Soviet union had a memorial outside, about 8.200 names on it. The vast majority of the exhibition had no English descriptions, but the faces of the inmates, their fotos from their lives before the camp, they said it all. Russian, Ukrainians, Jews. Women of all ages and layers of society, stripped of their lives, their children, their humanity. Some were just culpable of being married to the “wrong” guy.

Later in the day I reached the Karlag administration building, the heart of the vast Karlag network of NKVD camps around Karagandy, a major mining town until today. Acelor Mittal runs a factory there today. Nobody spoke English. Also this exhibition was mostly non-English. I walked in, nobody asked for a ticket. About 10 minutes into my visit a guy came and spoke to me in Russian. It turned out I did need a ticket, and from then on I had company throughout the entire exhibition, watching every step I took, leading me from one room to the next. Both camps’ exhibitions would be academically dubious under Western standards probably. Especially in the Karlag, a lot of pathos and drama was applied. But the subject matter was also a very brutal one, and they tried to make the situation as understandable as they could, through documents and text as well as decorating rooms with puppets to show how this place looked like 70 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people form all over the Soviet Union, but also Korea and Europe were put into the camps. The stories of inmates revealed Bolshevik revolutionaries that lost their illusions, intellectuals, artists, simple people, educated people, unfortunate people. Like in Russia, I was not entirely sure how these memorial places sprang up in a country like Kazakhstan. Is the government helping, or adverse, or neutral? How do locals see this part of their history? The repression of Kazakh nomad lifestyle by the Soviets was another question I found no answer to how the Kazakhs see this today. And having read about Russian history in the recent weeks I realized the Soviet attitude seemed like a simple continuation of Russian expansion over the previous centuries. If the solder harassing, deporting or killing wears a Soviet or an imperial uniform doesn’t really make a difference.

South of Karagandy lied Spassk. On the motorway there was a Russian tank monument to the left, and on the other side of the road a lone memorial. Or rather, a collection of memorials for war prisoners that died here, a few meters from the construction site of the new motorway. Every country put up its own memorial, and there are a lot of different nations represented. I even found a Spanish one. To my great surprise even they made it to the Gulag.

But there are more dead in the steppe, everywhere. From small stones with pictures of dead people on the side of the road, to more recent memorials, to entire graveyards a bit further away. Then there are the mud brick mausoleums of ancient times, in various stages of decay. And the white bones of horses, cows and who knows what else, scattered around in the endless fields.

Not only living beings found their last days around here. Around Balkhash were several graveyards of old Soviet locomotives and train carriages, rusting in the heat on a depot that was falling itself to pieces. Old mineshafts’ rusting towers standing in the middle of the steppe.

Then there are those that have found a new life around here, and it’s not the second one, but rather the last in a long chain of new lives. Like the 1980’s white bus with Teramo Calcio in big red letters on it. If the club knew its former vehicle was now carrying Kazakhs through these dry lands? Lots of European, mostly German transport companies’ trucks. The best of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – it’s not disco music, but cars, preferably Audi, on the roads here, from small town car dealers in Germany, now proudly Kazakh, with dark windows and new powerful lights. The dark windows is a thing around here. Not slightly tinted, but pitch black. I could hardly see into the cars. I never knew if somebody is watching me or just napping along the road.

And then there is the new life. Hordes of horses run around the steppe, a lot of foals among them. As I drove by it was beautiful to see them enjoy the freedom out here, grazing and running. Sometimes they crossed the road, and everybody had to stop. The mothers guard the young ones avidly. Same goes for the cows, although they’re less beautiful and have a tendency to wait on the side of the road until a car comes close, then cross, very calmly and slowly, to make sure everybody has to stop and admire them, as they leave their presents on the tar. A big Toyota jeep tried to scare them away honking and getting very close. The cow was not impressed, didn’t even look at the vehicle and proceeded slowly. “You hit me, I win.”

Very alive around here were also the police. They strictly stick to those parts of the road that are decent. When there’s no police around you know the road will get very bad soon. The motorway from Nur-Sultan to Astana was being built by the Chinese in full swing. In the meantime everybody has to live with the roads that are being replaced, or the mud dams around the construction site. It was dusty, hot, diesel fumes filled the air. Hard to stop, I just kept driving and driving. Until Balkhash town and a northern piece of the lake the road was not too bad, mostly tarred. I got stopped 3 times by the police. It was always the same procedure. They wanted the passport, sometimes also the driving license, maybe the car documents. Then they tried to sell me I broke the law, that I did or did not. They put spontaneous 50km/h signs on good roads in the few places you can actually drive a bit faster (aka 100-120 km/h if you feel lucky), and then catch you with the speedometer. But they even stopped me when I started to drive 50 in the 50 zone. Different than 6 years ago they now all had Google translate, so they could “talk” to me. But fortunately Google translates their Russian pretty bad, or they don’t speak well, so most of the time “I don’t understand.” Usually just keeping talking exhausted them before they let me go. At the last case, they asked me for insurance, as there was nothing else to catch me with. I proudly showed them the insurance doc I had bought at the border. They invited me to sit in their car. I refused. Then I spoke into their phone’s Google translate “What else do you want? I have all documents in order, committed no infraction. I have to go to Almaty today and the road is long. Leave me alone and give me back my documents now! I need to leave.” The policeman looked at me, evidently surprised, handed me back my documents and said “Welcome to Kazakhstan.” I shook hands, and left. I almost got stopped two more times. Once at the entrance of Balkhash. But the Police were stopping a lot of cars at the town entrance and when they saw my foreign number plate they just waved for me to drive on. Too much hassle, I guessed. The second one was a police car coming the other way. They were driving so fast they couldn’t turn around in the traffic on the road, as I saw in my rear mirror. So I just drove on and lost them. At lunch time I passed two police cars in front of cafés after having passed two 50 zones without controls. Everybody needs a break I guessed.

One more incident was interesting. A guy in a completely destroyed car, with a Russian number plate and black windows with the foil peeling off, got stopped by the police. He stopped the car immediately, got out, walked fast to the police car, leaned into the car through the front window, 5 seconds passed, then he shook hands with police man and left. The whole thing lasted 120 seconds max, the time to drive by slowly.

In between all this I drove, a lot. 10h the first day and 13 long hours on the second one. The weather was hot, very hot. On day two it topped at 35C around the bright turquoise Balkhash lake that took me four hours to drive around. It got so hot at some point a fata morgana of a lake appeared over a salt piece of desert. The 222km of road nightmare from the lake to almost Almaty were an ordeal. The poor Mini got a beating unlike any other day on this journey so far. And a very serious dust cover.

Between the two days I camped for the first time in the wild. I left the road at the end of the first day at about 19.30, drove five minutes over some rare hills, and found a spot that was not too windy, had a soft and flat ground to sleep on. And an amazing view over a plain, with the sun going down slowly over a mountain range far away. A cool Russian beer on my tiny camping chair watching the sunset made me make peace with the rough roads of the day. My food repertoire from Spain that I had in the car brought a piece from home to this remote site. I slept OK, bot for seven hours. And in the first light of the day woke up to make coffee, do yoga in the steppe, watching the sun rise between a down dog and a cat-camel. During my months of learning yoga in New York I had always dreamt of doing this on my own, in some faraway place. Here it was, magic. Namaste!

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