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Shazza's Escapades Light hearted look at my travel escapades

Kazakhstan 2015

KAZAKHSTAN | Wednesday, 22 July 2015 | Views [249]

It was a possibility that I might have missed this trip because at the boarding gate the Russian attendant was not allowing me to board. As I waited for whatever reason it was, it still wasn’t clear to me as to why I was being denied boarding. They asked for various documents. They waved my passport at other attendants. They took photos of all my itineraries, flight schedules and even my Transiberian train tickets and still no explanation. Nobody spoke to me other than asking me to wait. At the last possible moment, they handed me back my passport and documents and said thank you, again with no explanation. I happily obliged.

I arrived in Almaty at an ungodly hour and presided to wait for my friend who was landing in 90 minutes. We were both reunited after last year’s trip to Rwanda and Burundi. The first thing we did when we arrived at the hotel was fall asleep. We needed to be fresh and awake for our tour starting at noon. Our guide was a doddery old man. He was an old Russian from the Soviet times who remained in Kazakhstan after Independence. I found that there were many Russians still in Kazakhstan. After our typical city tour, we boarded our overnight train to Aksu National Park. This was the first of many train journeys this summer.

We stayed at a quaint old guesthouse run by another Russian guy who moved to Kazakhstan when he retired. We visited Aksu National Park. We drove to the wonderful gorges. This is where the first apple and tulip were found. This was all new information to me. The following day we drove to Turkestan to visit a mosque and mausoleum, one of them; I can’t remember which has the biggest dome in Central Asia. After our tour we checked into our hotel. During the night we had a knock on the door. I normally wouldn’t answer it if I was on my own. I assumed it must have been someone from the hotel but he was on his cell phone at the same time. We realised that the person on the phone wanted to speak to us and translate what he was trying to say. After a few minutes we figured out that our driver was just confirming he would pick us at 8am the next morning to take us to the train station.

The next morning came and went and our driver did not show up as he said he would. We asked the receptionist to call him and he assured us he would be there. As our train was at 9.20am and it was now 8.30am I sent my friend to ask the receptionist to find out where he is. The receptionist came out with my friend and decided to flag down a taxi for us. She explained to the driver to take us to the train station and she paid for the fare which was kind of her. As we started driving I could see that the driver wasn’t in any hurry which was strange as our train was leaving in 20 minutes. At one point he stopped the car to try and pick up another passenger. I shoved the train ticket in his face until he realised our anxiousness for him to go faster. When we finally got to the station we ran to find our train. First we had to find the screen information to locate the platform, then we had to find our carriage and then our cabin. Luckily we got on the train with 5 minutes to spare. We were so flustered and tired when we suddenly spotted the man who was at our door the night before. Here was our driver, late and still on the bloody phone. He tried to explain but we got the idea that his car had broken down. It is such a shame as he found the time and took the trouble to come to our hotel last night for him not to turn up when we actually needed him. Oh well the stressful part was over now.

After 13 hours we arrived at the Aral Sea. We stayed with a local family who had two teenage kids, a girl who was lovely and did the translating for her mum and a sulky boy. We spent two days here visiting the dead ships stuck in the sands of what is left of the Aral Sea. I was disappointed at the shipwreck as what I saw on the internet was not what I saw before me. Most of the ships did not look like ships. They had been torn apart by scavengers looking for steel they could sell. Aral town was tiny and it took all of 20 minutes to see it all including their museum. The next morning we had to head off at 5am for our train to Kyzylorda.

We were picked up at the train station at midday and were given a quick tour before heading to the airport for our flight to Astana. We had a couple of hours before our flight so we hung out at the restaurant. My friend bought and paid for a very expensive soup while I watched my movie on my tablet enjoying their air conditioning. When our flight was finally called we headed for the very old fashioned and manual looking check in counter. By manual I mean they wrote out the boarding pass for you. Before check in you had to go through a guy, officially he’s the security. He let me through but my friend who lost her immigration slip was not allowed to go through. I stayed by the door not willing to go any further until my friend was allowed to check in. I waited for nearly 30 minutes as she was taken away. Not sure where they took her but it wasn’t looking good. They kept making the x factor sign to me about my friend. Finally she came back looking bewildered. As we went through check in I kind of figured what had happened. It was a good old fashioned shake down. The guard took my friend to an empty room and started asking her for money. Naively she told him how much she had. In my experience of shake downs of which I have had many in my lifetime, always and only have the money you are willing to lose in your pockets. The more there is in your pockets or purse the more they will take. He said the fined was hundreds of dollars. In the end with a lot of negotiating she finally paid roughly $50. He then allowed her to check in. There was no system in place for the check in staff to know whether she had her immigration slip or not. It is not their job to know so therefore they wouldn’t be looking for it. As it was a domestic flight there was no immigration official around. Basically if the guard wasn’t there she wouldn’t have had to pay the bribe just to check in and get her flight. She didn’t care as she was happy to be getting out of there and on to Astana.

Driving from the airport to the centre of Astana was amazing. I have never seen so many amazing and bizarre buildings since my trip to Ashgabat. Astana was on a whole different level. Astana was also the place where we would be meeting the Australian guy writing his book on the USSR. He was joining our trip to Kurchatov as you cannot go on your own. It was one of those places where you needed a special permit to enter it. We had hoped for a permit to Baikonur to see the space station but it was denied. He entered it illegally and was promptly arrested and then let go. He did manage to see a launch from 20 kms away though and I was green with envy.

We started with the usual city tour of Astana but not before visiting the immigration office for my friend so she didn’t have the same problems leaving Kazakhstan. In between the tour we visited the immigration office 3 times before she finally got her official immigration slip. After going up the tower, visiting the pyramid and looking at all the awesome buildings we got on another train heading to Karaganda. This was the official start of the tour for the Nuclear Test Site.

We arrived late at night and our driver was late as usual. He took us to the best hotel in Karaganda. It was huge with what seemed to be a giant torch or flame bowl on the top of the hotel. It was an old soviet style building, completely huge for no reason whatsoever.

The best part of this tour was the visit to Karlag Museum, its memorial site and the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Kurchatov Town. The rest is what I would call padding and there was a lot of it on this trip. Karlag Gulag was the largest and longest running gulag in Russia. It was heart-breaking reading about their history especially what happened to children or new mums. When a child is born in the gulag, they are taken away from the mothers and put into the children’s section. They are given different names to what their mum gave them. The children can stay until they are of age and then they enter the adult section if they haven’t already died of starvation. So if they somehow meet their mums, neither would know as they have different names to what was given to them at birth. It was the saddest thing I have ever heard.

On our way to Kurchatov we had a homestay in Shibanbi. It was near a Camp for children to go during their summers. It sounded very much like a propaganda camp. Even their playground had equipment to help build children’s stamina and it didn’t look like fun. The camp was run down with most of the buildings falling apart and the playground equipment rusty. The homestay for the next two nights was great except for having no running water or inside toilet. The cows were usually in the way of the outside toilets. The young girl from the family helped me try to chase the cow away and at one point she was shoving and kicking it to get it to move. On one of the nights we were invited to go somewhere with the family. After some explanation and after dinner we headed outside the village to a place where families gather to celebrate the union of an engaged couple. They celebrated the couple by getting them together on a giant swing and swinging them for hours and hours. I tried this contraption out with great difficulty and at times pain, and my partner was our driver.

We were all supposed to climb the mountain nearby our homestay. My friend and I gave it a miss as we didn’t see the point plus it was going to be 40 degrees. We chilled out at home with the family until the Australian writer returned with a badly burnt and very red looking driver. After their walk and late lunch and some rest time we finally headed to our next destination.

We were dreading the 7 hours driver but our crazy driver was fast and we got to our Russian version of a Hi De Hi Camp in less than 3 hours. The whole camp was a throwback to the sixties in terms of décor and restoration. As in nothing has been restored since then. We had to rush to get to lunch as it was timed seating for each meal. After a super quick shower we went to lunch. Unfortunately the dining hall was miles away. We had to leave our hotel, walk across the road towards what looked like an old plastic burning factory with a tall smoking chimney, past a derelict sports court, some breeze block stairs, past a working garage, then down some more stairs, this time concrete with large pipes running all the way down it, through a mini forest, over a wooden bridge and finally to the dining room. The walk at meal times was my favourite part of the stay. The next day I was the only one to attempt the walk to the lake. What a disappointment. Wished I stayed I bed instead.

We had another long drive to Kurchatov. This was the holy grail of my trip. I was really looking forward to visiting this old town and nuclear test site. On our way and through the test site we had to keep the windows up just in case of the radiation getting in. Not sure how much we were exposed to as we were staying here three nights with many visits to ground zero. Our stay was in a building that looked like a prison camp. It looked like one from the outside and also looked like one on the inside. As we were not allowed to stay in the perfectly decent hotel nearby we had no choice. Apparently this building was the nicer one. I had to pay $1 for a shower every time which was nearly 3 times a day. This made my experience all the more authentic. We ate at the local bar with local drunk people.

The next morning was the exciting part of the whole trip. We went to the Nuclear Research centre to show our permits and collect our guide so we can enter the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Site. We waited for quite a while for our guide and then when he did arrive we had to go to another place and swap him for somebody else. In the end we had Yuri, our very own ZZ Top lookalike. We drove over an hour in our cramped 4x4 with me practically in the boot. Before we entered the nuclear test zone we had to wear protective clothing. When I saw our protective clothing I was not convinced it would protect us from dust let alone radiation. It was a white jumpsuit made of cotton type material as thin as tissue paper. The mask was a duck faced like contraption with foam as its mouthpiece. For our feet we wore cut off wellington boots. We looked completely awesome. Awesomely idiotic and I am sure this is just for the tourists as our guide wore nothing and neither did our crazy driver. It was also very hot and we sweated a lot in our suits. We visited what was left of ground zero, the atomic lake, several buildings which have been left to rot and the best bunker I have ever seen. It was enormous and inside was cold and eerie with lots of rubbish. It was a shame we couldn’t go further underground. Hearing about the stories of why and how this came about was fascinating. Not sure that I can believe that some of it was just experiments that had gone wrong. The atomic lake is amazing and if that was a mistake then it was a beautiful one but the consequences of that mistake isn’t just a beautiful lake but the devastation it has caused for the surrounding areas.

We had an awkward ride back to Almaty. Then I flew back to St Petersburg to start my Transiberian trip and I was looking forward to being alone again.


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