The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Kazakhstan

I’ve been visiting the old Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, aka “the Polygon”. The site isn’t actually as bad as its rather dire historic reputation – the last 25 years have seen a lot of clean up and containment. The worst areas have either been scraped off and buried, or are fenced off.

To my surprise, driving around the test area, there was mostly only normal low background levels of about 0.1 microSieverts/hour. But we did visit a couple of highlights:

The Epicenter for the First Soviet Nuclear Test

Ground zero for the first Soviet A-Bomb test is marked by a small pond. It is surrounded by an array of weird concrete observation towers, increasingly ruined neared the center. It looks like what it was, the center of an enormous occult engineering effort that “succeeded”.

At the epicenter the levels are up to 30 uSv/hr or even 60 uSv/hr at points on the ground. Nothing to worry about for a short visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Atomic Lake

The Soviets were interested in using nuclear bombs for civil engineering, so they tested a 140 kiloton bomb to create an artificial lake. Well they got themselves a nice 400 meter diameter lake, but they also got residual radioactivity around the rim and in the sediment at the bottom of the lake. My guides assured me that “the water is safe”. There are fish, and they have been tested and declared safe. (“Except for the bones and nobody eats the bones.”) Local fisherman are known to visit.

Radiation even on the crater rim was only up to about 1-2 uSv/hr.

Overall Safety

At both the epicenter and Atomic Lake, the guides were mainly concerned that we might inadvertently pick up small fragments of higher radioactive material and carry them out with us. Hence the need for face masks, shoe covers, etc. And we all got carefully scanned on our way out.

The local Kazakh farmers are allowed to graze their cattle around most of the test site area, but they are required to have the meat tested when the cattle are slaughtered. This sounds a little scary, but is probably a smart pragmatic compromise: the farmers were sneaking in anyway and this way they don’t try to hide anything and the meat gets properly checked.

It was an interesting short trip!

Semey: A Bronze Titan

I’m in Semey, Kazakhstan. The Lonely Planet guide mentions that a backstreet park houses relocated statues of Lenin.  I found the park and saw several small Lenins lurking among the trees.  But where was the promised “large statue” that once stood in the main square?

Then I looked up, and there he was.

At somewhat over ten meters tall this is one of the largest Lenin statues I’ve seen.

Sadly the local authorities seem to have lost the activation key.

 

Yesterday, upon the steppes, I saw a sea which wasn’t there…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Aral Sea ship graveyard near Zhalanash used to host a dozen beached fishing trawlers. They had fled from the port of Aralsk as the sea dried up, but then, with nowhere else to flee, had been abandoned at Zhalanash. Most of the ships have long since been broken up and taken for scrap, but there are still the partial remains of one larger ship and two small ones. All the hulls and most of the deck have been removed, but the decayed superstructures are largely intact. The larger ship in particular is quite striking and I clambered cautiously up to the rotten higher deck and the bridge. Although the ships are just skeletons they are great fun to see; suitably eerie and alien on the dry salty sea bed, which is covered with sand, grass and small sea shells.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is in Kazakhstan, at the Northern end of the Aral Sea. The Southern end of the sea is dying, but while the Northern section of the sea is still much lower than in the past, its level has been stabilized and has even partially recovered due to the Kok-Aral Dam, which keeps the Northern water boxed in to a small manageable area. Freshwater fish have now returned and displaced the saltwater flounders, and there is even hope that sturgeon may return.

After visiting the sea itself, we stopped at the nearby village of Tastubek, which lives by fishing and livestock farming. My guide, Serik from Aral Tenizi, had arranged lunch with a Kazakh family. This was fun. The young wife had prepared a fine meal, with a tasty dish of horsemeat and potatoes; good bread; apricots in syrup; and much else. I enjoyed a cup of shumat, fermented camel milk, which tastes like a very sour and slightly bitter yoghurt. Half way through, the husband returned and struck up a conversation in mixed Turkish/Kazakh with a Turkish visitor. I was amused when a Turkish suggestion of “… Instagram?” was rebuked with a vigorous Kazakh assertion of “ … Whatsapp!”.

The next day we drove to visit the Kok-Aral Dam. Visually this is very tame, merely a low ridge on a concrete core. We stopped at a large set of sluice gates, currently open, which allow excess water to drain South. By allowing fresh water to enter the Northern sea from the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River while sending overflows of mixed semi-salty water to exit South, the wise Kazakhs are also freshening the Northern section. Unfortunately none of the exiting water makes it to Uzbekistan or the Southern section of the sea. It all dries up within 70km at most. There is a plan to raise the height of the dam, thus expanding the stabilized Northern area, with work planned to start next year. So the Aral Sea may yet return to Zhalanash and its beached ships, and to the currently high-and-dry fishing port of Aralsk!

Baikonur: Soyuz TMA-20 Launch

I was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz TMA-20 launch.  It was spectacular.  I strongly recommend it.  (Tour Logistics.)  (More Baikonur photos.)

I found myself in a tour group of six: our guide told us we were all the tourists visiting the launch. There were also some press, and various Roscosmos/ESA/NASA guests, but it looked like there were still well under 200 observers in total. So it was a much more intimate event than a shuttle launch at Kennedy.

Before the launch we got to see lots of cool toys from the Soviet space program, including a lot of the machinery for the Energia/Buran shuttle. This included sitting in the pilot seats of a full-scale Buran mock-up, clambering over a giant Buran transporter vehicle and then waking around a launch pad. The transporter and launch pad felt like relics from some alien civilization: enormous, exotic, and standing mysteriously abandoned.

Our hosts still suffered from a little Cold War competitive spirit: we were vigorously assured that the N1 rocket was the most powerful launcher ever, and that Buran was much larger/better than the shuttle. (This is not quite how Western sources see it!)

They let our little group into the Soyuz assembly building, so we got to see some Soyuz boosters and then a complete Soyuz launch vehicle up close. A lady guard wagged an indulgent finger when I dared to reach over and touch an engine.
The TMA-20 launch itself was striking. On the pad, the Soyuz sits slightly below ground level, with about half of the first stage boosters below ground. So we couldn’t directly see the initial ignition, just a sudden out-pour of smoke and spreading fire across to one side, which for a fraction of a second made me fear an accident, but no, the craft started to rise and then abruptly there was an intensely bright flame, presumably as we could now see the engines directly for the first time, a dazzling bright fireball, rising very quickly into the sky. Then a few second later a very loud rumbling sound arrived. After we first saw the engines, I never saw the craft itself – the engines were far, far too bright.
It was spectacular. Much more striking than the STS-129 shuttle launch I saw, probably both because we were so much closer (0.9 miles versus 6 miles) and because this was a night launch.
They let us visit close to the launch pad (which was the original Gagarin pad!) about an hour after the launch. So we could see the re-assembled launch gantries and the launch pad itself up close. But they wouldn’t let us into the flame pit, so we couldn’t actually feel the residual launch heat. Drat.

If you are a space buff, I highly recommend this tour.  I’ve posted a page on Baikonur Logistics to provide more information on entry formalities, flights, tour companies, etc.

Astana’s Cosmonauts

Astana takes pride in being Kazakhstan’s visionary new capital. But in the older parts of town there are also many traces of the Soviet past.

Astana Cosmonauts

My favorite of these is a fine Soviet era mosaic outside the train station, showing a spectacled engineer and a waving cosmonaut.  A nice reminder of Kazakstan’s broader role in the USSR.

Welcome to the Land of the Cosmonauts!

For the Scots among you: Yes that does look like a Saltire on the foreground figure. I’m not quite sure what’s intended there: The Russian navy also uses a St Andrew’s cross, but they normally use a blue cross on a white background. Hmm.

Astana is Kazakhstan’s new post-Soviet capital, in the Northern steppes.  The faces on the streets seem mostly Central Asian, so it seems to have succeeded in attracting a large ethnic Kazakh population into what was formerly an ethnic-Russian part of the country.  That may not have been President Nazarbayev’s sole goal, but it has certainly helped to cement a Kazakh identity in the North.

I hiked around the large, dazzling, new government area.  This is like a Pudong on the Steppes, struggling on a smaller scale to represent a bold new City of the Future.  I love it.  While the buildings are individually smaller than the giants of Dubai or Pudong, the overall architectural style is even more aggressive, bold and dashing.  And yes, genuinely futuristic.

Baiterek Tower

105 meters tall and purely for fun.

Presidential Palace

A rather bland Presidential Palace, which is ably defended by two giant Golden Daleks, and backed up by a giant pyramid.

"Palace Of Peace and Concord" + Independence Column

Nominally intended for meetings of world religious leaders, it doubles as a conference center and has a large concert hall in the basement.

"Transport Tower"

32 stories tall. Locally nicknamed the “Cigarette Lighter”.

Inside the Peace pyramid, looking up at the apex.

Astana Circus

A flying saucer, unconvincingly pretending to be a circus.

With only a few exceptions, the former Soviet Republics inherited a mix of either very bland 1930s style official buildings or mostly very dull “modern” concrete boxes. So it’s good to see an outbreak of genuinely creative architecture. I do wonder how well some of these buildings, with their bright metallic sheathings, will age. They look like they will require significant maintenance, which is often harder to find money for than the first brash conception. But all the same, I’m happy to see them! Hurrah!