The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

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.

When I was a lad, Vladivostok was impossibly exotic, remote and inaccessible.  It was a closed city, the home of the jealously guarded Soviet Pacific Fleet, inaccessible to regular Soviet citizens, let alone wicked foreigners.

Well, nowadays a standard Russian tourist visa will let you enter Vladivostok and you can wander at will around the city.  I had vaguely expected that the naval base would still be hidden away, discreetly veiled from touristic eyes.  But no!  Back in the day, there was no need to hide it, since the whole city was a closed area.   So today the remaining ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet sit quietly in the main harbor, visible to all.

I took the funicular up to Eagle’s Nest Hill, for a fine (albeit hazy) view of the Golden Horn harbor and various Russian warships.  I nervously took a few snaps.  Some part of me was still vaguely expecting the heavy hand of Soviet Power to drop on my shoulder.  Far from it: a random tourist taking snapshots in today’s Russia is not a big deal.  (And in the age of high resolution satellites, random tourist snaps are probably neither here nor there.)

For dessert, I wandered over to the the charming Vladivostok Fortress Museum.  As well as the fortress exhibits, this has many fine Soviet military toys outside and you are encouraged to clamber over the guns and even elevate or rotate the small ones.

Side note:  When I was in Karaganda (Kazakhstan) I had been puzzled to find a significant number of ethnic Koreans there, supposedly resettled there by Stalin.  Well, when the Tsars founded Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”) as their great Pacific base,  it was in an area settled by ethnic Koreans.  Much later, like other ethnic groups straddling the USSR’s frontiers, they were deemed a security risk by Stalin and exiled to the Kazakh steppes.

A Day in Transdniester

Now entering Transdniestre!

Transdniester Entry: Welcome to the USSR!

On my way from Chisinau to Odessa, I passed through Tiraspol, the capital of the strange territory of Transdniester (aka Transdniestr, or Transdnestr, or Transnistria, or Transdniestria).  This is a narrow slice of Moldova with an ethnic Russian majority.  Back when the USSR was dissolved, these good folk were alarmed to discover that Moldova was proposing to unite with Romania.  They could reluctantly accept being Moldovan, but the prospect of becoming Romanian was too much for them to bear, and they seceded.  A peace-keeping force was eventually dispatched, but, since no one seems particularly interested in resolving the dispute, the area remains one of Eastern Europe’s frozen conflicts.

Tiraspol Lenin

Tiraspol Lenin

Transdniester itself is now a wonderful throwback to the grand old days of the USSR, with a hammer-and-sickle on the flag and coinage, a commemorative WWII Red Army tank, and a dashing statue of Lenin outside the Presidential Palace.  At the train station the young lady at the left luggage desk seemed resolutely convinced that if she only spoke Russian loudly enough then eventually I would understand her.

Transdniester’s economy is reputed to flourish on what can be most kindly called the “grey market” and its unelected government does not welcome outside interest.  As a result, it seems to be content to remain unrecognized.  Its de facto foreign policy seems to be to avoid being noticed.   Life is profitable for the elite, and being unrecognized and unknown avoids many troublesome inquiries.

Entering Transdniester was easy, but it turned out (by accident or design) I had not received the right entry stamps on my forms.  So when I came to exit, two cheerful immigration officers with very limited English took me into their office and explained that there was “problem” with my forms.  I was told that I should “go back” to get this fixed.  Yes, right.  I politely declined.

So then we got to the crunch.  It appeared a small gift would facilitate matters:

  • Guard (meaningfully): “Present!”
  • Me (politely):  “No.”
  • Guard (emphatically): “Present!”
  • Me (politely but vigorously):  “No!”

The guard then fidgeted with stuff on his desk.  After a minute I realized he was fingering a pair of handcuffs in what I think was supposed to be an intimidating way.  But alas, I’m afraid he wasn’t very convincing.  After a further short pause, he realized I wasn’t buying it, reluctantly gave up on me as a bad job, handed back my passport and let me leave.  (Sigh.  These wicked foreigners just have no respect for local traditions!)

I admit that I was fortified by my reading of Transdniester’s foreign policy (to not be noticed).  The border guards may hope for gifts, but I suspect they would be in deep trouble if they actually caused any significant incidents with foreign nationals.

Zoroastrian Yazd

The city of Yazd is the main remaining Zoroastrian center in Iran.  Zoroastrianism is (along with Christianity and Judaism) one of the three recognized and protected religious minorities under the Islamic Republic’s constitution.  So worship and pilgrimages are officially  tolerated, although probably not exactly encouraged.

ZoroastrianTower of Silence

"Tower of Silence" near Yazd

I hired a car and guide for the trip out to the Zoroastrian shrine at Chak Chak.  We stopped first at one of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd.  The Zoroastrian religion forbids the polluting of the pure elements (especially water, earth and fire) with a corpse.  So both cremation and earth burial were disavowed.  Instead, bodies were exposed to be devoured by vultures in these “towers of silence”.  This is an odd inversion of the normal Christian or Muslim customs: the emphasis is not on preventing disturbance to the body, but rather on preventing the body disturbing the elements.

The tower was much lower and flatter than I expected.  It is really a circular wall, around 15-20 feet high,  around a raised platform.  This example is about 180 years old.  According to my guide, after the bodies had been devoured by vultures, the bones were collected in a central hole and then periodically dissolved by nitric acid.  It is now disused: the modern practice is to perform burials in concrete lined tombs.

Road to Chak ChakThe Chak Chak site is about 73 km from Yazd and is revered as a miraculous place of refuge for the pious daughter of the last of the Zoroastrian Persian Kings.  In 640 AD the Princess and a few retainers were fleeing in despair from the Arab invaders, across the Iranian desert.  According to the tale, they were close to death from thirst when the Princess tapped her staff on a rock and miraculously a tiny drip-drip of water appeared.  That drip-drip, in Persian “chak chak”, gives the name to the site.

The Chak Chak  ShrineThe site is on the side of a forbidding craggy mountain, a long drive from Yazd across an arid gravelly desert.  The mountain side looks entirely dry and desolate. I can well imagine that after emerging from the desert, the discovery of an entirely unexpected tiny spring, literally only drips, may have well seemed like a miracle to the pious.

The shrine, at the top of many steep steps, is covered by a fairly recent dome and protected by a modern stone wall and stout bronze doors.  Tree trunks grow sideways out of the wall in front of the entrance.  Inside, there is still a drip-drip of water, now being caught in silver bowls.  It is a small site, but it is both simple and charming.  The shrine is the target for annual pilgrimages each June and various Zoroastrian communities have built their own hostels near the site, to shelter their pilgrims.

Yazd Zoroastrian AteshgahBack in Yazd, I visited the Zoroastrian Ateshga, or fire temple.  The current building dates from only 1934, but the holy flame is reputedly the continuation of a flame that has been kept burning since 470 AD.  The flame burns in an urn in a separate room, and we may only view it through a protective glass window.  To complement the fire, there is a large water pool in front of the temple.

Zoroastrian Holy Flame, YazdSigns on the walls carefully explain to visitors that Zoroaster preached monotheism, and they emphasize similarities with Judaism/Christianity/Islam.  We are assured that Zoroastrians do not “worship”  fire, but merely use it as a convenient focus for worshiping Ahura Mazda, the universal god.  (Well chosen messages for friendly co-existence in an Islamic Republic.)

The Darvaza Gas Crater

The Darvaza Gas Crater is the debris from a disastrously failed Soviet gas well. After the failure, the escaping gas was left to burn itself out. It has been merrily burning for over 30 years now.  (More Davaza photos.)

Through StanTours, I had arranged a 4WD, driver and guide for the trip, about 150 miles North from Ashgabat across the Karakum desert. The Karakum desert is known as the “black sand” desert, but I’m afraid the sand looked regular sand colour to me. Most of the desert was scrubby desert, with occasional small shrubs, like the outer parts of the Taklamakan.  But there were occasional sections of pure sand.

We visited three craters. The first was a deep crater with a pool with green water at the bottom, with small bubbles of gas bubbling up.  The second was another deep crater with a pool of mud at the bottom, bubbling merrily and emitting gas. This was quite interesting.

The third and by far the largest, was the Darvaza gas crater itself, eight km east of the road. This was about 40 meters across and perhaps 20 meters deep. The sides and bottom were lined with flames from many fault lines in the rock. It was bright daylight, so it was all relatively subdued, but it was still very cool.

There was a dull roar of sound from the fires and much heat from the crater. I walked around it and when I was downwind, it was oven-like. I could see pipes leading into the top of the crater, so my suspicion is that this was a working gas hole, which blew, destroying the top section. But perhaps the deeper drill pipe hole is still open, which is making it easy for gas to get near the surface and it then percolates up through the loose rock in the crater?

Ashgabat: Much Strangeness

Turkmenistan is by far the strangest of the ex-soviet Republics.  The late President Niyazov (aka “Turkmenbashi”) ruled as an absolute monarch, with a personality cult that would have made Stalin blush.   Strange relics of his reign still dot Ashgabat.

Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality is a 75 meter tripod tower, adorned with a 12 meter golden statue of the late God-King President Niyazov.  The golden statue rotates through the course of the day, so that the God-King President is always facing the Sun and so that he dispenses his blessings equally to all points of the compass.

Earthquake Memorial

Ashgabat suffered a devastating earthquake in 1948, killing perhaps as many as 100,000 people, including President Niyazov’s mother. But miraculously the infant Niyazov survived.

The earthquake memorial, in a rather nice piece of symbolism, shows a bull tossing the earth in its horns.  Writhing figures mark Ashgabat’s location.  However, fear not, all is not lost!  A dying mother lifts a golden infant, the future god-king President Niyazov to safety.  (Alas!)

Lenin

The local statue of Lenin is comparatively modest.  It is however distinguished in having an impressive tiled plinth, in a Central Asian style with Lenin’s name in flowing Turkmenistan letters.

Ashgabad’s new city area has broad avenues of tall white “marble” apartment buildings. It clearly aspires to be futuristic, but it looks like a 1950’s vision of a Soviet Model City. I much prefer Astana’s more daring vision.

“The World’s Tallest Flagpole”

“The Great Plunger”