The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

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 nearer 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.

I’m in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, in the Russian Far East. I was visiting the city’s WWII memorial, when I suddenly spotted a familiar face. It can’t be, can it? Yes it is!

Stalin himself.

Smiling calmly, without a care in the world.

What was most startling is that the bust is quite new, erected just last year.  To be fair, it’s part of a row of busts of the great Soviet Marshals of WWII.  But it still felt very odd to see him suddenly appearing – shiny, new and entirely unrepentant.

 

I have successfully both entered and escaped the legendary Château d’If!

The real-life Château d’If is almost exactly as described in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. A stern 16th century castle on a tiny fortified island offshore from Marseilles, with strong walls, dank cells, and few visitors.

The tourist authorities have helpfully labeled one cell as the very one where Edmond Dantès, the Comte de Monte Cristo, had been held. And it comes complete with a narrow roughly cut escape tunnel!

Fortunately, in reality the modern guards are happy to let visitors enter and leave for only 6 Euros. (The spoon hidden in my sock was quite unnecessary.) But back in the day, it really was a very secure prison, analogous to Alcatraz. Outside of fiction, no one is ever known to have escaped.

San Marino

I’ve finally made it to the Most Serene Republic of San Marino!

As well as being a micro-state (and my last “official” European country), it’s actually quite fun in its own right. I’m in the eponymous City of San Marino, which sits on a tall and very steep hill, with strong defensive towers. You can see why it managed to stayed independent in Medieval times – it would be a major pain to take and it isn’t guarding any important routes or resources.

There aren’t many real sights, but the city is actually quite fun to wander in for a few hours, with quaint zig-zaggy streets. I visited the Public Palace, and looked into the parliament chamber, which is fully equipped with modern electronics. I also watched a short video about the state and its government, which was quite useful. It has been a true republic for many centuries.

Overall, I found San Marino unexpectedly charming. Partly because the location is much more scenic than I expected. But I also liked the low-key and unpretentious nature of the state. Both Monaco and Liechtenstein suffer from being anomalous feudal holdovers, whereas San Marino is an ancient, authentic and democratic republic, which has chosen to guard its liberties and stay independent.

Pamir Passes

Kulma Pass, from the Tajik side

The Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan was finally opened to foreigners last year, so I seized the moment and took a road trip through from Kashgar to Murghab, then up through the high passes into Kyrgyzstan. There had been a little early snow, enough to make things scenic, but not enough to block any of the passes.

The Kulma Pass border crossing is at 4362 meters (14313 ft), on the Eastern edge of the Pamirs. I had transport pre-arranged on both sides. West China Expeditions took me from Tashkurgan to the main Chinese border post and also drove me the final 20 km up to the top border post, which was very helpful. On the Tajikistan side, Pamir Off-Road Adventure met me and took me down to Murghab.

The Chinese border post didn’t open until 12:00 Beijing time, but they then processed me out quite quickly. They X-rayed my bag, but didn’t ask to check inside, let alone review my laptop or phone. (But you shouldn’t rely on that – this border post is known for sometimes making very thorough searches.) At the top of the pass, the final Chinese review took only a couple of minutes and the Tajikistan entry took about 20 minutes.  I noticed a score or so trucks waiting on each side to go through, but I seemed to be the only foreign traveler.

After a day in Murghab, we headed up the Pamir Highway to Osh (Kyrgyzstan). After a quick stop at the scenic Kara Kul lake, we went up though the Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters = 15272 ft) and then through the Tajik-Kyrgyz border at the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters).


Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters)

North from Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters)

We hit some shallow snow drifts on the road and got stuck a couple of times. But we eventually made it through. I was very glad to once again safely reach Osh, with its fine statue of Lenin and its excellent Hawaiian Pizza. 🙂