Sunday, May 12, 2013

Atyrau: a view from the bridge

Once upon a time people in Atyrau caught sturgeon from the Ural river with their hands. There were so many migrating fish in those days that nets weren’t needed; a quick eye and dexterous hands were enough. “That’s what my uncle tells me, that’s the way it was back then,” says Miras, one of my Kazakh students. We stare into the depths of the Ural, into waters that travel 2,500 kilometres, sweeping down from Russia and through this city. There is no movement, no sign of life at all, even though this is the principal route to the Caspian Sea and now is the time of migration for sturgeon.
            “These days, if you catch a sturgeon, you’d be a very rich man,” Miras remarks. That is highly unlikely. There has been an 80 per cent decline in the sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea. Sturgeon rarely make it to their spawning grounds because of over fishing. And now they are on the verge of extinction, one of many species that feature on the *IUCN  Red List. 
We are standing on the pedestrian bridge that links the European side of Atyrau with the Asian side; in crossing it, we’ve strolled from one continent to another. Padlocks, some of them large and heavy, have been fastened to numerous points of the wrought iron railings along the bridge. All have names inscribed on them, lovers hoping to forge their destinies together forever with this symbolic gesture. The destiny of this city has changed much since the times when sturgeon were abundant. Since then a dam has been built further upstream, in Russia, and now the river flowing beneath me, while still quite deep, is shrunken and withdrawn from its banks. Bulrushes, stranded years ago, struggle for a foothold in the sand; many are shrivelled and sickly looking.
Miras, who had wandered over to the other students, now rejoins me. “What can we do? We’ve tried diplomacy with the Russian dam builders, but we Kazakhs are not a powerful nation. We are always aware that we have the might of Russia to the north and China to the east to contend with. This is the way it is and this is the way it’s always been for us.” 
Like many other Kazakhs I talk to Miras is realistic about the geopolitical situation of his country, trapped as it is between two superpowers. But there’s also room for growing optimism, and from the footbridge I see evidence of this in contemporary Kazakhstan. Many of the new constructions sport multi-coloured roofs: maroon, green, brown, various shades of blue, and turquoise. It’s a kaleidoscope that stands in vivid and stylish contrast to the grim Soviet style architecture - the architecture of the past - in which the majority of Kazakhs live. I’m looking at the brighter newer Kazakhstan
Oil has brought wealth to this country and there is perhaps no other city in Kazakhstan where the link between oil and prosperity is more evident than here. Atyrau is the Kazakh city situated closest to the Tengiz oil field, one of the largest in the world. This is a city of oil company regional headquarters for Chinese, Italian, American, Indian, British and other foreign petrochemical concerns. Their offices are located in elegant, often palatial style, buildings scattered throughout the city and its surroundings. The names of these multi nationals are as well known to locals as any celebrity might be back home in Ireland

Strolling back from the bridge to the city centre, I see a large housing complex surrounded by walls and fences. The architecture, while modern and urbane, is unlike any I’ve seen so far in this city. “I wonder who lives there,” I remark to another of my students, “Foreigners, only the best for foreigners in our country.” I glance across at him and he’s not smiling. I look again and, sure enough, the American Village could be seen as the “good life” putting its two fingers up at the shabby Soviet style buildings across the road.
If Atyrau is a city of oil company regional headquarters, it is also a city of health clinics. Numerous private health clinics are located here. I’m told that oil workers receive free treatment, paid for by employers as part of their contract. Respiratory problems, skin conditions and more serious problems are not uncommon among employees. This is what my students are training for, a job in the oil industry and it’s just about their only option if they want to become professionals. They’re aware of the risk to their health and are willing to take it. When I complain about the stench of sulphur that grips the city on calm windless days, they tell me, “It’s like this for most of the summer, a combination of sulphur and 45º C heat.” 
The following weekend I ask for directions from a passerby, a woman from Azerbaijan, who turns out to be an executive in one of the oil companies. I tell her that my life here doesn’t seem real; I’ve never lived in a compound before, separated artificially from the wider community. She replies that nobody’s life in Atyrau is real, “We all know why we’re here, and it’s for the same reason, everyone is here because of the oil. People come to Atyrau to work and they travel home to another city or go away to another country when they want to enjoy themselves.” 
The sense of unreality intensifies when I encounter commonplace anomalies, like apples are more expensive than petrol and the 24/7 central heating, switched on even when the temperature outside soars. Winter clothes are all I have with me, as I didn’t anticipate Mediterranean weather in Kazakhstan. Wearing boots and trousers in 27ª C adds a dreamlike quality to my performance in the classroom. When I suggest opening a window, none of the 19 students seem enthusiastic, so I’m doomed to sweat on. One afternoon I don’t ask for permission, I slyly open the window. Guilt forces me to shut it again when Yerlan immediately pulls up his hood. Later that week, a representative of the oil company sponsoring the course visits. I marvel that despite the stifling temperature in the staffroom, she has not removed her coat or scarf. The Kazakh relationship to heat baffles me.
         On my way home I wonder whether the leaden sky, threatening heavy rain, will unburden itself. Life in the desert has desiccated my skin and yet I’m apprehensive at the thought of a downpour because I’ve been warned of the consequences. “Mud City, that’s Atyrau’s other name. Didn’t you know?” A Himalayan wagtail skitters across my path, leaving behind feather-like imprints in the dusty sand. I lift my gaze and look out toward the horizon. This is not Lawrence of Arabia-Omar Sharif style desert; it is a desolate and ravaged land, peopled by oil pumps and those who serve them. There’s no place for my romanticism here, in this, the bleakest of vistas.

  • IUCN - International Union for the Conservation of Nature 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


What do I know about Kazakhstan, I ask myself. Nothing, nothing at all.
I keep probing. There had to be something, and there was … a few vague scraps, the sum total of my knowledge of a country I was about to spend two months living and working in. Scrap Number One: Kazakhstan is a small Central Asian Republic. Two: its people are in the grip of Islamic fundamentalism. Three: Kazakhs are famous for their thigh fortifying dance. And Four: they love horses … to eat.
At that stage I hadn’t heard of Borat,* so I was puzzled when a number of friends laughed and clapped me on the back with a smirk, “You’re going to Borat land, ha ha!”  I lacked the courage to admit my ignorance, so I sneakily turned to my Google contacts and asked, “What is Borat?” Failing to get a satisfactory reply, it occurred to me to ask “Who is Borat?” From what I could make out, whoever this Borat person was, he’d clearly done something to upset the Kazakhs. Just as well I had no time then to pursue the matter because it could have made me feel uneasy about my decision to accept a post in Kazakhstan
Even before I arrived at my destination, I’d learned that “Scrap Number 1” was completely wrong. Kazakhstan is not some small republic, another puzzle piece in the map of Europe somewhere beyond Poland. It is a country the size of Western Europe that borders China to the east and Russia to the north. For hour after hour I stared at those borders on the passenger flight screen, watching the image of my Air Astana plane winging its way eastwards though the night. Further east, beyond Moscow, Istanbul and Iran we travelled, dwarfed all the while by the vast plains and mountains of Kazakhstan below.
In Astana, snow and ice blind me; the runway is a glacial sheet, blurring at the horizon with a luminous white sky. Ground control staff, dressed like astronauts, are buffeted by powerful gusts. One of the marshallers is blown sideways, as if he had stepped on to an invisible conveyer belt. He struggles on toward our aircraft, his yellow batons flailing in the wind. The temperature, I'm told, can plummet to -45º C. The North Pole or the capital of Kazakhstan, I wonder.  I clutch my winter coat tightly, aware that it is no defence against an assault this overwhelming.
A further flight south and westward takes me to my final destination, to the oil-rich city of Atyrau, not far from the northern coast of the Caspian Sea The climate is more benign here than in Astana and my Irish winter wardrobe turns out to be adequate, particularly given that it is spring now and I only have a ten minute walk from my new home to the college where I’ll be teaching. On Monday morning I leave at 8.15, in the company of the other four teachers who have been recruited for this project. We walk through, what seems to me, the bleakest of landscapes, of grey-brown sand-dust stretching far beyond where the eye can see, out to the steppes of Central Asia. I’m staring at Nothing, at Nothingness. There are no mountains, no trees, no paths to focus the line of vision. I’ve never been confronted by such emptiness before and it’s disquieting. 
When the wind blows it ushers in a storm from the vastness. On that first week I see what I believe is mist approaching from the distance, a dense mist. But it’s a wall of sand/dust advancing toward us. With my sunglasses protecting my eyes and covering my nose and mouth with my hands, I now understand why desert nomads swaddled their heads in metres of cloth. My students tend to use Palestinian style Keffiyehs and they urge me to buy one too.
The course I’m teaching on is an entirely new project, financed jointly by the Kazakh government and a Kazakh oil company. It is an endeavour to train more young people from the country to become professionals in the burgeoning oil industry. Students recruited for the course pay nothing for enrolment and live on site at no cost to themselves in specially built residences. Many of them want to be engineers and many of them are young women.
It turns out that the students, with their sense of humour, enthusiasm and kind heartedness, are the highlight of my time in Kazakhstan. On the first day, when I cannot get my tongue around her unpronounceable name – Aiymgul  - the young woman volunteers the English translation, “You can call me Moonflower, if you prefer”.  I’m impressed. A culture that names one of its daughters Moonflower must have a poetic soul.
When I explain to my class that this is my first experience of their country, they ask, “So what do you know about Kazakhstan?” I omit Scrap Number 1, because that is an error too embarrassing to divulge. Young women make up half of my class; they are beautifully dressed in the latest fashions, and with no headscarf to hint at their Muslim faith. Fundamentalism? I very much doubt it, so I bypass Scrap Number 2 and leapfrog on to the thigh fortifying dance routine. When the students have finished laughing at my mimics they shake their heads solemnly and point out that I am referring to Cossacks, not Kazakhs. 

The young men in my class also know how to dress to impress. Some of them arrive in suits, ties and waistcoats, and even a briefcase dangling from their hands. Admittedly, they do look slightly uncomfortable but it’s their way of honouring the importance of the occasion. The honour, however, is mine. I feel privileged to be among these people. They are endlessly courteous and grateful. On the Nauyrz feast day, the most important in the Kazakh calendar, they invite me into a traditional banquet. The spread is laid out across tables inside a yurt** and it is here that Scrap Number 4 is confirmed. A variety of meat is neatly presented on large platters and some of it is indeed horsemeat, a staple in the highly meat-oriented diet of Kazakhs. I’m thinking it’s ironic that I should be here, where equine flesh is prized as part of the local cuisine, while there is a national scandal raging back home about how traces of horsemeat have been detected in products sold by major supermarket chains. But I’m vegetarian, so I politely decline.  
         Toward the end of the course, some of the students invite me to a meal, a pizza, “100 per cent vegetarian,” they assure me. In the midst of the general banter at the table the dreaded “B” word is mentioned. And yes, I quickly realise it was in a question directed at me. I turn to Miras, Yesbol and the others; they’re staring at me expectantly. I take a deep breath and search for the words that will lead me into an anodyne response. “Borat? I’d never heard of him until I was about to leave home … and now I don’t like him. Kazak people are not like him, not at all.”
“It’s okay, you know. Don’t feel bad. Some of us laugh at him too, precisely because that buffoon does not resemble us. Anyway, in the end, Borat has been good for us. Tourism in Kazakhstan has increased as a result of the curiosity he has provoked in our country. So, here’s to Borat.”  
We all raise our Coca Cola glasses in a toast that says so much about the tolerance and good nature of the Kazakhs I’ve encountered during my stay in their homeland. Maybe they are the undiscovered treasure, the most valuable asset the country possesses, more valuable than oil even. For me they are priceless.

* Borat is the main character in a comedy film entitled, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The portrayal of the fictional character of Borat, a Kazakh journalist, caused controversy, not only in Kazakhstan, but in a number of other countries too
** A traditional tent-like dwelling used by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia