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been built further upstream, in Russia, and now the river flowing beneath me, while still quite deep, is shrunken and withdrawn from its banks.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 

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