Thursday, 4 September 2014

Aug. 31 - Sept. 2: Barnaul-Semey

Confirming my suspicion that there are no mountains at all in Altai Krai, the bus journey south from Barnaul to the Kazakhstani border was through a vast expanse of flat farmland. The only real change in the view was that the further we went, the drier the land looked. The border crossing between Russia and Kazakhstan was, to be honest, exactly like what you'd probably imagine a Kazakhstani border post to be like: a couple of low buildings isolated in the middle of arid, uninhabited grasslands, with piles of rubble and debris lying about and just a handful of uniformed officials from each country. With me both the Russian and the Kazakhstani officials were surprisingly friendly and patient, though I did have to explain myself to the Kazakhstani three times before I was certain that I'd be let into the country without a visa (as of July 2014 British citizens can enter Kazakhstan for up to 14 days without a visa). However, one woman ahead of me in the queue, who had a Ukrainian passport, was denied exit from Russia. I didn't hear the whole conversation, so it's quite possible that there was a good reason - that her Ukrainian citizenship was purely incidental - but I can't help but jump to the conclusion that it was because of the current situation in Ukraine.

Once in Kazakhstan we continued south along a potholed road (noticably worse than in Russia) through the beginnings of the steppe, passing occasional horseback herders with goats and cattle, ruined Soviet collective farms and quaint little villages of wooden houses, just like those in Russia. Eventually, some seven or so hours after departing from Barnaul, the bus arrived in Semey (AKA Semipalatinsk), my first stop in Kazakhstan. Semey, a city of 300,000, is notable for three reasons: Dostoevsky lived here in exile, Kazakh national poet Abay Qunanbayuli was from here, and the Soviet authorities did obscene amounts of nuclear testing right nearby. The city, like most of northern Kazakhstan, is multiethnic, with a large Russian population (63% Kazakhs, 30% Russians, 4% Tatars, 1% Germans, 1% Ukrainians). Kazakhs look broadly similar to Chinese people (perhaps a little more European), speak a Turkic language and are nominally Muslim, though have never been very religious.

As if to drive home the fact that I was in proper Asia now, the international bus station's sign was in Kazakh, Russian and Chinese. A friendly Kazakh man who worked at the station called me a taxi and was keen to make conversation while we waited. Among other things, he told me that everyone in Kazakhstan speaks Russian except for ethnic Kazakh immigrants from China and Mongolia. However he did admit that his own seven-year-old couldn't speak Russian and that he thought it more important for her to learn English anyway. The taxi driver, a monolingual Russian-speaking Tatar, was equally friendly. Although he appeared to be a friend of the Kazakh at the bus station, he revealed his prejudices when warning me to be vigilant of Kazakhs trying to rob or con me. He lamented the fact that so many Russians had left Semey since the end of the USSR (the city had once had a Russian majority) and said that he wanted to move to Russia himself, to escape the nationalism that was on the rise here. But later, when walking the streets of Semey, I could see no signs of this nationalism: unlike in Tuva, where Russians and Tuvans seemed to form separate communities, here I saw plenty of multiracial groups of friends; unlike in the Baltic states, where the Russian language is pushed out of the public sphere, here almost all signs were bilingual.

Semey itself is a dusty but pleasant town, without much in the way of tourist sights but interesting to me as an introduction to Kazakhstan. After two nights there - more than twice as long as I needed to see everything in the town centre - I embarked on the 21-hour train journey south to Almaty.

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