Sometime in what feels like the far distant past, but was actually about a week and a half ago, I was in Northern Kazakhstan. That part of the country definitely feels more Siberian than central Asian and Semey is only 40km from the Russian border at its closest point so that’s not too surprising.
We actually drove past the city in 2011 on the way to Russia, before heading to Mongolia via Barnaul and the beautiful Chutsky tract. At the time it didn’t occur to me that Semey was a worthwhile destination in its own right [due to characteristic unpreparedness] – though that was when I first learned of its dark history. From 1949 until 1991, the Semipalatinsk region (they shortened the name to Semey after the break up of the USSR) was the centre of Soviet nuclear testing. 150km from Semey is the (then closed) town of Kurchatov, and to the west of that, a large expanse of ‘uninhabited’ land – known as the polygon – where over 450 bombs were exploded – in the open air, and then in later years underground. Intentionally or not, the people of the region were used as nuclear guinea pigs and suffered devastating health consequences that continue to this day, with extremely high rates of cancers, birth defects and suicide. Local residents were never informed officially of what was going on although by the late 80s, some had formed a campaign group alongside activists in the US, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement, and they succeeded in convincing Nazarbaev (then secretary of the Kazakh Communist party) to stop the testing in 1991 – just in time for the collapse of the Soviet Union (and Nazarbaev’s promotion to glorious president for all eternity, or something..).
With proper advance planning and a large chunk of money, you can visit sites in Kurchatov and the polygon, which ideally I would have done, but those two things are notably absent from this trip… In Semey itself, there is a one room anatomy museum at the Medical university where preserved foetuses afflicted by disturbing radiation-induced deformities are on display. Although I was staying next door in the hotel Europa, I’d already seen pictures online and wasn’t sure that my understanding would be enhanced by seeing these distressing remains in person, so decided against it.
Aside from this unhappy aspect of its history, Semey is actually a bit of a cultural heavyweight and a likable place. There’s an apparently good fine arts museum along with two others devoted to notable figures associated with the city: Dostoyevsky, who spent five years of his exile here in the mid 19th century, and Kazakh poet and cultural hero Abay Kunanbaev (he has a lot of streets named after him across the country).
The museum signage is mostly just in Kazakh, but soon after entering I was clocked by a member of staff who gave me a personal tour, which was pretty helpful (though I imagine it was done so that they could dispatch me and close up, given that it was late on Friday afternoon..). He seems to have been impressively multitalented and rather forward thinking for his time and place. Apart from me the only people there were a delegation in a seminar room – I’m not sure what they were doing but they looked Japanese (yes I am available to provide sweeping generalisations on demand) and the theme music to Dallas was being played so I guess it was oil related. Or maybe it was the annual meeting of the Japan-Kazakhstan Larry Hagman appreciation society.
That was the only one I had time to see – apart from that I prioritised eating over culture, oops. Sushi (don’t mention the fact that Kazakhstan is thousands of miles from the sea please..) and miso soup (for the second time in four days – I’m warming up for Japan in a few weeks).
On Saturday morning I went to a blini café and ordered this as it was the only thing on the menu where I could understand all the ingredients:
Blini (Russian pancakes), sausages (inside the pancakes), sour cream, ketchup! (Do you speak English? -was the funniest joke the staff had heard all year..).
There was plenty of snow – and a good collection of soviet architecture 🙂 [some with added Kazakh decorative touches].
Also, though I didn’t get any photos, there are areas of traditional wooden cottages in the city which adds to the Siberian charm.
Central Asians love flowers and every Kazakh city has multiple florists:
Actually I’d almost forgotten I was in Kazakhstan until I spotted Nazarbaev’s gurning mug on the side of a building:
Around the back of the theatre, through an open window I heard a choir rehearsing which made me feel all warm and fuzzy (due to weird sentimental reasons that I don’t understand..).
A river runs through it – the mighty Irtysh:
Then it was time to get on a train again.
I arrived in Astana at 5am on Sunday (epic planning) for my day trip to the Kazakh capital (leaving at 10.15pm that evening on another train back to Almaty – I left my backpack in the 24hr left luggage office at the station). Nazarbaev made Astana independent Kazakhstan’s new capital in 1997 – Astana means ‘capital’ in Kazakh – before that the place was an insignificant town in the northern steppe called Akmola. No-one knows exactly why he did this but it was probably a) so he could build lots of large shiny new buildings to demonstrate his and Kazakhstan’s greatness (no space in Almaty) and b) to keep a handle on this very Russified area of the north – in case it (or Vlad the Invader) got any ideas about *realigning* itself.
It was even colder than Semey and actively snowing, so I spent some time trudging around in my inappropriate attire breathing new life into the unshakable central Asian cold that I’ve had since Uzbekistan and a fair bit of the day enjoying warm malls and coffee shops 🙂 .
Because most of the city has been built in the last 20 years, it feels largely like a modern western city (not in the least bit central Asian) and it’s basically an architect’s playground with a dramatic and rapidly expanding skyline. Norman Foster’s Khan Shatyr has become an icon of the city since it opened 6 years ago- it’s a shopping mall in a tent-like structure and features a ‘sky beach’ on its top floor (yes I was very tempted..) and also has a monorail for kids, dinosaurs (obviously) and one of those vertical drop fairground rides (not tempted!).
There’s the big golden ball ‘Bayterek’ monument:
And these seriously Gotham apartments:
Oh yeah and the Presidential Palace of something or other. I went inside because it was warm and it was free!
Despite all the modern, the place still smells of coal smoke just like the rest of Kazakhstan in winter (is it strange that I like that smell?!). In the midst of all the tall buildings I was curious to find a few streets of ‘normal’ looking houses:
I think they might be where diplomats live as they were close to all the embassy buildings.
It was far too short a visit so I’m regarding my trip north as an exploratory visit for next time – kelesige deyin, Kazakhstan…