I’m waking up to ash and dust

For those of you who don’t know Imagine Dragons lyrics by heart, I’m sorry. You should. Also, this is a line from their seminal masterpiece “Radioactive”. I quite like Imagine Dragons, but I understand that is a controversial opinion

Sorry for the delay in posting – the Wi-Fi has been nonexistent or painfully slow for the last few days. When we left off, I’d flown to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan (now called Nur-Sultan for those of you busily planning your Kazakh holidays) and spent a day there admiring its wacky architecture (there will be more on this city in the next post, as I am returning to Astana). Though I wanted to visit Astana anyway, I was really using the city as a transit point to see some interesting Soviet historical sites in the north of the country. The north of Kazakhstan is predominantly Russian and, all the Kazakhs in Almaty told me, would FEEL very Russian. I took this to mean I’d eat more beet soup and no one would smile. 

Because it is nearly impossible to get to some of these places without a car and a Russian speaker, I’d contacted a company that provides custom trips with a guide. So, on Friday morning, Olga (a Russian-Kazakh English-speaking tour guide) and Oleg (a Ukrainian born driver) picked me up at my Astana hotel for a multi-day private excursion to the Polygon, the primary Soviet nuclear test site, which is located in northern Kazakhstan. Trips to the Polygon take days, as Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, distances between towns are vast and roads outside of the cities are frequently pothole-ridden or unpaved. The Polygon is located near the formerly top-secret town of Kurchatov, which was built to house the lead engineers and workers of the Soviet nuclear program. The Soviets successfully blew up their first nuclear bomb at the Polygon in 1949 and proceeded to detonate 456 more bombs (~180 above ground and the remainder subterranean) until testing was discontinued due to protests over high disease rates around the local area in 1989. The site was closed in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR. It is now possible to visit the Polygon by a guided tour.

Oleg insisted on taking my backpack to the car, a banged up Honda CRV with the driver’s seat inexplicably on the right (they drive on the right side of the road here). “I porterrr!” Oleg said, with a robustly rolled rrr. Oleg is an older man with a receding hairline and trimmed white mustache. He has icy blue eyes and high cheek bones belaying his Slavic heritage and was wearing a tan safari-type shirt that was unbuttoned to just above his navel, slacks, a straw cowboy hat and a fanny pack that he liked to sling across his hip. Oleg also apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that Russians don’t smile at strangers (this is true – Olga says she can spot a tourist because they smile at her), and frequently told jokes in Russian for Olga to translate and then flashed a wide, warm, gap toothed grin at the punchline. This grin also bloomed whenever he managed to conjure up an English word or when he showed me pictures of his hulking pet Labrador at home.

We loaded the car and headed out of town, winding through the suburbs of Astana on a mix of paved and bumpy dirt roads that appeared to be under perpetual construction and were gut wrenchingly dusty, dry, and ugly. Then, finally, we reached the highway, Oleg hit the gas, and we started barreling across the Kazakh steppe, a velvet carpet of grass stretching out in every direction. Occasional small hills rose out of the grasslands, wrinkling the horizon but otherwise there was nothing but pancake flat land and open space. Villages were far apart and, generally, a scar on the landscape. The villages in this area are mostly poor mining communities with tin roofed houses and abundant trash. We stopped at a roadside “rest area” consisting of a cinderblock hut with an earthen squat toilet that was so filthy that we all elected to use the outdoor space behind the toilet. We weren’t the first ones. This area also reeked of urine and was decorated with scraps of used toilet paper floating in the wind. Dorothy, we aren’t in Almaty anymore.

Around 1:30 PM we stopped for lunch at a roadside rest house with yellowed wall paper and a peeling linoleum floor. There were four tables in the stifling hot dining area and a back kitchen staffed by three generations of women making pelmeni (small beef dumplings in a “soup” that, as far as I can tell, is made of water and chunky sour cream). I have now eaten this particular dumpling dish on three different occasions and have yet to come up with anything good to say about it. The dumpling dough is like a noodle that has been left sticking out of the pot and cooked too long – gooey on the bottom and tough on the top. The inside tastes of watery boiled meat and onions. It is, however, quite popular here so it must have a redeeming quality though all I keep being told how it “reminds people of USSR times”, which doesn’t really seem like a selling point but to each their own.

After lunch we drove for 2 more hours across an increasingly dry, flat, and blighted landscape until we reached the town of Aksu. Aksu was an important railroad town in the Soviet Union. Near the Russian border, it served as a transit point for agricultural products from Kazakhstan moving north and prisoners sent to Kazakh gulags moving south. Aksu was, at first glance, a drab little soviet town like all other drab little soviet towns, with rows and rows of squat gray apartments and little else. But Aksu does have one important claim to fame. During the Soviet Union, all Kazakh towns had a statue or bust of Lenin displayed in a public square. When the Soviet Union dissolved, most of these statues were removed from the towns and, for reasons that no one can explain to me, deposited at a weedy roadside park in Aksu. So, for the Soviet-curious traveler like myself, Aksu is a goldmine of Lenins. Rows and rows of scowling, mustachioed Lenins. There’s even a Marx bust and a proletariat statue with a hammer and sickle thrown in for good measure.

The man himself.
A side view Lenin bust, to show off his chin line.
I wonder if the small Lenins are jealous of the big Lenin? Or if the big Lenin is the nicest one. Like the big lazy mastiff of the bunch while the little Lenins are the chihuahuas.
The majesty of a Soviet apartment block.

Once I’d had my fill of Lenins (though can anyone ever truly be tired of Lenins? I’d venture to say that I cannot), we proceeded to Kurchatov, arriving around 7 PM to our “hotel.” The hotel was a former dorm for workers in Kurchatov who were here for the nuclear program and has been ‘renovated’ in the loosest of possible terms. The rooms are no longer dormitories, but are still dismally Soviet with lumpy, uneven linoleum floors and lights that don’t illuminate the room so much as they just transform complete darkness into a vague dimness. My room also had a futuristic capsule shower with a remote control that I found very confusing to operate. The woman who ran the hotel had harsh, dyed red hair, wore bright leggings with slippers, and, like all good Russian women, never smiled.

My futuristic showering apparatus.

That evening, I took a walk around Kurchatov. Kurchatov was a top secret town during Soviet times and was filled with the brightest minds in nuclear technology. Many of its hulking, pastel, frescoed Stalin-era buildings are now derelict and crumbling, abandoned with the Soviet dream. By the former nuclear headquarters stands a giant, somewhat deranged-appearing statue of Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet atomic bomb project. At an overgrown, weedy park, two teenage boys swung on a rusted, squeaky swing-set while across the way a small shop on the bottom floor of an otherwise abandoned soviet apartment building sold bruised, rotting fruit and small snacks. But people do still live in this town and it looked like some efforts were being made to improve it. There was a large, spanking new central square with flower beds and benches and an outdoor movie screen. A large soviet-era school has been renovated and reopened. I saw young couples with children out for evening walks. On the outskirts of town, large, new, clean buildings house the offices of the Kazakh nuclear energy commission, bringing salaried employees and money back into Kurchatov.

Igor Kurchatov and the former headquarters of the atomic bomb project.
Abandoned house in Kurchatov.
Shop beneath an otherwise abandoned soviet apartment block.

For dinner that night we went to the one open cafe, where a tiny Russian woman with blue nail polish and an aggressive bump-it hair style took our order (meaning she walked up to the table and stood staring at us until someone said what they wanted and then unsmilingly left). I got my first Kazakh beer (vaguely off-yellow water) and was told that Kazakh women like to drink it with a straw. No thanks. I’ll pass. I was able to avoid another meal of pilmeni, instead eating a watery yogurt soup called okrochka with cucumber, dill, potato and, of course, cubes of meat.

In the morning, I met Oleg and Olga for breakfast. Oleg was sporting some shorts of a length that immediately identified him as a European, shiny gold aviators, and his ever-present fanny pack. We ate at the hotel cafe, a depressing cafeteria with gold curtains, plastic table cloths, and squeeze packs of some sort of chunky ketchup on all of the tables. Then we were off – loaded into the CRV and banging through the steppe down rutted dirt roads to reach the test site, 45km outside of town.

Once we arrived to the outskirts of the Polygon, Olga showed me the radiation meter. The level at this point (0.06 mSv) was the same as in Kurchatov (which is, actually, less than in larger cities like Astana). We suited up in white protective suits, two layers of shoe covers, and face masks and I was told to walk cautiously as dust is the most dangerous part of the Polygon and contains the most radiation. The Polygon was carefully designed to test the impacts of a nuclear explosion. The site was divided into areas with houses, transit structures – including a replica of a Moscow metro station and railway and automotive bridges, purpose-built towers called “goose necks” that were placed at set intervals away from the impact site to assess damage, and bomb shelters. Eventually, the purpose of the site morphed into research on creating larger or more precise bombs (hence the high number of detonations). All of this is, of course, now abandoned.  

Radioactive dust and black rocks made that were formed at the time of the explosion.

First, we visited the impact zone, where the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1949, and where the radiation levels remain the highest. We stepped out of the car, decked out in plastic suits, and into the blazing sun. Olga’s dosimeter started rhythmically beeping as we walked, the numbers getting higher and higher, peaking at 10.9 mSv. It was absolutely desolate – as far as I could see there was waving steppe grass and soft hills, with hulking gray stone structures stretching out in a line from the crater (the gooseneck towers). We approached the crater (impact) site, which was smaller than I’d expected, and is now filled with water. Ducks were lazily swimming by. Ducks. In a nuclear bomb crater.

The crater at the impact zone of the first atomic bomb ever detonated by the USSR.
Dosimeter going bananas!

As we walked away from the crater, we explored the damaged goosenecks and houses – obviously the worst damage was the closest to the bomb site and it gradually decreased further away. Olga pointed out black, melted looking rocks that were produced in the explosion and, apparently contain the highest radiation levels. We visited the replica Moscow metro station, which sustained damage but didn’t collapse, and some bomb shelters with 3 steel doors and an old rusted generator. We all wondered if people actually had to sit in these during the bomb tests as literal human guinea pigs.

You can’t see my sweat, but it’s there. Posing in front of a ‘gooseneck’.
Olga stopping to photograph some butterflies in the atomic grass.

Once we were far enough away from the impact zone, radiation levels dropped dramatically and we were able to remove the sweat, er protective, suits. Mine was basically flowing off of me at that point. We then drove over to another crater, produced by a “dummy” strike – not atomic. Olga explained that when most of the nuclear weapons were detonated at this site, additional bombs would also be dropped to “confuse” the Americans. This dummy strike crater was larger, was filled with crystal clear water and was starkly beautiful, which felt odd to think about something that was created so violently.

Crater lake created by a “dummy” bomb.

Finally, we were ready to “decontaminate” our throats and noses by gargling and inhaling water repeatedly. We climbed into the car and left. Oddly, the Polygon is now somewhat of a de facto wildlife refuge, as there are no people. On our drive back we saw numerous falcons, flocks of smaller birds, hares, and an absolutely gigantic, regal fox.

We arrived back in Kurchatov at 3:45 PM, Olga checked our clothing for radiation (all good – no need to dispose of my one comfortable pair of shoes!), and we showered immediately to remove any hitchhiking radioactive dust bits. We then went to Chagan, which was the Soviet air base that housed the bombers who dropped bombs on the Polygon. Chagan is now a ghost town, abandoned when Russian troops pulled out of Kazakhstan in 1995. It looks like it was abandoned more than 23 year ago, however. In fact, if I’d been told that it was actually bombed, I would have believed it. Olga explained that after it was abandoned, locals came in and ripped apart the buildings to get rebar and pieces of metal to sell as scrap. So now the buildings are mere shells, surrounded by piles of rubble, with flocks of cackling birds swooping through the windows. The town sits on a ridge overlooking the Irtysh river and must have been quite lovely in its day. There are still 3 single family homes that are occupied by Kazakh families in the town, one of whom has opportunistically made a fence out of abandoned, mismatched doors.

The ruins of Chagan.
More ruined buildings at Chagan.

At sunset, we drove out to the Chagan air strip, also abandoned. From 1949 to 1989, the Soviets kept two planes in the air at all times from this air strip, 24 hours a day, to monitor activity and to confuse the Americans about what was happening (decoy planes). So this was a busy place. Now, it’s weedy and overgrown, with a small tree sprouting out of a larger crack in the tarmac and faded communist stars adorning the control buildings. Oleg produced a large, ripe watermelon and expertly sliced it and we watched the sunset, eating watermelon, on this abandoned Soviet runway.

Airport building at the Chagan airstrip. Note the faded communist star.
Watermelon picnic on the abandoned Soviet bomber runway.

The next day, Olga suggested detouring on our way back to the city and stopping to stay the night at Kazakhstan’s first national park, Bayanaul National Park. This “detour” was a mere 6 hours, so why not? The first 5 hours of the drive were monotonous, flat steppe but as we neared the park, actual elevation appeared in the distance, then the ground started to undulate and sprout with large boulders, festooned with lichen. Ponds appeared in the depressions between rocky outcroppings, surrounded by meadows of blowing grass and wildflowers. Herds of horses and cattle roamed freely, occasionally holding up traffic. This was the nomadic Kazakh steppe scenery I’d been waiting for!

Then we climbed into the hills and descended to the main portion of the park, where lovely rock ledges, boulders, and towers decorated the hillsides surrounding a large lake. Tiny, scrappy evergreens clung to the rocks, never more than a few feet tall (probably as large as they can get and survive the frigid winters and howling winds). We visited a sacred cave shaped like, ahem, women’s anatomy and its accompanying rock formation, called the “dignity rock” probably because Muslims wouldn’t be so crude as to call it the “dick-nity” rock. But I will.

“Dignity” rock.
Its corresponding cave.
A non-anatomical view of Bayanoul national park.

We returned to the lakeshore after sunset and Olga convinced me that the lake was warm enough for night swimming. It most certainly was not, but I got in anyway and tried not to scream too much because, well, I couldn’t be the American weenie in front of a crowd of Russians bumping techno music. Also I didn’t want to have to see Oleg’s teensie weenie swim knickers in the daylight, so it was best to get this swimming thing over with in the dark.

Last notes about Olga and Oleg – they are both dog rescuers and Oleg rehabilitates Labradors and sends them to new families. His wife does therapy dog training for kids with disabilities. Olga is currently fostering kittens. This is not common in Kazakhstan and they are both working hard to change the culture toward pets. Olga shared that she may go back to school to be a veterinary nurse in the future, when she feels like she can.  They have both been just excellent and I’m so thrilled that I saw a small part of their country with them. Alone I would have gotten so much less out of these few days – this is NOT a place that is set up for tourism (in fact, I haven’t met a single other tourist aside from all the Russians in skimpy swimwear at this lake), I don’t speak the language and no one speaks English. I’ve been able to learn and ask questions with Olga as a translator, try a whole smorgasbord of foods (not all of which were unpleasant – a soda made from fermented bread called ‘kvass’ was actually quite tasty), and discuss politics, women’s rights, and the culture of this country in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

If any of you plan to go to Kazakhstan (and you should!) contact Nomadic Travel in Karaganda to set up any form of custom trip you’d like or just to get some advice. If you say that spending a cumulative total of 30 hours in a car with apparently functional by unused air conditioning to stand in a deserted, radioactive field and stare at a bunch of derelict Lenins isn’t your thing, then I’d say you just don’t know what you’re missing.

Sunset at Bayanoul.

3 thoughts on “I’m waking up to ash and dust

  • Oh my gosh, Katie. What an insightful, educational, and darned entertaining report !!! I loved this – especially your wit and sense of humor. All I can say, is “Brava !!” 🙂


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