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Published: December 10th 2012
Nurdaluet Copmplex, Aktobe
a shopping mall, mosque, amusment arcade & zoo all in one - with some very nice art thrown in & a reproduction of the Golden Man (we should see the original in Almaty)
When you look at the map it feels like we're just riding straight through Kazakhstan to get to Uzbekistan – almost like we wouldn't be going there if we didn't have to. But that's so not true – there are some really exciting places to see, well they're exciting to me!
There's a brief stop to register our visas in Aktobe, a big city with a modern, clean, European feel to it – partly due to the influx of Europeans to service the extensive oil & mining industries. Then its onto the 1st
exciting stop – Aralsk, though exciting is not quite the right word. Once a booming town, with a prosperous fishing industry, on the shores of the Aral Sea. Now its a desolate, dusty, little village with abandoned fishing boats lying in what used to be the harbour. In the railway station there's a large mosaic showing Aralsk comrades providing fish to feed the starving during the 1921 Soviet famine. Now there are no fish and the Aral sea has retreated to over 60km away.
(For anyone who doesn't know: in 1960 the Soviets diverted the rivers that fed the Aral Sea in order to irrigate cotton
fields and the 4th
largest lake in the world started to shrink. By 2007 the Aral Sea has shrunk to only 10%!o(MISSING)f its original size. In addition to the loss of the fishing industries the micro-climate of the whole area has changed, it doesn't rain any more so crops fail and daily dust storms cause significant health problems. Despite the best efforts of the scientific community the old Aral Sea has gone forever and cannot be resurrected. The best they can do is try and save the small northern section.)
Some of us are going to try and ride out to what remains of the Aral Sea. The first challenge is finding the right road out of town – quite tricky but as usual the helpful locals tell us to follow them and when they have led us to the edge of town they draw a detailed map for us to follow. We head off down a gravel road into the middle of nowhere. Initially there are 8 or 9 bikes following us but each time I look back there's one less. Eventually 2 hours later 4 bikes pull into the tiny, dusty village of Zhalansh. There's still
Aktobe War Memorial & Aliya Moldagulova
born here and served as a Soviet sniper in WWII, she killed 91 German officers before she was killed in action
no sign of any sea but way off on the far side of a dusty sand bowl there are 4 ships lying abandoned on a sand dune, there used to be more but they are slowly and steadily being dismantled for scrap. This is as close as we are going to get, according to the locals the road to Tastubek and the sea has been turned into a mud trap due to recent rains – the rain has made no difference to the low lying land all around us that once must have been sea. Plus Tastukek is 25km further on and we're already going to be well late for our rendezvous time with the rest of the group.
Its disappointing not to have paddled in the Aral Sea but at the same time it really makes you realise just how far it has receded – we have ridden for 2 hours at a decent speed and still haven't reached the sea!! Gazing out at those abandoned ship really does make you stop and think.
Back on the main road we continue across the still flat steppe land. After 125 miles we arrive at the next exciting spot
Aktobe War Memorial
with plaques depicting battles though the ages
- Baikonur Cosmodrome. Back in 1961 Vostock 1 was launched from here and Yuri Garagrin became the first man in space. All subsequent Soviet manned space launches took place from here and manned missions to the International Space Station still depart from here (the Russian's have a 50 year lease). From the road you can see all the buildings, communication equipment etc., etc. The site itself is, understandably, off limits as is the town, its one of the few places that's still a “closed town” complete with a barrier and men with big guns. Just seeing it from the road is enough for me – but you can get inside on pre-arranged 3 days trip to see launches, I'll be back!!
A few miles further on a strange apparition appears out of the steppe land, its like somebody has transported in a wacky Gaudi structure and deposited it in the middle of the desert. Its the Korkyt Ata Monument dedicated to a medieval kobyz musician. The whole monument is meant to represent a giant kobyz and in certain spots the wind blowing through pipes makes sounds like kobyz music – its quite eerie and surreal.
Another 300miles of
flat steppe land is traversed. Then we stop at the most significant architectural site in Kazakhstan – the mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan. Its an important pilgrimage site - some claim its the second most holy place in Islam after Mecca, and three pilgrimages to it equal a single pilgrimage to Mecca.
Khoja Ahmed Yasawi (1093-1166) was a revered Islamic prophet, poet and mystic. The current mausoleum was commissioned by Timur after his victory over the Golden Horde. Its considered to be one of Timur's greatest works and acted as a template for many of Samarkand's future architectural masterpieces. Unfortunately Timur died in 1405 before the mausoleum was finished and the work stopped. Even today only half the building is tiled which makes for fascinating viewing, you see so many fully restored tiled buildings it nice to see how they are constructed underneath. Its a very pleasant place to wander round full of flowers beds, benches & picnicking pilgrims wanting to share their food. The place has a really gentle, welcoming feel to it.
From Turkestan we're heading down to the Uzbek border. On the way we pass the ruins of Otrar, a city that changed
smart flower bed
much more colourful and well tended than anything we saw in Russia
the course of history by causing Genghis Khan to invade Central Asia and where Timur died. There's not enough time to see the place so I guess I'll visit next time when we come back for the rocket launch and to paddle in the Aral Sea.
As we get close to Shymkent there's suddenly lots of traffic, its seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Up until now we have practically had the roads to ourselves so its a real shock to be in a big traffic jam with the cars obeying some strange rules we don't understand. I suppose it is the 3rd
biggest city in Kazakhstan so we should probably have been prepared for the traffic. Shymkent is our last stop in Kazakhstan, it a big, vibrant town with lots of bunting, advertising hoardings & wacky parks. Tomorrow we head for Uzbekistan which is only 50 miles away
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