Day 18 - Astana to Balkhash
This was going to be a long day. We knew we had to register our visas with the migration police at an OVIR office within 5 days of entering the country, and we were running out of time. Registration is a throwback to the old days under communism, and exists now seemingly only through bureaucratic inertia.
We had heard that it could take up to 2 days to complete the process so made contingency plans for staying longer in Astana. We even had a translation of a request to process us quickly, courtesy of the people at the Americana. In the event, though the OVIR was packed and chaotic, the officer spoke excellent English and we had our registration stamp within 20 minutes.
It took an age to get out of the city......lots of traffic, lots of roadworks, and John put in a 3hr 30 kin shift at the wheel to get just 110 miles.
The highway south went through the city of Karagandy, so we diverted from there to visit the nearby GULAG museum in the village of Dolinka. The gulag prison camps were initiated by soviet Russia as their
primary tool of suppression. Intellectuals and 'dissidents' were shipped to these forced labour camps in their thousands. Dolinka was the administrative centre of Karlag, an abbreviation for the Kazakh gulag.
Conditions were horrific, and life expectancy was very low. Scientists were brought in to research and experiment with arable and pastoral yields, and in conjunction with the huge pool of slave labour, Karlag consistently exceeded all of Moscow's production targets.
The museum itself is very stark. The deliberately low lighting and grunged interior gives a sense of hopelessness. The photos of prisoners - men, women, children - are haunting. It is not a comfortable tour. We barely spoke at all.
But that is the point. As I mentioned in an earlier post, between us we have visited many such sites of human atrocity, and we believe that it is important to do so. Praise should be given to nations for refusing to cover up the horrors of the past, but to instead display them front and centre. Berlin does it, Budapest does it, Phnom Penh does it, and so do many others. We are lucky in the western world to be protected from the worst these days,
but in an age when many of us can afford to worry about the most trivial of things, the lessons of the past absolutely have to be remembered.
It was raining when we left Dolinka, and we passed through Karagandy. The city has an excellent university, and is reknowned for having a highly intelligent population. It is thought that this is because so many are the descendants of those same intellectual gulag prisoners once held nearby.
There is a grove of trees in Karagandy (Cosmonauts Grove) where each astronaut to have launched from Baikonor has planted a tree the week before lift off. Yuri Gagarins is of course the oldest and tallest. At the other end of the grove the nameplates stand by small saplings. It's a nice touch. Sadly we didn't know the exact location and didn't have time to hunt for it.
Around this time we hit the 5000 trip miles mark. Dave F was driving so picked "x" as the next letter of the car's name. So that's why the car is now called 'Spinx', and is also why names for things should never be chosen by committee.
We got to Balkhash, a
town of 66k pop at about 10pm. It sits on the north edge of Lake Balkhask, Kazakh's largest lake, and is home to some serious industry concerning metal
extraction. We hadn't found anywhere online to stay the night, so the plan was to find any hotel or motel (but not a holiday inn). Half a dozen of the apartment blocks had crazy flashing christmas lights all over them, seen from miles away. The effect was very weird.
We circled the town streets several times, and eventually stopped for a kebab at a square outside two of those flashing blocks. The square was lit up by a huge tv screen playing kids tv, and despite the late hour many families with small children were playing below it. Some locals wonderfully helped us to find a hotel by leading us there in their car (despite probably being too drunk to drive), and we were thankful for a luxurious double room and bed each for the night.
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