Friday, 13 July 2012

   Then in the last vestiges of daylight i strolled back into town in search of an internet cafe, but without joy. I also spent some time trying to ford a busy trunk road to a traffic island, in order to alert some cops to a very hazardous-looking hole in the road where a manhole cover was missing[1], only to find that they already knew about it.

   After a good sleep, on Thursday 16th June i was finally able to address myself to the Mongolian embassy. US citizens can just waltz into Mongolia without so much as a by-your-leave and stay for up to three months, so i didn't anticipate very much difficulty, but i don't think the consul even read my ‘applicant’s statement’ when at last he was available to discuss it, a whole week after i'd arrived in Almaty. "Tourists don't engage in charitable activity" was one of the things he grumbled, directing me to apply in London or Irkutsk; but there was no chance of getting a Russian transit visa without the Mongolian visa. I've since learnt on very good authority[2] that one should expect at least three visits to get visas in such circumstances - but i already had my train ticket for Irkutsk and time was short. Taking my leave i piped up with a defiant little “Bayer’ te” – the Mongolian word for ‘goodbye’[3], which i’d learnt from Ajusch, the Mongolian lady in Germany.
   This decided me in favour of taking the first available means of conveyance back to Astana, which turned out to be a coach leaving at 22.30 that evening. I bought a couple of small gifts and presented them to my host, with an icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker. In return he gave me a relatively old (1993) Kazakh coin, and a 1000 rouble note, featuring V.I. Lenin, of a similar vintage. Then after another session in an internet cafe i attended Mass, where i was heartened by these words: “The Father knows what is best for us”. There then seemed no harm in checking whether a travel agency near the station was open, and the availability of flights. Praise the Lord; i was able to get a reasonably inexpensive flight from Irkutsk via Khabarovsk, eastern Siberia, to Seoul, having confirmed that as a holder of a UK passport i didn’t need a visa for South Korea.
   On Friday 17th June, on the way back to Astana the coach broke down again, more seriously. While waiting for a replacement to arrive i decided to abscond, as i couldn’t hope to achieve anything very much in Astana until after the weekend, and this was an opportunity to do some actual walking. Before very long i came to a town just off the road called Temirtau, notable for the Karaganda Steel Mill, where serious unrest led to fatalities in the 1950s, and where future president N. Nazarbayev was employed for a time on leaving school. I checked into a good sort of affordable hotel, but this was clearly a return to the more impoverished side of Kazakhstan, which i’d already experienced to the north of Astana. Putting out some washing to dry in the evening i encountered some guys who were sadly, shall we say, not strangers to the misuse of drugs. They painted the nearby city of Karagandy, through which the coach had passed earlier that day, in rather unflattering terms. It once gave its name to a gulag[4] the size of France, but its troubled modern reputation is probably only relative - Kazakhstan doesn’t generally feel like a dangerous place at all. As anywhere else though, a wide gulf between the rich and poor takes a toll on social cohesion.

[1] One might speculate that this had been stolen for its metal, a commodity in great demand throughout the world, owing especially to the economic rise of China.
[2] My Dad
[3] ‘Good Bye’ being derived from ‘God be with you’.
[4] Acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies, the government agency responsible for the infamous forced labour camps of the soviet union, from 1930 to 1960. Solzhenitsyn brought the word to the attention of western countries with the publication of ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ in 1973. Many of the inmates of the gulag at Karaganda were ethnic Germans, forced into internal exile when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, though other nationalities including Poles were also present in significant numbers.

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