The dreaded Buran of Kazakhstan, and part 3 of our Schools Project (copy 1)
Our visit to Shabanbai-Bi and Kyzyl-Arai and the ensuing blizzard...
While we have been stationed in Karaganda awaiting new equipment, new visas, and better weather, we have started a new project – to provide internet-ready notebooks and a reliable internet connection to the village schools of central Kazakhstan. From there, we hope to connect the schoolchildren of Kazakhstan to those in Australia, so they can learn about each others' cultures and lifestyles.
In February and early March we went to the schools of Rostovka (near Temirtau), and Terekty, Kingir, and Malshibai (near Zhezkazgan). On Thursday, March 11, we took the trip south to the low mountains of the central Kazakhstan range, to the villages of Shabanbai-Bi and Kyzyl-Arai. What was planned as an overnight visit turned into a week-long lesson on to how harsh life can be for those living out in the steppe.
We had already delayed this journey for over a week due to the large snowfalls which had made the area totally inaccessible. Due to the road conditions we knew that riding Quikey there would be near impossible now, due to the deep snow after Aktogai. So sadly, in a choice between seeing and helping the schools and riding Quikey, the schools won out - poor Quikey had to stay behind. The regional mayor's office had offered to take us there in a car, but for safety, we would have to wait until most of the ice had cleared off the road before we could go with them. The only other option was the daily (when possible) minibus – bigger buses and trucks were apparently a safer option on icy roads. But that would only take us as far as the regional centre of Aktogay, still 47 km from Shabanbai-Bi. So when a small window of good weather finally presented itself we jumped at the opportunity and headed to Aktogay on the minibus.
Arriving in Aktogai we were greeted by the director of the school in Kyzyl-Arai (Kanat), who soon ushered us into the safety and warmth of his car, to begin the long slow drive out to the village on 69 km of hard snow-pack. Kyzylarai is arguably one of the most scenic areas in Kazakhstan, with natural rock towers enshrouded in lush mountain greenery (in summer of course), this however comes with a price of remoteness and difficulty of access. The village itself depends on herding animals for a living (mainly horses and sheep), which graze the mountains in summer, fattening up to survive the long harsh winter ahead. Arriving at the village school we were given a tour of the school's facilities, interviewed a few students and teachers, and documented our findings. After this it was back to Kanat's house for the obligatory horse intestine stuffed with horse fat – beshbarmak - a winter specialty full of high calorific wintery goodness to keep you warm on a cold winter's night. After the meal they showed us how they made their butter, in a sheeps stomach, where it would keep for years. When you wanted to eat it, you simply cut the stomach of the sheep open. Another delicacy they made here was black Kurt, these are black, rock hard, dried salty and sour lumps of cheeze, they look, feel, and taste just like stones.
While we were sitting inside enjoying our meal, the weather was turning sour outside. Fearing what the winds might build into, the school director asked us to quickly finish our horse fat so we could head back toward Shabanbai-Bi. We jumped in the car and noted that he threw a big shovel in the back of the car before we drove off. Taking the 22 km ride back to Shabanbai-Bi we could see that the road was already disappearing fast.
When we arrived at the Shabanbai-Bi school it was already closed for the day, with only the director inside awaiting our arrival. We met with him and this is where we learned of a new word – buran (pronounced boo-RAHN), meaning blizzard. Living in Australia we hadn't heard so many different classifications of snowy weather – to us, for it to be “snowing” is novelty enough! Here they have many different classes of cold weather, which is not surprising because half their year is spent below zero. The people here innately understand which sequences of meterological events will be good or bad for them. One of the worst combinations is a big dump of fluffy snow in freezing conditions that is quickly followed by a big wind that redistributes the snow unevenly across the landscape. During these burans, some areas get cleared of snow, whereas other areas, sometimes houses and herds of animals, get completely buried. At the base of the mountains, Shabanbai-Bi unfortunately lies at the bottom of a bowl where all the snow collects in the wind, and they fear these big winds – the buran – the most.
The deal was that if we really wanted to see the Shabanbai-Bi school, we would have to stay the night in town and see the school in the morning. This, however, came with a big risk. The big recent snowfall was predicted to be followed that evening and next day by a buran, and all the roads out of town would be impassable by the next morning. Kanat was driving through to Aktogay right then, and that would probably be our last opportunity to get out before Saturday, at the earliest. So, they reasoned, if we needed to get back to Karaganda fast, we'd have to turn back without seeing the school. However, if we turned back then it would have defeated the purpose of us coming out there in the first place, we decided to take the risk and stay on.
One of the senior school teachers (Tendik), then took us back to his home to spend the night out there. At his house he showed us hundreds of photos of the stunning landscape of the region – all summer photos of course! Just like Kyzlarai, Shabanbai-bi is surrounded with a fascinating landscape of caves, streams, mountains, and rivers, virtually untouched and untainted. We also discussed with him the various options for getting internet access to the school. Shabanbai bi, like Kyzlarai, has no mobile phone reception at all, and the landline system is used only to call other houses in the village. Thus making any form of communication with the outside world (let alone communication in an emergency) near impossible. Bearing this in mind, we were quite puzzled as to how to best provide this school with an internet connection (considering they barely had a phone connection).
The next morning, as scheduled, we took a tour of the school and met many of the teachers and students. The community itself is very enthusiastic about their Kazakh traditions, especially the felt-making handicrafts. The school did have a classroom of quite good computers, which we were surprised to see. However, as Tendik had told us, the internet is barely worth attempting, as the maximum speed is 12 KB/sec (and it rarely performs that well!) and it is only accessible on one computer! After speaking to many of the students and teachers, we were very moved to provide them with an internet connection to enhance their educational prospects.
Walking back to Tendik's house at midday was a struggle. The buran was still raging and the icy wind would sting any skin it came in contact with. The snow was piling up and we'd occassionally fall in above the knees. We knew without asking that we'd be there at Shabanbai-Bi for at least another night. Outside Tendik's house we noted that the longdrop toilet was now completely inaccessible, because the snow was now piled up to shoulder-height against the door! Even the Lenin statue was completely buried in the snow.
That night about 70 cm of snow fell, making Tendik's cow barn, the school, and anything else beyond that inaccessible. Our toilet for the next few days was just to pick a wall of the house which sheltered you from the ever-direction-changing wind, and do your business in the snow there.
The next morning, an attempt to leave was made (the school director had a meeting in another town, and another boy had to go to school in another town), in a raised up 4wd. The technique was to have two men up the front walking along and shoveling snow to create a path, which then the car would follow behind. In effect this meant that simply walking to Aktogai would have been quicker, since we were only moving as fast as two men could clear a path large enough for a car in deep snow.
In the first one and a half hours we made about 400 m. After this time we decided to turn back to the village, there was no way would we safely make it to Akotogai, and we didn't want to get stuck out there for the night. About three hours later we received words that the other men and car had also returned, not having got much further than when we had left them. The rest of the day we spent learning about the traditional felt-making in the villages, most famous of which are the thick felt boots that the shepherds wore in the winter.
That afternoon we were relieved to hear that the tractor from Aktogay would be coming through to clear the road. However the next morning we learned that the tractor had broken down, and therefore the road could not be cleared. Knowing that we needed to get back in time to ride out to Karkaralinsk for Nauvryz (we estimated we would only be able to ride 30 km/day in this weather) we decided to make another attempt at escaping the village along with the school director, the boy who was missing school, and a few other men who needed to get to Aktogai.
This time they pulled out all the stops. Now we had a big four wheel drive truck, even bigger shovels, and stronger men, in which to make an assault on the snow. The truck carried in its tray four strong young men(who had to get back to Aktogai) with four shovels, who would jump out and dig away whenever the truck got bogged. Then, behind it our small sedan would follow in the tracks, and be towed where necessary. Sometimes this got very tedious as the truck would have to go over the same small section of track four or five times before the car could be towed through. After we'd made the first 10 km (in 3 hours) beyond the first few hills, the road cleared up a little and we started making faster progress. But this too had its dangers – driving along in the sedan we got a scare when we watched the truck ahead do a slow-motion 360 degree spin on the icy road!
Between the beefed up soviet brute, and the men shoveling away, we finally made it to Aktogai. From there the five of us in the small sedan would be on our own to continue on the road to Karaganda. However, after only about 50 km the weather rapidly closed in on us in a blizzard and whiteout. The driver lost visibility, traction and control all at once and slid to a halt in the deep snow on the side of the road. We had to quickly get out of the car and try to shovel out snow from around the wheels so we could get back on the road, but to no avail, it was just too deep. However, the car behind us had the same problem and followed our tracks to where it crashed into the rear of our car. This was now getting quite dangerous as with visibility down to only 20 m, none of the cars to follow would see the hazard ahead and we'd soon end up with a long chain of rear-end collisions.
In the next few minutes some cars came from the opposite direction, all turning back to escape the severe buran ahead. Thankfully, a tractor also appeared through the fog and helped to tow us out of the snow. The long convoy of vehicles all turned around and headed back to Aktogay to wait out the weather.
The buran just got worse from there and extended to Aktogay itself. While we were walking dejectedly along the streets in town we had a brief interview by the local KNB (the post-soviet KGB), who couldn't believe that foreigners would be there for any innocent reason in winter. As it got late we resigned to our fate of spending the night there and found the rarely-used small guesthouse. There the owner took pity on us and allowed us to stay as long as we liked for a very small price. We sadly took this option, with the hope that tomorrow would be a new day, and that we would be able to leave.
The Buran again had other ideas though, howling non-stop for the next three days, bringing the whole town to a standstill, since no food, supplies, or people could enter, or leave town. On Tuesday morning we made our second attempt to get back to Karaganda, but unfortunately another big snnowstorm hit as we were leaving town, and quickly covered over the road. Visibility was again down to less than 100 m, and the whiteout meant that we could hardly tell where the road was supposed to be. After witnessing a similar small sedan slide off the road and halfway down the embankment, we decided that again we would have to turn back and try again another day.
However, we did not waste our time in Aktogay. Our days there were filled with vising old grandmothers to record their handicrafts, seeing ancient petroglyphs and Balbals(rock carvings), visiting a wolf hunter, and the best traditional musicians and dancers of the village. A pleasant surprise here, was visiting a traditional carver (who worked at the local school, teaching the children these traditional techniques so as to preserve this knowledge) who made horse saddles, giant mortar and pestles (to grind flour), besiks, kumus bowls, and kumus spoons. Unfortunately knowledge of how to make many of the old musical instruments they showed us has been lost. One of the more intriguing instruments we saw was a percussion instrument like a castenet, made from two horses hooves that you bang together.
On Wednesday, the 4th day in Aktogai (the 7th day of our excursion), the weather was holding out just enough for us to make the big push home. About 5 km out of town the driver's side windscreen wiper flew off, and after stopping to recollect it, the driver did some makeshift repairs with a shoelace and we could see ahead again, somewhat. About 20 km out of town we saw a Mercedes that had skidded off the road and down the embankment, and then a further 20 km along we saw a big semi-trailer whose cabin was sitting on the edge of the road facing perpendicular to the traffic, and its big container was off the road headed down the ditch.
About 100 km from Aktogay we turned onto the main Karaganda-Almaty highway, which had received a lot more attention from the tractors overnight and was thus cleared down to the asphalt. However, this didn't mean it was any safer, since there was quite a lot more traffic on the road. Also, by this time it was approaching midday and warming up considerably, so the snow that remained on the road was wet, slushy and slippery. It was most worrying when a long line of trucks would pass us from the other direction. The first truck would make a big splash of dirty wet slushy snow on our windscreen, which would completely block out vision until the broken wiper could clear the glass. But less than a second after it cleared, the next truck would pass starting the process again.
We watched anxiously as the kilometre markers counted down to 50 km from Karaganda, but just when we thought we were through the weather changed for the worse. Yet another whiteout closed in on us, dropping our visibilty back down to about 100 m. We had to stop for some time at a traffic jam where another truck had slid off the road. We were so close to Karaganda – we could almost reach out and touch it! - but we still feared we might be stuck out for yet another night.
At last however we arrived back, safe at home, with the buran howling on outside. This whole trip would have been impossible on Quikey, so in hindsight it wasn't so bad being forced to take a car, a small sacrifice, in order to improve the educational prospects of the children in remote villages. In Karaganda we saw on the news that the government had employed helicopters, tanks and monster trucks to rescue cars stranded along the roads in the surrounding region. One of the helicopters had crashed. There had also been severe flooding with the rain and snow-melt down in the warmer Almaty region, with an entire village being washed away and the loss of many lives. It really is a fragile existence for those living isolated out in the steppe of Kazakhstan.
Learning from our experiences of the past week we have decided that it would be important first and foremost to get reliable phone access to both these villages, both for safety, economic development, and education. Following on from this (and only after this) will it be possible to get internet access in these remote areas. Thus our plan now is to install GSM repeater stations (perhaps solar or wind powered) at the highest point in both these villages to give them some mobile phone coverage, and to use this then to acquire internet via USB modems. The remoteness of these villages necessitates these measures.
We are currently researching the best placement for these repeater stations, so hope to have some infrastructure in place for these by the end of the year. Aktogai (which has mobile phone coverage) is 69km from Kyzlarai and 47km from Shabanbai-bi, so we hope that this plan will be possible. If anyone has any advice concerning the feasibility or logistics of this, please let us know, we are open to all ideas/suggestions, we just want to get internet and phone reception to these schools/villages!
Our excursion out to these villages being over for now, our plans now turn to finding somewhere to spend Nauvryz, the traditional spring (end of winter) festival, which for Kazakhstan is a big 4 day long celebration, full of traditional sports, music, customs, and food, the epitome of Kazakh culture and heritage.. It is also not long now before leave to continue riding in Mongolia, hopeful that the Zud there will have subsided enough by then to make it slightly more appealing, with only a few more weeks till we depart for Mongolia, we hope to make the best of our remaining time, in Kazakhstan.
And finally, a big thank you to all those people who have kindly donated to us via our website over the past month, greatly appreciated!