News Single

09.06.09 09:11 Age: 9 yrs

We've golden toil and wealth for soil...

By: Roger and Megan

Hundreds of questions and thousands of answers in Shubarkol

The new Shubarkol (as we know it) is a relatively young town, but its citizens hail from many different lands and walks of life. This is because its existence is intimately tied to the Shubarkol mine, some 8 km away, which was founded in 1985. The Shubarkol coal mine is one of the biggest in Kazakhstan. When it was built, workers were brought in from everywhere, including Uzbekistan, Poland, Turkey, Russia, and many other countries. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhs who had been residing in Mongolia (and elsewhere) came back to Kazakhstan, with some finding a job at the mine. The original Shubarkol (it didn't have this name before 1985, infact it didn't have a name at all) was just a large collection of farms near the current town, with the main feature of importance being the Mosque which Odan Baba founded in the 18th century.  Nowadays, it is only Kazakhstan citizens working at the mine, but they come from far and wide to do their 15 day stints of work (because of its extreme remoteness), then go back to eg. Almaty or Ust-Kamenogorsk for their 15 days off with their families.

There are actually two Shubarkol towns - the village where the wives and families of the mine workers live, and the "mine town", which is located within the grounds of the privately-owned mine, and this is only accessible by employees of the mine. It was another windy day when we were approaching Shubarkol along the ever so bumpy and trench ridden dirt road, we were thus relieved when we first got a glimpse of civilization over the hill on the road. There was a turnoff about 2 km from town that turned into a a lovely smooth road (downhill!!), and we cruised down that section with glee. However, as we got closer we spotted high-level security personnel at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town and were abit startled. As it turned out, we'd arrived at the mine entrance, and we had to turn around and go back uphill, and onward another 6 km to find the civilian town!

Back over the hill again we could see the other (correct) Shubarkol in the distance. From afar, it looked quite nice and developed - there were 5 storey apartment complexes, and with their pastel paintjobs they reminded us of the South Melbourne beachfront villas. As we drew closer, however, it appeared that this was certaintly not the case! Some of these "buildings" were just bare conglomerations of concrete slabs and obviously abandoned (albeit painted in single bright colours), and many of the remaining 'buildings" (the inhabited ones) were missing sections of roofing, wall panels, and other facadal structures.  As for the rest of the town, there were also about a dozen or so large-ish houses with small farms.

We arrived in Shubarkol on a Saturday so we were quite hopeful of finding some people in the streets of town to ask directions from. We decided to circumnavigate the small town first, and before we had made it halfway around we found ourselves parked in front of what looked to be an incomplete mosque (half-built or half-destroyed, we couldn't tell!), swamped by children and babushkas. Then, out of nowhere, the town policeman (Erlan) pulled up next to us, so it appeared we had the whole town there with us on the street. If we hadn't already met him and gotten the OK from him (if you recall, he found us on the farm outside Taldysay) we might have been a bit worried. But seeing him shake the hand of every man and boy on the street, and seeing the respect that had from each resident, we knew we were in good safe hands.

Being the man he was the crowd obeyed his every word, so they just parted and as we rode through to a house on the other main street in town.  He told us to leave the Quike and everything behind as it was safe there, and follow him inside the house where we would be served abyet (lunch). On the way in, the school's English teacher (Aiganym) caught up with us and offered to be our translator (most people speak Kazakh, and not much Russian) for our stay - OK now we were set! The first thing we noted was the HUGE feast sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for us. There were some 12 or so dishes, and we are still not sure how all that food got prepared in such a short time. We are wondering whether several houses just brought a plate each of their lunch leftovers.

So as we scoffed ourselves as much as we could, we organised to do numerous interviews with people who were most knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, including the town historian, a Kazakh culture teacher, and a Kazakh history teacher, and tried to organise some interviews with the Imam and Akim for the next few days. As an introduction to all this, in the afternoon we took a quick tour of the school, and a look at their Kazakh culture museum. As a result of this, we were invited to a concert specially put on for us after the Graduation ceremony on Monday, it was also organised that we would give a presentation to the school in return.  The school is named after a very famous Kazakh poet, Abai, and there were many references to him throughout the museum. We were very intrigued by this man and his connection with the Kazakh way of life, but unfortunately the poetry books they had there were all in Kazakh and so we could not read them.

Then it was back to Aiganym's sister's (Aigerum) apartment, 3rd floor of one of the 5 storey concrete buildings.  Aigerim, her husband Erkebulan and 2 year old daughter Shynar lived there. But at first we couldn't tell who lived there because people just kept walking in and out and sitting down, playing with Shynar as though they were all family and at home. You may recall that our experience in Karaganda was that all the doors had multiple locks - even the one on the 9th floor that we'd stayed in. This time, when home, nobody locks their doors. And when they go out, there's only 1 small padlock for both doors. The neighbours just drop in and out as they please - each "apartment block" is like one big house! Being a "mining" town, and after hearing about such towns in Australia, we were expecting it to be quite blokey and rough (lots of alcohol etc..). But we found the complete opposite - 2 police officers for the population of 800, and absolutely no security concerns whatsoever.

That evening, we were compulsarily invited to a dance after dinner, something of a weekly Shubarkol tradition every saturday night. We were quite exhausted from our full days of riding with an unrelenting headwind the previous few days, so werent quite up to dancing, but made a try of it anyway. After the end of the dance, it was then the usual midnight snack at chai and khleb time again, then bed.

The next day was non stop food, we had 4 dinners that day, (you'll never go hungry in Kazakhstan) including a traditional Chechynne dinner of Galoushki(from the sole Chechynne family in Shubarkol), between breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, 4 dinners, and supper....we basically spent the whole day going from house to house, eating their special dishes from their culture (Mongol-Kazakh, Chechynne-Kazakh, etc) and interviewing the familys (usually 3 generations living under one roof) in each of the houses we visited. We were finally feeling like our muscles were being refueled after all those days of riding against a 100 km/ph headwind.

Through the course of these dinners, we met the town Kazakh culture teacher who gave us gifts (Kazakh history books) and taught us a bit more about the meaning of the traditional Kazakh symbols/emblems we had seen everywhere. They do have meaning - representing different animals (sheep, swan, etc.) and non-physical concepts, and are not just artistic in nature. The main topic of conversation that night was on the role and meaning of religion in Kazakh lifestyles, which was quite an engrossing topic, something with the whole dinner table (some 15 or so people) all trying to speak at the same time. We managed to record alot of this on video, so it was very useful and informative for us.

Then, that night, at about 4 am, Megan found Roger in the bathroom with his head above a bucket containing a colourful and aromatic mixture of Central Asian delicacies. Then, within minutes, it was a race to the ceramic throne to expel some other demons. And so it had begun - several hours switching back and forth between the two, without time to even think of sleep. At 7.30 am, when Aigerim awoke, Megan commandeered her down the road to the policeman's house, to get the necessary medications from the luggage. But as the hours passed, it soon became clear that Roger would not be attending the school graduation concert at 10 am, and was also not a certainty to present that afternoon. So instead, Megan packed all the cameras together and went off to represent the team, solo, for the days' festivities.

The graduation concert had the usual speeches and presentation of awards, but interspersed throughout were Kazakh traditional dances, and the audience was also treated to an Uzbek dance by one of the younger (1st grade) pupils, which was quite spectacular. After the graduation, however, the real show started. The 11th grade pupils briskly changed into traditional clothes, and put on a special concert of music and dance for us (well, just Megan at that time). They also presented us with some gifts - the poetry of Abai in English, so that we may better understand the works of this prominent Kazakh poet whose writings greatly influence Kazahk lifestyles even today. Following this, there was the obligatory photo session (at least 50 photos with everyone in the room), and then the race back to the apartment where Megan was very relieved to find that Roger was on the mend.

That afternoon we took it pretty easy, with just a short walk around town to watch a football (soccer) match, and more rest. Then, in the evening, we were treated to the Kazakhstani equivalent of a BBQ at the beach - shashlik at the lake. Nine of us took a short journey out through the steppe, to Shubarkol lake. It's quite a small lake but seems to be popular for recreational activity and also an an important food source and income. We saw several boats of fishermen on the lake, fishing all the while that we were there(for many hours, even after dark). Shashlik is basically marinated meat (this time we had chicken) cooked over an open fire. It took a few hours for the fire to be ready, so we all gobbled the meal up fairly rapidly when it was finally ready (at 11 pm). After this it was back to Aiganyms for the usual after midnight supper of chai and bread. It was at this time that all the men had to leave, as the man who had organized the shaslik dinner for us , had had his sheep go missing.  And as is usual in Kazakhstan, when one man has a problem, everyone else pitches in to help out, thus being the foreigners we were left to sleep, whilst the men went out looking for the sheep that had been lost out on the steppe.

After a good long sleep, without digestion problems, we were bright eyed and eager to do our presentation at 11 am on Tuesday morning. But once again, we were reminded of Kazakhstan time and by about midday we were finally ushered into the Chemistry classroom to do our presentation. We had a full room of audience, of various people around town plus some of the older students from the school. With Roger in the spotlight (to make up for his absence the previous day!) our presentation was well received, and we hope that they now better understand the aims of our journey, and maybe learnt a bit about Australian culture too. We even managed to sing the national anthem again….this time with both of us in different keys!

In the afternoon we had our first taste of Kumus (fermented mares milk) at an afternoon tea at a friend's house. Roger seemed to cope with the taste better than Megan - it might take a while to get over the mental hurdle of drinking sour milk (with a very smokey flavor and lots of dark black chunks of floating on top). This drink is something that the Kazakh people believe is especially for their health, as they believe that is very good for a variety of ailments, including tuberculosis (this is something we'll have to investigate further in the future). Then straight after Kumus we were off playing football with the locals, as invited guests. Again, we were not very good, but this time the participants were much older and more skilled than the boys in Barshino, so the game was continuing despite our poor skills.

That night we had another very intensive session of interviews, interviewing numerous people over many many hours, the most interesting person being the town historian, Bakhad.  It went so long we had to break for chai in the middle, as we talked and talked into the wee hours of the morning, hearing from many people on many issues, mainly concerning religion, education, and Kazakh national identity. Our midnight chai was a very big chai, complete with macaroni, salad, fruits, biscuits, lollies...fueling us for all the work (we were filming these discussions at the same time too). We're beginning to wonder when you stop calling it chai and call it an actual meal, because you can't judge by type or sheer volume of food.

After finally getting to bed, it wasn’t long before we had to get up again, as this was our departure day, when we were planning to leave around midday.. As usual, packing the quike took longer expected, especially with the compulsary rounds of chai and khleb interspersed. After a final chai with Erlan we jumped on the Quike, did a quick (45 minute) goodbye to the townsfolk, and rode off into the steppe. By nightfall we had made some 15 km, it was about now that we approached a small house in the middle of no where, there was nothing between here and shubarkol. Inside we found it crammed full with 15 mine workers, we got offered to spend the night with them but we were reluctant to stay in a dorm with 15 men!

So off we rode for another 5 km, out of sight, and started to unpack and setup camp. As we were unloading the Quike we discovered that we were missing our tent poles... the small green satchel had slipped off our luggage somewhere along our 20km journey that day…. on the steppe? on the road? We back tracked through the steppe (was hard to remember where we had ridden since it all looks similar!) and onto the road, only to encounter a car full of the people we had played soccer with the day before, just coming straight out of the steppe (where from, we do not know, as there was no road there, just endless steppe!).

We quickly explained our dilemma to them, and they agreed to take us by car to backtrack and search where we had come from that day. We had our eyes keenly peeled watching every single lump and bump to see if it was our tent pole bag, but to no avail. Thus over the course of the evening we back tracked all the way till we arrived in Shubarkol, with no luck on our side, it was then Erlan’s turn to help us, he drove us out again, from shubarkol back to our campsite this time, again looking for the poles, driving on high beam, zig zgaggin all over, and driving really slowly. Again no luck. It wasn’t looking good. After a worried goodbye (he was gravely concerned for us) we decided it was time to setup camp. The tent fly, our ski poles, some rope, and some tent pegs….mosquito netting, bothys bag, lots of bike lights….more than enough equipment for us top setup a comfortable and safe camp. We had already prepared ourselves for all of this, so it wasn’t that big a deal, as we knew that the next time we could get some more tent poles would be weeks and weeks(if not months) away. Thus as Erlan departed, and the mosquitos went to bed, we prepared to bunker down….and be tent free on the open steppe for the next month. What would the future hold for us?