For a European, Kazakhstan presents a challenge to comprehension: its almost complete lack of built history. Not to mention that we know so little of its past, or even its exact location. The Kazakhs are a fairly open people. Representations of this country’s nature and identity must be all around. So why did I have this sense of facing an indifferent silence, robbing me of all power of description, all the time I was there?
Six months. Six months, during which I did not, could not write. Visuals only. Writing is a purge or a celebration, a huge gulping breath or a light stream, depending on my need or my subject. When I feel a build up, I open the sluice gates. But the heavy machinery would not work there.
I was busy, but that’s never been an impediment to writing. Supervising building construction in a land that has never heard of basic safety rules and being part of a Tower of Babel team of forty foreigners is the kind of situation that occasionally demands time alone and a release. Instead, it was six long days a week on the sites of several of the new capital’s innumerable oil-and-gas funded prestige projects tearing up the ground and dwarfing the old, dusty, obsolete Soviet city.
Dusty and obsolete it may be, but the northern outer edges, built under Russian then Soviet dominion, their ancient bazars and laughably shabby shopping centres and outdoors stalls are the only parts of town that feel alive and built to a human scale. Add to that a sprinkling of restaurants, banyas and parks that you have to search for with great perseverance. Astana never felt like a real city to us. There’s no malice or contempt in that statement, just a culture shock. Funny that the fiercest culture shock I’ve felt was in coming up brutally against thin air, a void, where my sensibilities tell me something ought to be.
There are clues, stories of their past and culture locked away in museums, unsupported by any evidence outside of them. Where else do you have to go so far out your way for a sense of time and place these days? Wherever we go, neon arrows point to everything we shouldn’t miss. Not so here.
Where else does it feel like the buildings around you are fake, a film set, out of place, disconnected, revealing nothing of the local soul, when they usually are its most direct expression? Even the name is a sham: Astana just means “capital”.
There is a local soul, of course there is. You could see it in the kingdom of weeds and dust and potholed streets that was the outer district where we lived, the ingenious ramshackleness so much truer to a nomadic people who started building against their inclinations.
Our home: the Kemer, a Soviet era hotel, facing a small parking lot, a wasteland of old trucks and tyres, flanked by the smaller Kemer Two, that rented rooms by the hour. Our more dignified building frequently served as overflow, and we were often treated to the sight of the receptionist bringing up two sets of bath towels and a bottle of sparkling wine, and later taking down the dirty laundry. We went to the K2 when the water was cut off in the main building, a regular occurrence. We showered in one of the sauna suites, which also comprised a dining room and what can be best described as a shagodrome: a small pine-panelled room filled wall to wall with a wipe-clean, red leatherette mattress on four legs. Slightly further down the cul-de-sac, a dilapidated two-storey apartment block hid a small bakery. Not normally open to the public, it furnished supermarkets around town. We followed our noses to it and bought surplus bread and biscuits fresh from the oven. Twinkly-eyed grannies waiting inside showed us we weren’t the only ones on to the secret address. Surprise: inside, the apartment looked like it was built in the 18th century, the walls were white and pale blue plaster complete with ceiling roses and mouldings. The warm bread and buns smell was out of this world, especially after the sinus-searing -20C winds outside.
Never did such a shabby, homely mess of a place illustrate more perfectly how we get so territorial, so proprietorial about places we love to hate. It was a shithole, but it was OUR shithole. When there was a power outage in the evening, we mooched down the road to the Real, a massive roasting-spit-and-sawdust shashlik joint -the Kazakhs sure know how to grill meat. Unless of course the power was out in the whole district. Such things happen. Then we’d dig into our food caches of amazingly cheap and delicious dried fruits and nuts and biscuits. We built the stockpiles from regular visits to the Aktiom bazar.
The Aktiom! Tell that name to any of my former colleagues and they’ll both smile and roll their eyes. The shining hub of our hilariously poor social lives –and that of all our Kazakh neighbours it seemed. Five floors of cheap-ass everything, clothes and food and mobile phones and meat skewers, counterfeit watches and plastic knick-knacks. We bought everything by the sackful. A comforting noisy cavern, winter or summer, by plus or minus forty centigrade, our essential Sunday outing, welcoming our hungover selves after a night in one of the five sweaty nightspots available.
Then, Monday again, and the lot of us doing the daily commute from old Astana to new Astana, from down-at-heel life to gleaming semblance of life, never quite managing to reconcile the two inside our heads.
In summer we walked home sometimes, it took a good hour and a half, more time to imbibe the changes from one urban landscape to the next. First, trudging along huge avenues, Saryarka, Kaban Batyr, Saraichik, I loved the names -if not much else- of these architect’s playgrounds, endless, stultifying, Impress-The-West perspectives of glass, concrete and anything petrol and natural gas can buy. Dispiriting, neverending stretches never meant to be attempted on foot. We defied the builders. Our reward would come: a hint of nature, the shimmering Ishim river, rearing bronze horses on the four corners of one of its bridges, and behind them, Lego town, tall, featureless towers of bright red and yellow. I was unsurprised and amused to learn even the river is engineered, diverted from its course to separate the old town from the Brave New World. Nearby, in the middle of a concrete traffic island, a coal black statue of an enigmatically smiling figure holding a blade, standing on the back of a monstrous bull. Left along the riverbank, Kenesary Khan on his horse surveys the multiplying skyscrapers, only the statues really talk to me here, even the impassive poet Abay, standing massively by a junction on the avenue that bears his name.
Turning another corner, we entered the seventies, and suddenly we were anywhere beyond the Iron Curtain, thanks to that indefinable but unmistakeable way of stacking bricks and mortar that results in obvious, instant Soviet-ness. Textured or ridged concrete, spiky white bulbs serving no apparent purpose, mosaic cladding. And us, completing the picture, voluntary gulag workers, traipsing back to camp after our shift, in no hurry, what for anyway, we knew what was at the end of the road. Beyshekbayeva Street, our home of unexplained rubble heaps, warehouses, fluttering grassy wastelands, human warmth and futuristic housing blocks –this was Russia all over again, I had so many vivid dreams of it back then, that project that took a whole year, those sights sounds and smells and people that imprinted themselves in my DNA, reawakened by this distorted mirror image.
Except Russia made me bleed words. Kazakhstan struck me dumb. Not brutally or unkindly, but there, words and the past lost their value. The weight of simple everyday life on us remained unlifted, and yet there was no weight. We lived, through upheavals worthy of the craziest reality show, as happens when a large group of people live in each other’s pockets 24/7, every single day at work and at the hotel delivering priceless new material, and yet I did not write a word. We experienced Now. We lived without a solution of continuity, no records of yesterdays as distant as the moon, everything happening in a concentrated, heightened present. Present, tense. Our minds had nowhere else to go. And it was incredibly liberating.
Kazakhs care about promptitude about as much as Latin Americans do, exactitude, efficiency, and getting shit done are concepts only just timidly entering their collective psyche, and Gods, do I love them for it. Coherence, another unknown entity. A Muslim country where I’ve seen skirts shorter than in Leicester Square on a Saturday night. Only one thing did not run contrary to expectations: the lure and allure of the western man endures. Getting propositioned by cleaners, cashiers, waitresses, and even once, a policewoman, is exhilarating. For about a week.
It’s been a year since we came back, and I’ve only just managed to get some words out, insufficient as they are, and it’s not been for want to trying. My normally verbose mind would not respond, the wordless state reasserted itself the moment I evoked my memories, images dissolving the instant I started focusing on them.
When we went out of town once, I got it. Driving through the endless Central Asian plain, a very slightly undulating expanse of grass and sky, I got it.
There was nothing to hang words on to, and the winds of immensity blowing through your head, forcing thoughts out. A space clean and empty of preconceptions and projections. The greatest Khans never settled and never stopped, goaded by a horizon that never moves, however hard you ride at it.
For that, as much as for its treasure caves of oil and gas and minerals, it’s the new last frontier, the last Far West, the virgin page waiting for explorers to put words on it.
Murielle Gandre has lived in London and St Petersburg, and is (for now) in Paris. Trained in film production, design and scenic painting, she spent the last ten years being a jack of all trades with variously successful results but no regrets whatsoever. She has now forced herself to narrow down her range of activites to travel writing and decorative painting. She enjoys cafés with outdoors tables, figure skating, and the smell of jet fuel in the morning.