Train to Astana, Kazakhstan

We are on the train from Aktau to Astana, Kazakhstan — we left Aktau around 8:30 AM and expect to arrive in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan two days later.

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Karen looks out the window.

The terrain is featureless and barren. We talk with a young man from Azarbeijon, a member of a group going to Astana to fight in full-contact matches there. Each guy is in a different weight category and they are a lively, enthusiastic team. His English is limited and I am realizing that my list of Russian phrases work best for talking with people.

As we travel north, it grows colder and snows.

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We frequently stop at small stations.

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Two Russian guys get on the train and take the top bunks in our sleeper cabin.

I read about Kazakhstan. The present President Nursuiltan Nazarbayev was first secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party in 1991, the year that Kazakhstan was granted its independence. He, and most others in Kazakhstan, did not want to separate from the USSR but he became the first president of a country with slightly more Russians than Kazakhs.

Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia has been shaped by its history.  After the Bolsheviks took over Kazakhstan in 1920, the USSR established communal farms and ended the Kazakhs nomadic way of life. Soviet collective programs caused terrible starvation among the Kazakhs, reducing their population substantially. Kazakhstan was the site of Soviet prison camps, immigration programs, and the testing of nuclear bombs. In the 1950’s, Soviet Premier Khrushev hoped to use huge tracks of Kazakhstan land to grow wheat. The plan was a terrible failure, causing major ecological devastation and suffering. Nuclear radiation resulted in increased rates of disease and birth defects, affecting over a million people. Diversion of water for cotton farming, starting in the 1960s, destroyed the ecology of the Aral Lake, leaving terrible suffering due to ecological disruption. The Aral Sea, one of the four largest lakes in the world, was destroyed. The eastern basin became the Aralkum Desert.

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It is supper-time and the train stops at a station.

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I get off the train to buy some food. It is very cold outside.

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Some ladies have set up tables and are selling food. I buy some stew.

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We eat something that is not beef — it is probably horse meat and potatoes.

I continue reading about Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev’s new country was very dependent on Russia. Russia was Kazakhstan’s major trading partner — a relationship that was not equal. With the discovery of oil under the Caspian Sea, the situation changed, to a degree. Kazakhstan signed major agreements regarding export of oil, but political corruption affected international investments. Kazakhstan did not have the judicial structure required for normal business activity and corruption was inherent within commerce.

The new central Asian counties experienced various degrees of prosperity. For example, Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurad Niyazov demonstrated strangely egotistical and erratic behavior, thwarting economic progress. He died in 2006, but Turkmenistan remained a dictatorship. The other central Asian countries reveal similar forms of authoritarian leadership.

President Nazarbayev originally allowed a weak form of democracy — the major emphasis was on economic progress. He thwarted development of democratic institutions and the elections which occurred did not meet international standards. Political opponents were arrested; some were murdered mysteriously.

The Russian guys got off the train in the evening and we continue to ride through the snowy tundra. It is difficult to see the horizon.

I continue to read about Kazakhzan. President Nazarbayev devised programs that support Kazakh pride and population growth. Many ethic Russians see their future as bleak. Kazakh will become the official language. About a quarter of the ethnic Russians have emmegrated to Russia. Ethnic Kazakhs are now a majority within the national population.

Kazakhstan revealed high levels of corruption within all levels of government. President Nazarbayev, his family, and governmental insiders, became extremely rich (President Nazarbayev may be one of the ten wealthiest men in the world). The government engaged in projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, completed in 2005, which bypasses Russia. Kazakhstan desires an Aktau-Baku pipeline, a plan complicated by Russian opposition and Kazakhstan’s continued trade dependence on Russia.

Russia seeks to thwart Kazakhstan from selling its oil and gas to Europe. Kazakhstan seeks balance within its relationships with Russia, China, its central Asian neighbors, and the West.

Martha Brill Olcott portrays the future of Kazakhstan as an unfulfilled promise. The hope for future prosperity is reduced by governmental corruption, lack of democratic structures, ethic Russian dissatisfaction, and growing gap between rich and poor/rural and urban/geographical sections. At the same time, the ability of Kazakhstan to attract investment, develop natural resources, increase economic diversity, and reduce corruption, provide grounds for optimism.

We arrive in Astana early in the morning and have problems finding our hotel. Karen slips on the ice and falls on her shoulder. She is injured and cannot get up without assistance. Our situation seems perilous and bleak. Karen is barely able to stand. She cannot carry her pack. Something is wrong with her shoulder.

The air is extremely cold — probably 10 degrees below zero (F.). The wind is brisk. We cannot cannot speak the language. We cannot survive for long outside in the cold wind. We face a medical emergency!

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