On the Road

On the Road: 2002

Mattopia Jones and the Lost City of Saraichik
29 June 2002

Trying to sleep on two chairs is not the recommended way to go, but it worked. And the hot shower was great.

Today was tour day. With the help of Gulmira, an incredibly sharp accountant at X and a fan of some group named U2, we hired a taxi for 500 tenge/hour.

Our first stop was the Orthodox church I had seen the night before, the one with the crosses on the top. Several women were inside, hunched over with scrapers, brooms, and mops, cleaning the floor. We took a look inside; it was ornately decorated with religious paintings and more crosses. But, with the cleaning crew on board, we were cut off from getting too close of a look.

As we made our exit, Gulmira noticed a sign at the entrance. Tucked away with announcements and notices were some rules regarding the church, all in Russian and Kazakh: No T-shirts are to be worn, same for shorts. And women should wear scarves.

Once again, my attire is ill-timed. I'm decked out in a Corona T-shirt, shorts, and tennies. I've never been on a trip before where almost each day provides some kind of fashion faux pas.

At least I'm not alone. My colleague, Kim, is similarly dressed in shorts and a T-shirt as is Gulmira, who had the added foul of not wearing a head scarf.

We then made our way to the Muslim mosque down the road. It's a peaceful place. Outside, there's a sign listing all the times for prayer. Inside, everybody removes their shoes prior to entering the main prayer hall. I follow suit, for once. Off to one side is a classroom. Lying on the teacher's desk are a Muslim book and a copy of the Koran. There's also a large-size copy of the Koran lying on a pedestal at the front of the main worship hall.

At 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., a man sings from the rooftop. I'll have to come back for that; it'd be a cool experience. Surely this is not the congregating place for terrorists; it's a place for those who honestly and devoutly follow the words of the prophet Muhammad. I do respect that, but I still don't understand the rationale for what they did to Salman Rushdie. Sincerity and extremism can be a lethal combination.

From there, it was on to the main focus of our day: The Ruins of Saraichik.

The road to ruin(s) was a dilapidated affair. Originally intended as a two-way street, the road was in such bad condition cars had to navigate around as though a field of land mines was being crossed. The ruins are a mere 50 kilometers up the Ural River from Atyrau, but it's a solid hour of driving under these conditions.

The massive pot holes on occasion resemble dips in the road. At times it seems like a game of chicken is being played between the vehicles coming in opposing directions, but each car is simply trying to avoid having the ground fall out from under the tires. Portions of the drive entail actually driving off the paved road and taking the dirt road to the side; at least that's less choppy.

Along the way, many large trucks are pulled over to the side, broken down or in the process of having a tire changed.

Gulmira relates a story of a relative who was in a car accident on this road. His car and the car he hit were the only two on the road... with nobody else around for miles. It's stunning how things like that can happen; it's almost comical. But the navigating required to get from A to B on this road is amazing. There is no use for cruise control on this lost highway.

It's toasty outside and the very compact car has no air conditioning. It's not a leisurely drive on this street which has no name.

The fact that the roads, not just this one, but many of the roads in Atyrau and elsewhere in Kazakhstan, are in such bad shape only creates resentment among the working class. They pay obscene amounts of taxes and yet they have so little to show for it as a society because the rulers stash the cash in Swiss bank accounts for their own use. The same problem exists in the States - and the habit has rubbed off on corrupt Corporate Americans. The best answer would be a firing squad for all who misappropriate funds. But line 'em up after they've paid back the people who actually work for their money.

Gulmira recalled a Russian saying wherein the only problem with Russia was "stupid people and bad roads." That seems to sum up many a place.

At our destination, we are given a guided tour of the site's museum. It's small, but fascinating. The curator speaks in Russian and Gulmira becomes our impromptu translator.

Hopefully I'll keep the facts straight in this retelling, going back to the 13th century:

Saraichik was once a thriving metropolis, home to one million citizens and rich with culture. It was a key trading spot along the Silk Road to China; to the South, another thriving city, Atyrau, served those on the road to India.

Genghis Kahn's grandson, Kasim, had traveled the known world and found Saraichik to be the largest city he had visited outside Baghdad.

It was a Muslim city and ancient coins with the Islamic equivalent of "In God We Trust" are on display in the museum. Curiously enough, the excavations have unearthed Russian currency as well - and as recent as 1923. Tattered, the paper money looks as though it were subjected to fire at some point.

According to history, Saraichik was a city with some magical qualities. The rulers would be served food in a special cup. If the contents were poisonous, the cup would change color as a warning signal. The original cup is now in Astana, Kazakhstan. Another cup with similar properties is in Egypt.

The Hun of Saraichik had 27 children; 13 daughters and 14 sons. His favorite daughter would ride the Ural River in a golden boat, waving to those on shore. A painting recreating such a scene adorns one of the walls of the museum. Beloved by many, the girl had treasures of gold and jewels bestowed upon her.

But she died at the tender age of 15.

Heartsick, the Hun buried all the girl's treasures with her. Hundreds of friends attended her funeral at a secret location in order to preserve the sanctity of her grave and leave the gold in its place.

Attending that funeral would have its price. The best kept secrets are those with no witnesses. The Hun had all the friends in attendance executed after the funeral. Their heads were chopped off.

And so it is to this day that archaelogists are digging in the sands of Saraichik, hoping to find the girl's tomb. Also out there somewhere, buried in the dry earth, is a huge golden moon from the roof of the original Islamic temple.

So enamored by Saraichik's scope and style, Ivan the Terrible made a duplicate of the city (what we call Moscow's Red Square) and then had the entire source of his inspiration destroyed. So it is that his forgery is the only one of its kind.

The excavation of Saraichik started 50 years ago and they're still digging today. The museum has photos showing what the site was like when it first opened. Visitors were able to walk around among the ruins and view entire mass graves with skeletons still in tact. Now, though, the site is overgrown with weeds and the land is in a fragile state. Most unfortunate of all, the skeletons were moved off the site a mere two days before our arrival.

The digging continues though; they've moved to another section of land to continue their search for fortune and glory. Such prosperity won't come to them from tour revenues; the museum visit cost only 200 tenge for the four of us.

Back in Atyrau, we visited Monument Park, essentially a graveyard for Communist-era statues that were scattered around the city. Stalin in particular has fallen on hard times; his bust was shoved off its graffiti-bearing perch and now lies in the mud.

A statue of Lenin as a young boy is there, as well as busts of other men so impressed by their power over others that they figured they needed to be commemorated. They all look angry; perhaps their purpose was to intimidate rather than inspire. After all, would those who masterminded the overthrow of the Czars like to find themselves in the same position later on?

The highlight is a huge statue of Lenin at the end of the park. It's a massive shrine to bravura and ego. Lenin's in full stride, with his trenchcoat rising up behind him. It's hard to tell if it was a breezy day or if he had just broken wind. (It's safe to say subversive stuff like that now.)

Across the street from the park is a unique block. Built by Germans held in a working camp following WWII, one side of the street is a mirror image of the other. But that historic look and atmosphere is now marred. A new building, large and luxurious, is under construction. It stands out from all the others and looks quite out of place. It's a shame to see that history being buried already. But, the city needs to grow and join the modern age. New houses and office buildings are going up all over Atyrau.

To polish off the day, we visited a pizza bar called Venetia, appropriately enough, on what used to be called Lenin Street. I knew I hit pay dirt when I opened the menu and it had, in English, "Food, Drink, and Soul" (the restaurant's motto). The back of the menu also had some text in English about the power of music to transport people to other places, times, and moods, either individually or with the people you love.

It's nice to know there are people all over the world, including Kazakhstan, who speak my language of Soul.

After that, I wound up back where I started, in the Chagala. But with a bed this time. Sometimes it pays to protest.

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