The Journey to Mattyrau
20 June 2002
Grab your maps.
Where in the world is Atyrau, Kazakhstan (Elevation: 100 Feet)?
Kazakhstan is actually a huge desert country located in the armpit formed by Southern Russia and Eastern China. Go south, there's Afghanistan; to the southwest there's Iraq. Iran shares the Caspian Sea as a border with Kazakhstan and apparently there are some "turf wars" ("surf wars"?) going on, causing Iranians to fire off warning shots at Kazakh boats going out to the oil rigs.
The peace talks between nearby India and Pakistan were held in Kazakhstan's former capital, Almaty, a three-hour flight from here. They must've known I was packing vintage Mattopian Whoop Ass! and did not want my summer abroad to turn into a nuclear winter. Days before my arrival in Atyrau, the tensions between India and Pakistan finally cooled off. We all know my reputation precedes me.
For an extra sense of "danger," there's H2S, hydrogen sulfide. It's of particular concern to workers out on the oil rigs. Basically a gas lodged in the ground, within seconds of exposure to the stuff your sense of smell is destroyed. Within a minute, you're dead. I was told a particularly large release of the gas once got in the air and wafted over an oil town, killing everybody. Then I was told this region allegedly has a very high concentration of H2S. Woo-hoo!
The name Kazakhstan conjures up certain images. But, for clarification, just because it's a "-stan" country doesn't signify it's predominately Muslim. Kazakhstan is still recovering from a Communist hangover, so there really isn't much religion of any kind here. Even that's changing, though. The golden steeples of a church can be seen off in the distance. A Muslim church.
With all those considerations, needless to say, safety is a major concern. Everybody gets enrolled in evacuation insurance. I've never had that coverage before.
On the nifty side, the Ural River serves as the dividing line between Asia and Europe, and it's right in my backyard. Sunday morning I crossed the river and found myself in Europe (granted, it's quintessential BFE, but Europe nonetheless). Crossing back over, I returned to Asia.
As for Atyrau itself, picture a Mexican border town, albeit a large one, with 300,000 people sipping Vodka instead of Tequila. Atyrau's a town struggling to pull itself out from the shadows of Lenin and Marx. The efforts are starting to pay off. Even so, the average Kazakh's annual income is $2,400 US (less than the value of the laptop, CDs, CD player, Canon camera, zoom lens, and cell phone I'm lugging around here in a single backpack).
But, before you can experience Kazakhstan, you have to: 1) Survive the voyage and 2) Go through hazing by cold and stone-faced customs agents.
1) The Journey
The trip from Amsterdam included a couple hours of layover in Budapest. The time was spent sippihg a beer while waiting in the Business Center for a woman to arrive with plane tickets to Atyrau. Earlier that morning, I had picked up my tickets for the Amsterdam/Hungary legs at Schiphol - along with my passport, now proudly displaying a Kazakh visa. It was last-minute timing at its finest.
The nearly four-hour flight was on Atyrau Airways and featured a Soviet jet plane that probably transported Brezhnev. It was amazing it got off the ground and even more amazing when it landed and came to a grinding halt.
On board was an international assembly of oil workers (a mix of Italian, American, English, Scottish, German... you name it). There were only four females on the flight. Two were stewardesses; one never smiled, the other tried to compensate and made things as pleasant as possible. As for the two civilians, one was somebody's wife and the other was a Kazakh antique.
Making my experience all the more pleasant, I was seated next to a German who spoke virtually no English. Then again, I wasn't up for practicing my weak German, either. We did have some amusement, though, in figuring out the tray tables. We were seated in an exit row, so we had a bit extra leg room. But the tray tables in the seats in front of us didn't extend out far enough to be practical. They were using the ol' tray table in your arm rest trick. It was a table that had to be removed entirely from the arm rest, folded open, then installed in the slots of the arm rests. Woo-hoo!
I discovered it. And I was sitting next to an engineer who almost had to takes notes on how I did it.
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