Zh...zh...zh...Zhezkazgan!

Zhezkazgan Travel Blog

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Sunrise over the steppe

Once in awhile I look at a map and find a place with a name that's so catchy or unusual that I feel compelled to go there. Plunked almost exactly in the center of Kazakhstan, Zhezkazgan fit the bill. Actually, it also appeared to be a convenient way to get from Kyzylorda to Karaganda, as it is almost exactly halfway between the two cities. Otherwise I would have to backtrack the equivalent of two days or take a 20+ hour ride on a train, neither of which I was wanting to do.

Gabit drove me to the bus station and there I saw the bus that would take me 10 hours to this remote outpost I'd chosen as my next destination.

The bus to Zhezkazgan
The bus was small--only 16 seats--and resembled a church bus in shape, size and color. However, upon entering the bus I noticed there were more bags haphazardly scattered over every possible piece of floorspace than passengers, and I could tell it would be a long ride in more ways than one. Gabit tossed my bag on the heap of other baggage and wished me luck. I climbed into a padded seat next to an unemotional middle-aged man in military fatigues. He did not change expressions the entire trip. We left promptly at 8am but it was still dark. The sun didn't rise until 9am, at which time I was thankful for the crimson drapes that shielded my eyes.

The road was decent for about the first 25 minutes. Then we continued for the next 425 kilometers or so along a road that had more topography than the surrounding landscape.

Lunch stop and posing with the driver
Unlike most trips, I did not (could not) sleep and observed that between Kyzylorda and about 15 kilometers south of Zhezkazgan, there were absolutely no towns whatsoever, not even a small village. What we did pass, aside from endless steppe, were the surreal pitstop houses, a total of about 5, about 90 kilometers apart. The first stop, after about 100 kilometers was for lunch. The house doubled as a cafe, and most of the passengers piled into the living room and ordered one of three possible Kazakh national dishes. I had a version of kuurdak that was nothing like the fancy dish I had in Kyzylorda. Outside were chickens running around ramshackle barns, random parts of semi trucks and a pit of smoldering ash. There were actually two outhouses, one made of straw and the other wood, and neither with doors.
Smokestacks indicate we're approaching Zhezkazgan
Since there was hardly any traffic it wasn't much of a concern. The whole scene was fascinating, and I made a mental note to watch Mad Max when I get back to see if this house was included in the film.

We continued along the road, which was actually paved in several stretches of the route, but because the asphalt was not well maintained we drove almost exclusively on the dusty shoulder. Still we managed to run into several bumps, and each time plumes of dust poured in through the cracks along the edges of windows and through the unbolted hatches on top of the bus. Everyone was hacking and coughing, and once when we stopped I heard a noise that I swore was a moaning cow until I realized it was emanating from one of the large women on the bus. Throughout much of the ride, however, I was able to maintain a sense of comfort due to the padding of the seat.

Zhezkazgan at twilight
It also helped that I could occasionally play the Snake Xenzia game on my cell phone to pass the time, reaching several high scores despite the jarring bumps.

About 20 minutes south of Zhezkazgan, cell phone reception resumed and everyone grabbed their phone and started calling and texting. Eric had told me he had friends here too, so I told him I was nearing the city. We pulled into the modern bus station around 5pm, which was actually an hour early. I entered the station and asked about connections to Karaganda, and while I waited for Eric to get back to me I saw a sign for qonaq uyi, or hotel in Kazakh. When I asked how much, the receptionist said 600 ($5). At first I thought I didn't understand the Russian, but sure enough it was true, and I quickly decided to just stay at the bus station, which would be convenient for catching the bus to Karaganda the next morning.

The main square
I ditched my backpack and tried to catch a little of the city before nightfall.

As sunlight faded, I boarded a bus to the center of town. I got out near a small square and the headquarters of Kazakhmys, one of the largest copper mining companies in the country. I continued walking about three blocks before I came to a large intersection and what was clearly the center of town: a wide square featuring a blaring television screen, a statue of a Kazakh hero and an enormous government building. On the other side was a boulevard and park that led to another major street and a nightclub. At the end of the park was a dull metal statue with a spiky orb on top, supposedly representing copper ore. Back at the main square I noticed a Russian Orthodox church a short walk beyond the government building.

Another look at the square
The city was rather small--about 90,000--but there were some restaurants and a couple clubs, and when I went to have dinner at a cafe bar, I saw some girls sitting at a table smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and noted that this was no provincial village. I ordered chicken shashlyk and a spicy cheese-garlic salad before heading around the corner and checking emails.

I took a taxi back to the bus station for the equivalent of a couple dollars and entered the bus station to go take a shower. The lady who had checked me in stopped me to ask if someone else could stay in my room since I had two beds. I didn't really feel comfortable leaving my stuff unattended with someone I didn't know, let alone having to deal with communication so I gave my best uncomfortable face and it worked. During my shower a persistent Russian woman knocked on the door repeatedly but I have no idea what she wanted. It was pretty clear that I was taking a shower and couldn't open the door without exposing myself. But she left and then it was silent. I was glad to be able to set my alarm for a half hour before I needed to be on the bus. I fell asleep happy with my decision to go to Zhezkazgan. There wasn't much to see but sometimes those are the best places for me.

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Sunrise over the steppe
Sunrise over the steppe
The bus to Zhezkazgan
The bus to Zhezkazgan
Lunch stop and posing with the dri…
Lunch stop and posing with the dr…
Smokestacks indicate were approac…
Smokestacks indicate we're approa…
Zhezkazgan at twilight
Zhezkazgan at twilight
The main square
The main square
Another look at the square
Another look at the square
Zhezkazgan
photo by: sayohat