Kazakhstan is a big country, the ninth largest on earth, and very diverse. Atyrau is 2700km from the old capital Almaty. Everybody says that Almaty is lovely.In Atyrau, happy couples have wedding photos taken under a statue of war heroes in a city square that is still a work in progress. Or they drive out towards the airport to Atyrau’s other famous site – an old aeroplane abandoned in a field.
Beauty spots in Atyrau are rather thin on the ground. As is grass.
Though Kazakhstan claims to have bred the apple as an indigenous fruit, no trees of any sort sprout naturally on the salty soil around the town, but a few spindly specimens have recently been planted.
Agriculture is all but impossible in a climate where it freezes solid for months in winter, then reaches over 40 degrees in a blazing dry summer. Aytrau is famous for dust.
‘Is this your first time in Atyrau?’ I’m asked.
‘You mean, people sometimes come back?’ I’m tempted to reply.
It’s unfair to be too tough on Atyrau. It makes no claims to be a tourist mecca. It’s a fishing village, which through no fault of its own happened to be close to where oil and gas were struck, quickly turning it into a boom town.
People don’t come here for the sightseeing, they come to work hard and make money.
Regular flights into the airport bring workers ready to start a 28-day shift. They put in long hours, and when it’s time to get back to real life, they pocket their cash and fly out via Moscow or Amsterdam.
Kazakhstan has become a melting pot for people from other ‘stans’. There are opportunities here. Forbes magazine recently reported that the number of billionaires is growing faster in Kazakhstan than anywhere else in the world, albeit from a low base.
Buildings are springing up all over Atyrau, and rents are skyrocketing. In the supermarket I visited, prices seemed to be roughly the same as in other western countries. Fruit and vegetables looked fine, but meat and fish looked a bit iffy.
When assessing traditional Kazakh food, one has to remember that it’s the cuisine of a nomadic people. Nobody carries a fridge on a packhorse, so whatever keeps the salmonella at bay is a good thing.
What I sampled wasn’t too bad.
Horsemeat sausage (shuzuck) is lean, dark and gamey. I washed it down with a cup of fermented camel milk (shubut), like thin, tangy yoghurt. Dried horse milk is converted into small salty, cheesy rolls, the size and shape of cocktail frankfurts. Easiest to take to are the baursaki, a sort of doughnut.Atyrau lacks a real centre or a real heart, but the Russian Orthodox church and the Mosque provide visual focal points.
I heard an interesting story about the icons. During the soviet time they were hidden in the houses of ordinary parishioners for eighty or ninety years, then when Kazakhstan achieved independence, they were returned to the church.
I don’t find them beautiful – over the top, to tell the truth, but I do enjoy stories like that.
He used to stand on a prominent city square, but he’s now been moved to where he strides along a narrow lane behind a row of apartments.
On the back of his left calf is Kazakh graffiti (yes, it’s everywhere in the world) through which young people are declaring their love, but not for Vladimir.
After a three day visit I can’t claim to know very much at all about Kazakhstan. There’s a lot I have yet to see, and I would like to get to the eastern side of the country too.
Atyrau is far from spectacular. It may never attract a lot of tourists, but as with so many other places in the world, people live there, work there, eat there, enjoy the company of their friends and families and life goes on.