Explorer Mikael Strandberg

A Visit To The Mountain Of Steel

Yesterday we went for a quick visit to Temirtau, which in Kazakh means the Steel Mountain, together with good friends. Its reputation as the AIDS capital of Kazakhstan had been in our minds before the visit and as usual one has a tendency to imagine something really, really bad. But, also as usual, in my experience as regards to most places I have been to with bad reputations, in reality it was quite different. I have noticed that the reputation of these bad name places often have many years on their necks and that a lot of information is out of date. And when it comes to a country like Kazakhstan, like all other countries which once was part of the Soviet Union, the break up was very difficult and caused a lot of social misery and problems. For this reason, when I came back last night I did some research and found out that the peak of the problem was 1997. So the reason for Temirtau´s negative reputation is due to the financial difficulties and layoffs following Kazakhstan´s independence and the low prices on drugs and alcohol. Apparently the price of a hypodermic needle filled with drugs was (is) cheaper than a shot of vodka. The towns dependence on the steel plant which has made the town famous in a positive way is still today enormous. With a French-Indian owner today, Arcelor-Mittal, it still employs 35 000 people and is one of the biggest integrated steel plants in the world, and lots of people come here looking for work. And this is where the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev started his career!

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The story of the president is amazing in many ways. He is really THE self made man who have made it from a simple beginning and a nomadic existence in the mountains to a very successful president of the 9th biggest country in the world. And along this fascinating route he worked the blast furnace at the steel mill in Temirtau and this is where he joined the communist party, which started his political career. The former UK cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken has written a positive and fascinating biography of the man with the title Nazarbayev and the making of Kazakhstan. There´s plenty of material on his time in Temirtau in the book.

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I found Temirtau a likable place and it was easy to see the importance it had played during the Soviet Era. The streets we walked where wide and surrounded by old and new apartments buildings, super markets, ice rinks, sports arenas, the presidents museum, old Soviet statues and many sides of the high rise buildings sporting big paintings depicting Kazakh traditions like a hunting eagle, two humped camels and images from Astana. There was a tram line and people, as always dressed in dark clothes, huddled up and hurried for home. I also noticed the ever present pawn brokers, Lombard. We saw 5 of them on a distance of 250 meters, which of course is a sign that there´s a certain amount of problems in the town. But, as usual, I saw far less signs of misery like for example alcoholism than I have seen in many other countries. Obviously we didn´t have enough time to make any serious judgement, but I am basing my observations on 30 years of travel and walking places as a great joy. Walking with eagle eyes. But, at the end of the day, they´re just observations. Not profound analysis.

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On route to the steel plant, we passed a wedding. This time a Russian one. It had a feel of the wild west over it and the couple seemed very happy. Later on we visited an Indian restaurant (great, authentic Indian Rogan Josh!) at the Steel Hotel, just off the plant, and there was a reception for a Kazakh wedding, which was very different in style, but the similarity with the Russian Kazakh one, was the decorated cars and the eternal film maker documenting every aspect of the this celebration known. Like a yawning kid. Thank God I don´t have to do this kind of filming to survive! At least not yet….

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As usual the high light is the conversation I have had with locals he past week. I know quite a few read my blog and have opinions about what I have written. Lately many have had opinions about my comparison in some instances, like museums, between the elder generation and Feliks Dzerzhinsky in behavior. And they all say I am right. One lady said:

“My grand dad was in the KGB and at home we were never aloud to laugh, play or talk loud. So it is just as you wrote.”

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Another one told me that there´s a major difference between the locals of Timertau and Karaganda. he was himself from Karaganda, but working at the steel plant in Timertau and he said that the locals in Timertau was more negative, everything was complicate and they had a darker mood than people of the bigger city of Karaganda. Which makes a lot of sense to me who once work in a sub place to a steel plant. People who live in places of factories where hard labor is needed to survive tends to be more cynical and make life come across more as a slog. And these are generally, yes, I am generalizing, not to interested in travel or socializing with people from other cultures. It has been the same in all over a hundred countries I have visited.

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For anyone interested in pre and post Soviet, Temirtau is great in many ways. I really enjoyed it and one of the important duties left by Lenin was the subbota or the subbotnik scheme where you do some voluntary work for the commune, like cleaning the streets. And they were spotless in Temirtau. A place well worth a long trip to visit. I understand the led levels in people are very high here, so is the smell from the plat some days plus the smog created by the eternal smoke from the chimneys, but of this we saw or felt nothing during our visit.

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It is -16 degrees below zero now and there´s an evil wind, 4-5 m/s in bursts, which is tough on the face in a way I haven´t felt since Yakutia. I love it! It caught me this morning when I had to run to the pharmacy to get medicine for my beloved Dana who has picked up impetigo due to the cold. So, with the help of Nazym, who´s mother is doctor, we figured out what all those spots on her bum were. This is another great thing with Karaganda and Kazakhstan, people are very helpful and somebody always knows somebody who can help. So I just sent an image to Nazym who should here mother and it took a few minutes to get an answer!

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