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(Betpak-Dala desert)

Betpak-Dala, a spacious land stretching westwards from lake Balkhash, has for a long time born this not much promising name, translated as barren steppe from Kazakh. The landscape is indeed depressing, only haloxylon and scarce saltworts diversifying its monotony. However, one should just look attentively, and even here an interested person may find a lot of curiosities.


I happened to get to the barren steppe as usual, unexpectedly and spontaneously, thanks to my acquaintance. In the evening I knew by chance that he was going to Betpak-Dala with two foreign ladies, and the next day at 6.00 a.m. I was waiting for them, the backpack behind my back, at the bus stop. In a few hours a rattling UAZ was driving us along Karaganda-Zhezkazgan highway.

Not far from the Ku mountains we stopped for a short while to fill our canisters. Once in these places was a sanatorium, where the treatment was based on using salubrious radon water. I already had a chance to learn its magic properties in childhood, when I greatly cut my fingers with a knife while having a rest in Karkaralinsk. Then every day I went to the well to dip my hand in the radon water. So it came out that the wounds which in usual conditions would have closed up for about three weeks had healed up for less than a week. But no one takes courses of radon water treatment here anymore. With the collapse of USSR, the mines had been closed, and the sanatorium as well. Only a couple of dilapidated houses and a water-pump remind of its existence.

Former uranic mine
Former uranic mine

The last settlement we met on our way was Shalgiya, once a prosperous town with direct Soviet governmental financing. What remained now from the former well-being is only scarce houses which were not demolished, with a few residents who did not want to leave. Uranic mines due to which Shalgiya appeared have not been worked out for a long time. But it was extremely interesting to look at these sights situated southwestwards from the village, though they are not quite safe. Moreover, the road to the geologists camp went through them. The absence of the geologists fear of radiation soon descended on us, though they say that dosimeter peeps here more than usually. Especially beautiful view of the mine which is now filled with water opened from the dump, where I climbed in order to capture a gigantic oval crater in its magnificence.

The road from the mines to geologists camp passed mostly on takyr whose smooth surface would probably let an airplane to land on it like on an ideally flat concrete landing ground. In the evening we arrived at the place where geologists were extracting from the earth the beautiful mossy agate, a very rare and fancy semi-precious stone which is much characteristic of Central Kazakhstan.

In honor of the guests arrival the festive table was laid. The solemnity of the moment redoubled due to the fact that one of the geologists was celebrating his birthday. All in all, the party lasted until nearly three at night. The abundance of food and drinks significantly manifested the mans victory over the natural conditions which were the reason to give the negative name to the desert Betpak-Dala.

I was zealous for taking part in the process of extracting the gems myself, but the weather the next morning made us understand clearly that it was high time our company packed the stuff and set off for home. The drizzle every minute threatened to turn to a real shower which would not let heavy machinery get to a pavement through swollen clay. Within a few hours the camp was struck and our small caravan started its way.

I happened to get in one car with the geologist Volodya who knew almost everything (or everything indeed) about these lands. It was he who told me that formerly southwards of the village lived saigaks. Volodya linked disappearance of the animals up to appearance of the interest to saigak horns, which, as compared with usual shooting for meat that had lasted for centuries, let destroy almost the whole population of the animals within only a few years. Now one happens very seldom to see the saigak here.

Saryshagan test site
Ruins of an air defence station, Saryshagan test site

Betpak-Dala had been for a long time used to test various kinds of armament, as many other deserted areas of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, nuclear charges were not detonated there, because the local test site was designed for antiaircraft defense. It was very interesting for me to look at the remains of the former military power, that is why we turned eastwards and moved to the wrecks of one the sites. All metal details have been appropriated long ago, and only bricks, blocks and other stuff which do not contain metal remained there. What was especially noticeable among these things was missile-points, their height about two meters. Judging by sight, one could think that once the object could not perform its defense function and was destroyed by the enemys rockets so horrible are the ruins of the site, committed by those who chased after metal at the post-Soviet time.

What is interesting is that the would-be existent road to Shalgiya has become practically worthlessness because it was widely used by long-range drivers from South Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. They drove their loaded lorries via Betpak-Dala and tried to evade exactions on the highway M36. Nowadays people rarely drive along the road itself which represents combination of high hummocks and holes, and prefer to move at a small distance from the highway and use it only as a landmark. Driving in such a way, we finally saw far off the lights of the Shalgiya village.

Having stopped at Volodyas friends and drunk some tea, we moved farther. Late at night in Atasu, where we called on a wayside cafe, a car from our caravan overtook us. And then drizzling October rain would accompany us for a long while until the very Karaganda in this trip around Kazakhstan , last for me in the year 2006.

Text Vitaliy Shuptar, 2007.
Photos Alexandr Yermolyonok, Vitaliy Shuptar, Irina Kuryanova, 2005-2007.
Translation from Russian Olesya Pokhlebina, 2007

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