Continental Divide

in which we appreciate and revel in the absurdity that there is supposedly a firm distinction between Europe and Asia. Said differently, we crossed the Ural River.

Atyrau — Green City. Deceptive is all I’ll say about that.

It’s hardly original to critique the whole Europe-Asia divide. And any Russian or Soviet historian has read endlessly on the whole Europe-Asia thing. That a dinky mountain range and not especially impressive river could mark a border between continents is a bit hilarious, all things considered, but I guess we’re all hip and educated enough to know that the whole continent thing is a bit passé anyway. Still, there’s something delightfully absurd about the fact that, on a technical level, part of Kazakhstan is, in fact, in Europe. That is, some cities — notably Atyrau and Uralsk (not Aralsk) — are located right on the Ural (and a few smaller palces to the European side of it). Needless to say, when our bus approached the river, I was absolutely delighted to see that Atyrau had embraced the absurdity. So after our bus had reached Europe, we hopped off and did the most logical thing: we went back to Asia.

And of course, got our requisite shots halfway — oh Atyrau, if only you could have made a nice marking on the bridge, so we could stride the continental divide! I guess we’ll have to go (back) to (near) Ekaterinburg for that one. Still, here we are, between Europe and Asia.

After we had taken sufficient pictures, we headed onwards to take in what there was to see of the city. I had been told not to bother with Atyrau by a former co-worker from my Astana Embassy days, now based in Moscow, and we had initially had all intentions of taking the advice until tickets to Aktau unexpectedly sold out, and the detour to Atyrau, though necessitating a cheap flight, saved us 17 hours in train travel and put us in Aktau 12 hours earlier. So a small taste we got. It was more than enough. It can be summed up basically in to two categories. Soviet architecture and oil/gas infrastructure. You see, Atyrau is an oil town, and commands plenty of money and development, despite its drab appearance. Also, it was really hot. Another 100 degree day for the books. So we cooled off a bit. Maki opted for the fountain, but I obviously was going to stick my feet in the the river. I tasted it, too. Much nicer than the Aral. Shocker.

I didn’t really take a picture of the endless Khrushchev-era housing complexes, slightly more stylized than others, but still in the realm of being the “epoch of reinforced concrete” (quote from a 1962 Soviet film, an adaption of a Shostakovich production, SERIOUSLY). We stopped in a grocery store for some needed cash and water, before braving the heat to the only noteworthy site in town: the Orthodox church. It was… fine.

And then headed back towards the monument structures!

This would be a much cooler monument if it weren’t pretty much like every other monument in that country.

Also on the main square, “Atyrau — My Pride.” Actually, here it doesn’t looks so bad!

But… after an hour or so of wandering, we were done. So we did the next best thing. We went to the mall for some food. And then caught a cab to the airport. It was really just time to go, and we were most thankful to have only had a few hours to kill in the city itself. And also for the free Wi-fi at the airport.

Atyrau airport — really tiny and delightfully close to the city center!

We waited for our flight, and when the appointed time had past, they finally started to board us. Flight scheduling essentially dictated that rather than travel on the comfortable, modern Air Astana, we were scrimping on the Air SCAT flight, complete with propeller plane. And no aisle space. Dubious air conditioning. Lax security. There’s a reason this company isn’t allowed to fly in Europe!

A picture to illustrate just how much a step back in time this plane is. A (probably) late-Soviet Tupolev.

It certainly wasn’t the most Soviet flight experience I had — still, sitting next to the wing, our hour-long flight was LOUD. But also offered our first views of the Caspian.

Maki was lucky to have basically slept through most of the flight. But we arrived, safe and sound, in Aktau, in Southwestern Kazakhstan, and before we knew it, we had made our way to our cheap hotel and enjoyed some excellent shashlyk at the next-door cafe. It was time for Western Kazakhstan.

The Aktau airport.

We would be staying in the area for a while — five nights total, but with a two night excursion off into the bizarre, alien landscape of Mangistau already by the following afternoon. Still, making it to Aktau felt like an accomplishment, and we retired, proud of our feat in making it to the Caspian coast.

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