Sunday, August 16

In the Tien Shan to Kolsay Lake

We turn south from Altyn-Emel, and cross the Steppe towards the Tien Shan. This is big-sky country. A cloudburst on the open steppe is dumping rain over a small patch - you see it in the far distance an hour away, as you drive up and speed through the splatter you know exactly where it is going to stop, and past that point the rain is in your rear view. In that wet patch are tall trees, maybe Boreas conspires with the Altai to drizzle everyday exactly on a glade of Chione.

Our immediate destination is the village of Sati in the foothills, gateway to the Kolsay National Park.

Leading up to Altyn Emel via Kapchagay, every few miles Dima's radar-detector would chirp and he'd slow to a crawl, on best behavior as we passed a police car hidden in the bushes. Usually Aleksander would gesture to me to cut out the video camera: "Our police are ... unpredictable." As we turn to the hills, the police checkpoints disappear - for we are so close the Kyrghyz border that peace is kept by Border Security, who are more interested in smugglers than speeders.

On the approach to Zhalanash and Sati, where the road starts climbing up from the flat steppe onto the front range, lie scattered the abandoned barns and paddocks of a kolkhoz, or collective farm, now overgrown with wildflowers. Kolkhozes, and their nationalized counterparts, sovkhozes, made up the socialized farm sector that emerged as Soviet agriculture after the October Revolution of 1917, ruthlessly enforced as antitheses to family-farming.

A kolkhoznik was paid a share of the farm’s product according to the number of workdays, while a sovkhoz employed salaried workers. The kolkhozes were required to sell their grain to the State at fixed prices. These procurement prices were set very low. In 1948 the Soviet government charged wholesalers 335 rubles for 100 kilograms of rye, but paid the kolkhoz roughly 8 rubles. The difference between what the State paid the farm, and what the State charged consumers, represented a major source of income for the USSR.

Members of kolkhoz were allowed to hold a small private plot, and perhaps some animals. The size of the private plot varied over the Soviet period but was usually about 1 acre.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1917 a peasant with less than 13.5 acres was considered too poor to maintain a family, yet the kolkhoznik survived his neo-serfdom by means of these plots - in 1938 4% of total sown land was in the form of private plots, but these plots produced 20% percent of gross agriculture output.

The villagers were required to do a minimum number of days work per year on the kolkhoz. In one kolkhoz the requirement was - a minimum of 130 days a year for each able-bodied adult, and 50 days per boy aged between 12 and 16 - distributed around the year according to seasonal agricultural cycle. If a kolkhoz member did not perform the required quantum of work, penalties might involve public shaming, confiscation of her private plot, and a trial that might result in a year's hard labour at a corrective camp.

In both the kolkhoz and sovkhoz, villagers were prevented from leaving, especially moving from rural areas to towns. In urban areas, a system of internal passports and residence permits existed to control the movement of population, but in the countryside the villagers did not even have the internal passports legally necessary for any domestic movement. Until 1969 all children born on a collective farm were forced by law to work there as adults, unless specifically given permission to leave.

The larger kolkhozes recruited teachers, doctors, smiths as collective members. When the cooperative farm of Zhalanash collapsed along with the Soviet Union, the assets of the kolkhoz were divided up as "privatization". The Sati kolkhoz's primary-school-teacher got (as her share of a lifetime of work) a tractor - that she did not know how to operate nor take care of. It rusted up, and sits there still on the side of the barn, the tendrils of wild peas have enveloped it completely. The teacher went to beg on the streets of Almaty.

Kazakhstan's slow migration up into the ranks of middle income countries is startlingly apparent as you climb the foothills into villages like Zhalanash and Sati. The ruins of the kolkhoz give way to festive alpine scenery - the air crisp, the roads lined with pennants aflutter, a brand new mosque in every corner. We come across a hand-painted sign "Alterations". Aleksander and Dima are comically annoyed - "this place now has a shop for alterations?" We have to stop and go up the country lane to sate their curiosity. Yes, there is indeed an Alterations shop in Sati now; and its main customers are the young border-guard recruits, who are nominally stationed at posts far up in the hills but in practice base themselves in the relative comfort of Sati, where jackets can be cut to the latest trend. We pass a small battery of very young guards.  Aleksander gestures to me to cut out the video camera: "Our border guards are ... unpredictable."

Past Sati, the road ends. We drive up steep and dubious-looking trails, hugging the Kolsay and Kaindy streams rushing headlong to join the Chilik on it way to Bartogai reservoir.  At the park entrance a padlocked barrier has been placed across the track - no one is in evidence. We wait, then Dima starts leaning on the horn. Lace curtains of the cottage at the back part; the ranger's wife pads out, to scowl at our paperwork and permits. We wait, splashing cold snowmelt from the Kolsay onto our faces, welcome relief from the heat of the sand dunes we have left  behind. After a long time, the woman has read every line of every form we have, and her face breaks out in a serene smile. Bul üşin barlıq ğoy - it's all in order! She gestures us on. But what about the padlocked barrier? Oh, just tug at the lock, it has no key. Everyone knows that!

We climb up. The last 3 kms are quite treacherous, 15-degree grade, hairpins and switchbacks on loose hillside gravel. Dima spins his wheels a few times, precariously close to a 500 ft drop into one abyss or another. At a couple of places, we stop to break branches off trees that have grown into this trail since someone last came up  - in order to make enough space for our vehicle. As we lurch up, we disturb a bobak, a Central Asian marmot or "prairie dog" (marmota bobak) A colony of bobak possibly helped the bubonic plague epidemic along as a reservoir host. Plague is caused by the bacterium yersinia pestis, commonly present in populations of fleas carried by ground rodents, including marmots, in various areas of Central Asia. Nestorian graves dating to 1338 near Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan (about 10 miles from where we are) have inscriptions referring to the Plague, and are thought by many epidemiologists to mark the outbreak of the epidemic. In the 14th century, plague killed 25 million people in Asia, before crossing over to Europe and killing another 100 million people there - between 30 and 60% of the population in the worst-affected areas - as Black Death. We hobnob not with the bobbing bobak.

The heat and dust of the plains become a memory - the air is crisp, rain showers swirl through, apple blossoms and wildflowers are everywhere, the track is carpeted by wild alpine strawberry. Mid-afternoon, we roll down ahead of a gathering cloud-bank to the lake.


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