In early November, 2002, I was contacted by a major Japanese investment banking company to evaluate an uranium solution mining project inside Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
Having never been to Kazakhstan I viewed this opportunity as an adventure. Fortunately for me my carrier excursion on the USS Roosevelt came to a completion
a few days before I needed to fly to Almaty, Kazakhstan. I departed Dulles Airport the evening of December 8th for Alamty with a stop in Frankfurt, Germany.
The flight across the Altantic to Frankfurt took 7 1/2 hours. The final leg of the flight also took 7 1/2 hours and I safely arrived at 10:30PM in Almaty.
Since I was traveling without a visa and only had a letter of invitation, I needed to secure a visa at the Consular's office at the airport.
Something that should have taken a few minutes ended up requiring several hours as of the high number of travelers on my plane that were also traveling
without visas. The lone employee who was working with pen and paper in one hand, and chain smoking with the other, required several smoke breaks in addition
to his chain smoking to handle the 16 souls needing visas as me.
Fortunately my driver stayed the 2+ hours until I made it out of the airport and drove me to the Ankara Regent, a 5 star hotel.
Kazak National Flag
Ankara Regent Hotel
The next morning I arose from a brief rest (there is a 12 hour time difference between Texas and Eastern Kazakhstan) to meet my client and attend several meetings.
But first a little information pertaining to Kazakhstan.
A former republic of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was literally a nomadic entity until the 1920s when the Soviets introduced (forced) collective farming. Since
many Kazaks were untrained in this endeavor, many perished. Approximately four times the size of Texas and containing 15 million inhabitants the country has
3 time zones and is rich in natural resources. Namely oil, gas, and other minerals. The Soviets conducted a vast mineral exploration program throughout the contry
and develop many "greenfields" of proven reserves for future development. Since the early 90s many multi-nationals have discovered Kazakhstan and are assiting in developing
its natural resources, namely oil and gas around the Caspian Sea in the western area of Kazakhstan.
North East Kazakhstan was later used as an above ground nuclear testing by the Soviets and
till this day there is much radioactive contamination in this region of Kazakhstan. With the collaspe of the Soviet Union in 1991 Kazakhstan expereinced a brief time of wild
inflation (>1,100%). But once they introduced their own currency the Tenge (Ten-gay), inflation has been manageable to around 14%.
After several technical meetings in Almaty, the financial capital, our group of four (two translators, me, and the Japanese client) boarded a vintage twin engine
passenger plane....circa 1960s. No oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling in case of depressization, no reading lights or air vents. Just a collapsible seat to
belt yourself to. The flight took us to Kyzylorda, a town approximately 600 miles to the West, a former capital of Kazakhstan back in the middle 1920s. From there we boarded small cars and drove another 100 miles
in a southeasterly direction until we arrived at Sheiley, a mining town.
I will discuss some of the new experiences I encountered while a guest. For dinner I sampled camel's milk, horse,
along with vegetables and breads. I was humbled to discover they considered me the guest of honor and accordingly positioned me at a very
prominent position around the dinner table.
The main course was lamb which I enjoy very much. I discovered unexpectedly that it was customary for the honor guest to
be served the ram's head on a platter. I was instructed to cut a piece from the ram's head and pass it to the youngest sitting at the table and cut another piece for the oldest, which
was me. Volka was flowing as each person was required to make a toast.
Map of Kazakhstan
Honary Ram's Head
That evening, you can be assured, I slept well. I discovered in the middle of the night, since I was still a little jet-lagged, that the water
to the building was off. I later found out the next morning that the water is turned off between midnight and 6:00 AM each day but that very soon it
will be operating 24 hours a day. Fortunately I had snared a bottle of water prior to retiring for the evening and was able to hydrate myself.
The next morning I attended several technical meetings and toured an uranium recovery facility. Quite different in comparison to US solution mining operations.
Because of my barriage of questions we were several hours late for lunch.
Lunch was being served at the proposed project site which was even more remote.
But first we had to drive back through Shieley. I requested a walk through a shopping area and we stopped at the town's open air bazar. Mechandise
of all types was being sold in booths. It was quite cold this day (0 degrees) but the shop keepers were there from morning to night afterwhich they
had to pack up their merchandise only to be laid out the following day.
I found this scene very interesting and wished I had time to spend taking pictures. However lunch was waiting.
After a 25 kilometer drive over a bumpy cattle trail we arrived at the camp site along side the Syr Darya River, their Mississippi River.
About 100 yards in width, ice packs were easily spotted flowing northwest toward the Aral Sea, some 500 kilometers away. The Aral Sea receives water from
the Syr Darya through Kazakhstan and the Amu Darya through Uzbekistan. In the last 30 years much water has been diverted from both these rivers
to irrigate cotton and rice fields. As a consequence the shoreline of the Aral Sea has withdrawn 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Aralsk, a city on
the northern shore. The map attached to this website is an old one of the Aral Sea. Today the Aral Sea is divided into two parts. The Small Aral Sea in
the north, and the Big Aral Sea in the South. The Aral sea has become more salty because its fresh water course has dried up. This has resulted in
fish dying because of the resulting hyper-salinity.
Traditional Robe and Hat
Lunch was held inside the little green school bus. It was so cold that each person's breathe was easily seen with each exhale. The first course was
fish soup. It consisted of a soup bowl with the boiled head of a carp prominently displayed, eyes and all. I did not get a picture of this treat as I
was too busy enjoying it. Of course horse, mutton, and other unmentionables were served. Yes, there was a round of toasting at the conclusion of the meal.
The group then traveled 1.5 kilometers to the center of a proposed project for some target shooting.
That evening another four course meal was serve with the expected condiments and refreshments. At the conclusion of yet another round of toasting, a local troupe of
musicians arrived to play the Kazak native folk instrument, the Dombra. With only two strings on the Dombra these artists could really get it humming and it sounded like
a 6 string guitar. Our host ceremoniously presented Dombras to me and my Japanese Client, Masashi Nishimura.
The Flying "Dombras"
Again that evening we retired a bit light-headed from all the drinking ceremonies. Arising the next morning we had one last meeting before heading
back, first by car and then by plane, to Almaty. Arriving by air in Almaty at 6:00PM the snow flurries were flying as we drove back to the hotel and a light
meal of lamb. The next morning there were additional meeting before retiring in the early afternoon. My departing flight back to the US was scheduled
to depart Saturday morning at 4:00AM. Not much rest was obtained that evening as I had my alarm set for 1:30AM inorder to pack and check-out by 2:15AM for
my ride back to the airport. Flying from Almaty to Frankfurt one passes just south of Moscow. Moscow at 35,000 feet in the early morning hours was
an awesome site for this Cold War survivor. You could actually see the ring of street lights lighting the roads that circled the city.
In conclusion one of my Kazak hosts was also a photography hobbyist and a mountain hiker. The following are some views of Kazahstan from the mountains
south of Almaty last Fall season.