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Through Russian Central Asia,
    1916, by Stephen Graham, p.226-235:


Over the Siberian Border

    ...Sergiopol [Ayagoz, Kazakhstan] is a place of little significance. But the next town, Semipalatinsk [Semey, Kazakhstan], in Siberia, is a large colonial town, with over 35,000 inhabitants—larger, even, than Verney [now Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata]. But Siberia is an old-established Russian colony, while Seven Rivers [Zhetysu, Semirechye] began only fifty years ago, and was a desert.

    Perhaps even now it is little more than a desert qualified by irrigation. The obstacles in the way of successful settlement have been tremendous. Still, these obstacles are being overcome. The result of half a century's work is a measure of clear success and a healthy promise. Hundreds of Russian villages have established themselves, and the channels of small trade have been kept open. Yellow deserts have become green with verdure, and chains of oases have been made. Russian schools and Russian churches have arisen on the northern side of India, and an essentially Christian culture is spreading in a way that is clearly profitable to the Old World.

    The colony sadly needs a railway, and the railway is being built quickly, even now, in the time of the war. For the Kirghiz [Kyrgyz], who do most of the labour, are not required for military service. When the railway comes, more people will come with it, more colonists, more traders, and they will take away the products which the farmers would gladly sell. We are accustomed to think of railways spoiling districts, but Russian Central Asia, with its empty leagues of sand and barrenness, will only profit by the railway.
    The railway must go east from Tashkent all the way to Verney, and probably as far as Kuldja [Ghulja, Yining], in China, then northward, through Iliisk and Sergiopol, to Semipalatinsk, through Siberian farms and settlements, forests and marshes, to the Siberian main line at Omsk. This will greatly strengthen the Russian Empire when it is achieved. It will be a wise measure of consolidation.

    M. de Vesselitsky, in his able book on Russia, remarks that whereas in 1906 the population of Canada was greater than that of Siberia, in 1911 Siberia had two million more inhabitants. This is the more astonishing because Canada has splendid and populous towns, whereas Siberia has only three cities of over a hundred thousand inhabitants.
    A strange contrast to European Russia, this Asiatic Russia; no Court, no Emperor, no aristocracy, no modern aims or claims, no power—in a sense, human tundra and taiga, though many millions are living there. Then a power enters it, commercial capital and the Russian desire to get rich, and Siberia begins to seek new wealth. European Russia and the dazzling if somewhat tawdry West begin to hear of the wealth of Siberia. Our civilisation, the centre of attraction, draws from all the outside wilds and wildernesses gold, precious stones, skins. So we help Siberia in the material sense and set its industrial life a-going.


On The Irtish

    The most interesting circumstance in the history of Semipalatinsk up till now is that Dostoieffsky [Fyodor Dostoyevsky], in exile, was domiciled there. The cities dotting the wastes of Siberia are not notable. They are young, and things have not happened in them. But dreary Semipalatinsk held the mightiest spirit in modern Russia — Fedor Dostoieffsky, the author of "The Brothers Karamazof [The Brothers Karamazov]." So Semipalatinsk, on the loose sands of the River Irtish [Irtysh River], has now its Dostoieffsky house, where Dostoieffsky lived, and a Dostoieffsky street. It will, no doubt, be a place of pilgrimage in the future for those wishing to grasp the significance of the great Russian.

    Semipalatinsk is a dull collection of wooden houses and stores, an important trading centre functionising an immense country-side. What struck me most were the large general shops, with their extensive supplies of manufactured goods and all manner of luxuries. There were at least six department stores, with handsome clocks, vases, bedroom furniture, mandolins, violins, guitars, Vienna boots, American boots, gay hats, silk dresses, wrapped chocolates, promiscuous and lavish supplies of all manner of European goods.
    English wares seemed noticeable chiefly by their absence, and the cutlery was Swedish, the stoves Austrian, the wools and the cottons Russian, the note-paper American or French, the wonderful enamel ware and nickel and aluminium ware German. Only sanitary contrivances, cream separators, and agricultural machinery seemed to be English. How much more of these things might be sent.

    However, with all these signs of luxury — luxury for Russians — Semipalatinsk lacks the graces of a town; has no lighting, no pavement or public place, no theatre, only a cinema. Its prospect is waste, loose sand, which the air holds even in calm — a grit in the eyes and in the mouth. Its trees do not flourish, and only people accustomed to a quiet life could go on living there from year to year. The peasants bring most life into the town, selling their products in the immense open market, or buying manufactured goods to take up-country to their farms.

    The broad River Irtish flows placidly onward, five hundred miles to Omsk and thousands of miles to the Arctic Ocean, and it is navigated by a considerable number of steamers and sailing boats. It is a great waterway — a sort of safer sea in the heart of Asia. The wonder is that more towns have not sprung up on its shores. In the history of the world it has not yet become a typical river. It flows from the silences of the Altai mountains, through the silences of Northern Asia, the noise of man hardly ever becoming more than a whisper upon it. It never becomes

Bordered by cities and hoarse
With a thousand cries,

and it cannot be said that as we go onward to its mouth

Cities will crowd to its edge
In a blacker incessanter line;
That the din will be more on its banks,
Denser the trade on its stream.

It is almost as peaceful and serene as a river in an undiscovered continent.

    At Semipalatinsk I stayed some days before taking boat up-stream to Malo-Krasnoyarsk. It was here that I read of the astonishing intelligence of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his wife. The Russian papers of the time devoted a great deal of space to the details of the murder, the reprisals taken by the Austrians, the gossip of Europe. The preoccupation of the British Press with home affairs was astonishing, and in all the telegraphed opinions of our representative papers there was not an utterance that overstepped the limits of conventionality. Whether the murder was planned politically by Germany, as has been hinted, or planned politically by Serbia for vengeance, or came about accidentally through the passion of a noble Serb, it was hi any case a test phenomenon. It had enormous significance to diplomatists and scanners of political horizons. By the attitude and behaviour of Germany and Austria their intentions, at least in the Near East, could be gauged. But it did not seem of sufficient importance to conscious England.
    The Austrians tried to spread the idea that Russia had contrived and bought the murder of the Archduke because she feared his intentions in the Balkans. But, out of the Germanic dominions, that did not carry weight. Austria manifestly threatened Serbia politically, and some British people scratched their heads and asked questions: "Shall we go to war for Serbia?" Then came the seemingly obvious answer: "No, not for Serbia!" which fairly indicates the blindness of that part of England which was vocal at that time. In that spirit we neglected our duty in connection with the St. James's conference after the first Balkan war, and in that spirit we alienated Bulgaria in the great European war which followed.

    Austria threatened war, and there was clearly the prospect of Austria and Russia fighting. I weighed it up in my mind as I waited at Semipalatinsk, and more than once I asked myself whether I had not better give up my journey onward and go straight to Western Russia. But, deciding I did not want to write war correspondence, I concluded I would continue my way, and rest as I had intended — on the verdant Altai [Altai Mountains].

    So I left Semipalatinsk and went in a little steamer up the narrowing and rocky river, past wooded islands, grey moors, and emerald marshes. It was a long though not monotonous river journey. We stopped at elementary wooden landing-stages beside small hamlets, bought eggs, fish, fruit from peasant women and children, backed out into midstream again, making our big wave that went washing along the banks and drenching incautious boys and girls; we beat up the water with our paddle, turned, saw ourselves clear of the pier, and a widening stretch of water between us and the bank, found our course between the buoys, avoided the weirs and the shallows.

    Morning became hot noon, and the afternoon and twilight tune came on, and then luminous starry night, and again morning and hot noon. We stopped at the little town of Ust-Kamennygorsk [Oskemen, Kazakhstan], the headquarters for several mining camps, a bit of qualified civilisation not unknown to British mining engineers. We had on board a couple of priests, a commercial traveller, some workmen coming back from doing a job, and two dozen raw Cossacks who had been ordered to serve on the Chinese frontier — rather interesting to reflect now how they were travelling away from the place where they would be needed. At that time all the preparations for war were going on apace in Germany; the roads were full of horses newly bought by the Government, the trains full of stores; at the military camps the last manoeuvres were being worked out with full regiments and the complete panoply of war. We in the steamboat were all travelling the wrong way, away from the interest of the world—the centre—up-stream on the fastflowing river, against the currents and the tendencies. A month later all would come back, forced by the declaration of war.

    Still, little we recked. We had a holiday spirit. There were several high-school girls and girl students on board — gimnasistki and kursistki — and the deck was vocal with their chattering and laughing. They were a charming contrast to rough Siberia. The deck passengers drank vodka and sang. Down below deck was a public stove, and there sizzled a score of pots — pots with jam, with eggs, with fish, with chickens, with milk. I made my coffee there, and would frequently see it rising at the boil and be unable to pick the pot out for others tending their fish-soup and women taking the scum off their strawberry jam. At each little village people bought things to cook, so that at times you might have thought it was a sort of cooking expedition.

    So we went on at this momentous time in history. The river became more rapid and difficult to navigate; it serpentined through wild gorges, where the rocks were broken and ragged and squared and angular. The steep cliffs were full of detail that was delicious to the eye. Where the cliffs were not so steep Nature had clothed their nakedness with mould and grass. We passed from placid stretches which seemed to throw the rays of the sun back on the ship, the people and the sky, and we entered the intense cold shadow of high, sheer rocks. The water became green and shadowy.
    The scenery changed every moment as we went round a new bend of the river and entered new territory through forbidding gates of rock. Frequently we found ourselves in foaming cauldrons from which there seemed to be no exit; we wandered round, travelling as often north as south, and catching glimpses of sun from all imaginable quarters, and found loopholes of escape to new reaches. The steamer seemed a toy beside the huge cliffs on each side, and the sunshine, when we came into it, seemed sufficient to blind the whole Altai.

    The higher we pursued our winding way the higher became the cliffs, till eventually we had grey crags of several hundred feet hanging over us. In the earlier gorges the greenness of the vegetation of the hills was reflected in the river in a deep, shadowy green, but in the later ones the drear greyness of the cliffs was alone reflected, and the swift-moving, placid water looked like oil. As far as Gusinaya Pristan trees, birches, but infrequent ones, and growing in haphazard ways from clefts in rocks. Besides our panting, puffing steamer, with its streamer of dense smoke and persistent showers of sparks, there were only rafts on the river — logs roped together, and peasants standing on the water-washed floating platforms. They seemed to be very skilful in managing them.
    On the banks we saw occasional tents and fishermen's tackle, small fires with tripods over them, and old black pots whereby you guessed that fish were cooking. Occasional hay-making parties also visible on the wan outskirts of farms. It was a fascinating journey, and one could not take one's eyes from the changing scene, the prospect from door after door as we passed new rocks, the delicious side views, the clefts and wounds healed with birch trees and greenery, the battered, jaggy prominences, dull blue, purple, yellow with age and many weathers.

    Everyone watched curiously for the next scene, and the change was so frequent that no one got tired. Mountains, ridges — the grandeur of our rock basins multiplied upon us so that we felt we were steadily ascending a high mountain range by river. Night was wonderful, especially when we stopped to put some cargo off or to take on wood, and we got out and walked on the cliffs and the sand; the stars in the sky had their drips of golden reflection in the river, and the opposite banks and rocks were majestically silhouetted against the sky.

    The navigation of this river is, perhaps, one of the sights of the future. "Parties will be taken out." But there is no romance there, no castles, no ruins — only Nature and the grey tumultuous misery and beauty of a scarred continent.

load photo-map above: Semey - Astana - Almaty
    Baikonur Cosmodrome

see also: Russia - Mongolia - China - Turkmenistan - Uzbekistan - Kyrgyzstan

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(GMT+6 includes Astana & Baikonur) with no DST

  Kazakhstan News

    Native Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated into the region in the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.

    During the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Independence in 1991 caused many of these newcomers to emigrate.

    Kazakhstan's economy is larger than those of all the other Central Asian states combined, largely due to the country's vast natural resources and a recent history of political stability. Current issues include: developing a cohesive national identity; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets; achieving a sustainable economic growth; diversifying the economy outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors; enhancing Kazakhstan's competitiveness; and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers.
    The CIA World Factbook: Kazakhstan

Area of Kazakhstan: 2,717,300 sq km
slightly less than 4x the size of Texas

Population of Kazakhstan: 15,399,437
July 2009 estimate

Languages of Kazakhstan:
Kazakh (Qazaq) 64.4%, state language
Russian 95%, official, everyday business

Kazakhstan Capital: Astana

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Through Russian Central Asia Graham 1916
Explorations in Turkestan Pumpelly 1905
Asiatic Russia, v2 Wright 1903
Russia's Railway... into Central Asia Dobson 1890
The life of Yakoob Beg Boulger 1878
A Ride to Khiva Burnaby 1877
Central Asia: ...Aryan to the Cossack Hutton 1875

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