A small town in southern Kazakhstan, one of those places forgotten by time. Devoid of middle aged people, just the elderly and children. Most young men travel to other parts of the country to work in mining, petroleum or agriculture, sending their money back to small towns like this, the only thing keeping them alive. Some of course stay behind to work for the government providing basic maintenance of roads, or run the local of post office. A small shop sells day to day basics. There doesn’t seem to be anything to do in this town if you live there. We asked locals what we should do during our stay in this step back in time, to which we got the same response every time – go to the park.
It seems that sitting around is really the only thing to do. Everyone seemed content and there was lots of chatting going on, although I’m not sure what they would find to chat about each day. Achisay used to be a town of 20,000 people, with employment centred around the large lead mine in town. Today there are technically around 4,000 people living in the town, but many aren’t there at any time, working in other parts of the country, in one of the major cities to study and so on, so in reality there are probably never more than 2,000 people there at any one time.
The mine here closed years ago, but the locals told us that regularly outside businessmen, including large Chinese companies, have come to study whether it’s viable to reopen the mines. Many locals told us they were extremely happy that a recent potential deal with a Chinese mining company had fallen through, as they would prefer to struggle through their current economic conditions that have their life completely spoiled by a large Chinese company coming in and changing the face of their town.
The local House of Culture is the focal point for anyone wishing to explore the Soviet past of this once prosperous mining town. In a strange occurrence for Kazakhstan, the large Lenin Statue still has pride of place out the front. As we were taking photos a local man came up asking for money to buy vodka. If you had to give him credit for one thing, it was his honesty. No lies were made up, just he was an old man living in a quiet town who wanted a drink. We told him we didn’t have money to give him, to which he responded that it was alright, he could accept a bank transfer.
We spoke to some local ethnically Kazakh women, now in their 60s, who were born in the town and in their youth worked in the canteen of the mine. They told us how they begrudge the then majority Russian population of the town for mostly leaving and going back to Russia, while they were stuck there as they had no other home.
We ventured into the post office to ask if they had any advice on some unknown sites in town. While chatting to the two young guys in there, our drunk friend from earlier arrived. I suppose another point of credit to him. We had driven maybe 3km across the small town and he had made the trip on foot not much slower than how long it took us to drive. This was a man very desperate for a drink. Although drunks are common all over the world, what was interesting was how frustrated the other locals got with this man. Rather than ignoring him or laughing him off, they were telling him that it was disgraceful to ask guests in the town for money and that he was giving guests a bad impression of the town. An interesting level of pride for a place that’s mostly abandoned and falling down. I guess they don’t get many outsiders visiting, let alone foreigners, so they want to make a good impression on the ones that have made the trip.
The post office workers suggested we check out the mine itself, what made this town exist in the first place. So they jumped in their old Lada and we followed. A couple of minutes drive and we were at the entrances to one of the mines. Built in 1967, as we learned from the lettering at the top of the structure, apparently this shaft went 7km into the mountains, but we could only enter a small amount as the mine had completely filled up with water. What was really cool though, literally, was that from about 5m away, you could feel a strong blast of cold air coming from the opening. Not cool, like when you walk through a green area or a stream, but proper cold.
We then continued walking around, one refreshing aspect to the town was that it seemed no one closed or locked their doors. This meant we could walk into the apartment blocks to have a look around, which those who were still living there seemed perfectly happy with. It seems that each building that contains 20 apartments, maybe 3 or 4 were being lived in.
You could tell that many of the buildings were considered to be very luxurious and grand when they were built, and that this town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere was somewhat important, given the number of parks, wide roads and facilities you could see they once had. There were even two large schools and a Palace of Sport.
Sometimes when peering into other people’s life, it can feel like you’re treating people as an exhibit, but that wasn’t the feeling we got from Achisay. Possibly because we were the probably the first western tourists to ever visit this town, they were quite pleased that we were looking around. Everyone came up to us to ask us where we were from, and you could sense the sigh of relief, quickly followed by some polite confusion, when we told them we were tourists and not working for a mining company.