After two long flights from Istanbul, I had arrived in Narnia, or Ust-Kamenogorsk as it was locally known. A former Russian city until 1918 and then Soviet until the independence in 1991, the town’s economy was based around an abundance of valuable minerals and metals lying in the nearby ground. Ust-Kamenogorsk was much less fearsome than I had been led to believe and, a week later, I would be able to confidently conclude that I actually liked the area. Admittedly, we were there in the middle of a heatwave and it was 35 degrees warmer than 10 days earlier with the mercury now hitting a balmy -5C at2pm! It was a little anticlimactic actually but, having experienced -20C on the last day, I was quite glad we had brought the summer with us!
My ankles were still swollen from the flights, my underwear was still unwashed from the flights but I would be unlikely to get another such window of daylight to go running this week so, GPS-phone in hand, off I set (with clean underwear) within a few minutes of arriving along the Irtysh river.
The first thing I noticed was that artists in Ust-Kamenogorsk are clearly very in demand as, whichever way you looked, there were statues of random objects or animals or ad hoc monuments or just indescribable shapes: you name it, they built it. In reality, it was a really nice way of sprucing up the landscape and riverside and I imagined it’d be really rather nice during the summer. I went past various more objects for a couple of kilometers, including a collection of metallic hearts which couples clipped locks to – as per bridges over the Seine in Paris, before hitting what seemed like a ‘less reputable part’ of Ust-Kamenogorsk so I turned around. The air was remarkably fresh, despite the array of heavy-industry chimneys all around.
The locals seemed very entertained by me and by me wearing in shorts. In my defence (Mum), I did actually take a jacket this time. A young boy and girl took it in turns to try to keep up with me for a few seconds each. Across the river, a strange scene was shaping up with a dozen or so people in swimming shorts getting ready to take a dip in the freezing cold river. According to the hotel receptionist, they were Russians, not Kazakhs! Even though we were in the middle of a heatwave, it still seemed nuts. They say temperatures are relative. Maybe sanity is too.
I reached a miniature version of the Bahterek monument from Astana and, thinking the riverfront quay ended here, took a sharp turn into town. At this point, I feel like I need to point out that it’s sometimes quite hard to make what’s basically a Sunday run sound like a story. But I digress!
Various animals later, I was on a major town artery lined on both sides with slightly crumbling soviet-era accommodation blocks and a rusty tram running down the centre. It still seemed much more effective than the tram in Edinburgh mind you. The vast roads were a refreshing change to the UK’s narrow roads although it’s somewhat easier to spread out here: the town is just bigger than London but has almost 40 times fewer people!
The pavements were, despite a few potholes, easy to run along and ice free which made me think we should invite their council leaders to the UK to explain how to deal with snow and ice and avoid the “aaah, there’s a millimetre of snow, let’s cancel civilisation and start over” annual circus in the UK. I ran past more bears, tulips, deer, rabbits before reaching what seemed like their main square with what I assumed was the biggest statue in town: a giant representation of Abay, a famous Kazakh poet (what, you knew who he was too?). The thick snow and local pine trees really give it a slight feel of Narnia until I reached the local mosque: a snowy Islamic Narnia? Maybe I’m pushing it.
The locals were all nice, albeit in an amused way. Despite the snow and ice, most women here seemed to have the most extravagant high heels possible – either there’s a booming physiotherapy industry up here or they have an incredible sense of balance! I was then quite amused to stumble on … a Mango shop. Here. In the middle of utterly nowhere. If anything is needed to demonstrate a victory of capitalism over communism, this must be it!
Without much more to see in town, I decided to head back. When I reached Bayterek statue again, I thought I glimpsed people walking in the other direction. I was right and there lied a new, uninterrupted bit of riverside quay going in the other direction. A little carried away by the lack of traffic lights and intersections to stop/start at (plus the fact that it was really scenic), I got a bit excited and ran further than I’d meant. In the process, I’d made a new best friend out of an old man on his dominical skiing session!
Eventually, I knew I’d have to turn around soon so set the first corner of the river which I could spot as my U-turn point. When I got there, I discovered a huge memorial site with an eternal flame for lost soldiers at the confluence of the Irtysh and Ulba rivers.
While the front of the memorial was very sombre, to the point where I wondered if I should even be taking a photo, the rear of it wasn’t quite so solemn.
Making the most of the summery weather and the steep slope from the memorial, the bank was full of families enjoying themselves sledging down towards the river!
By that point, the sun was starting to set and the wind picking up so I really needed to get going. And, with the wind now blowing strongly against me in my face, I realised the locals might have had a point when they were scratching their heads at me. By god it was cold! So cold actually that I almost reached peak race speeds running back on the icy pier just to stay warm!
Back from the run, I was able to reflect on what it’d be like to live out here: while I wouldn’t necessarily want to settle here, it’s always a great life experience to explore somewhere you’d never go, realise that a lot of preconceptions were unfounded and, in this instance, realise that rural-ish Kazakhstan really is quite far removed from that portrayed in Borat! Albeit a little colder and poorer, life here really isn’t that different to home: families going on Sunday walks, groups of youths hanging about, western franchises, a creaking and stretched public transport system and smiles inter-mingled with stares from strangers. Admittedly, we were also told that there were 300 radioactive sites around the city but we were safe as our hotel was based next to the Secret Services and they knew where they all were. Great…
That night, I warmed up by tucking into a traditional horse steak and chips dinner. Maybe Tesco should complete the westernisation process and set up a franchise over this way too?!
Distance: 15km, ~1h10