30 April: Dust in Ajagös and water floods on the way to Usharal

Brehm already wrote that the town of Ajagös could be uncomfortable because of its dust and was somewhat barren. Nothing has changed in 144 years. The wind was constantly whirling a lot of dust through the air here, so we were actually quite happy to have masks in front of our noses. And you don’t need hair setting lotion here either, because within minutes a fine layer of earth gives your hair stubbornness and stiffness. Apart from that, Ajagös seemed to us like a prairie town without charm. A mixture of village and city, but we felt neither the cosiness of the village nor the energy of the city. In the early 1930s, the former settlement, briefly called Sergiopol, was enlarged into a railway station town in the course of the construction of the Turkestan-Siberian Railway. In the Soviet Union, it developed into an important military base due to its geographical proximity to China.

Around the market alone there was a hustle and bustle. People were doing their shopping, taxi drivers were waiting for customers. We even got into a bit of a tiff with one of them: “You can’t take photos here. You have to pay for that.” But most of his colleagues saw it differently and let us go. While Volker was taking pictures, I had a short chat with some of the drivers. One of them told me that he had been stationed in Germany, in Halle. That was the best time, he said. After Balabek from Pavlodar, he was the second Kazakh who had spent his best years in Halle.

From Ajagös we set off for Usharal near Lake Alakol. We chose the route along the lake, which also partly runs along the Kazakh-Chinese border. After a little more than half of the way, we came to a kind of border post. These are located at crossings from one area to another and in border regions. In our case, it was the crossing from the East Kazakhstan region to the Almaty region and, the last place before the border with China was also not far away. Unfortunately, the government official did not have good news for us. Several cars had already turned back because the water had risen very high and the road was impassable because of it. “I didn’t see it myself. You could look for yourselves, of course,” he said. We thought about it for a moment. Yes, we’ll have a look!

Where there is a will, there is not always a way – especially when snow is involved. But sometimes you just have to stray off the intended path. We turned off the main road onto a dirt track, away from the lake. Gaining height! We seemed to have tricked the water. However, our “path” consisted only of a tyre track that we drove on several times and which was partly lost in the landscape. At times we had some doubts as to whether our decision was very wise or simply stupid.

Especially when all of a sudden a wide ravine opened up in front of us, with some trucks and containers standing in it. There was no road leading to the other side towards the lake. So we continued along the gorge until we met some workers. They showed us another path that would lead down and then back to the main road. Without the men, we probably wouldn’t have had the idea to take this turn-off. So we drove into the gorge. Again we were surprised by an overwhelming view! Here we also saw the meltwater flowing through, which must have blocked the drivers’ way elsewhere. In fact, we arrived back on the main road and without any obstacles in Usharal.

The Man and the Steppe