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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 June, 2004, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Oil brings new sparkle to Caspian Sea
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC correspondent in Kazakhstan

The Caspian is the world's largest inland sea, but it is still relatively unknown. Now however, even the remoter communities around the sea are beginning to feel the effects of new contacts with the outside world, a reviving economy and an emerging oil industry.

A beach on the Caspian coast south of Aktau
"At times you would almost think you were in one of the shabbier corners of southern Spain"
Seagulls are a rare sight in Central Asia.

In much of Kazakhstan you are about as far from the open ocean as it is possible to be.

But there I was sitting in a beachfront café, with a bottle of cold Tien Shan beer to hand, and a plate of sturgeon cutlets.

The sun sparkled on the blue water as gentle waves lapped against the sandy beach.

Three ships steamed past on the distant horizon, bound for Astrakhan or Baku or Bandar-e-Anzali, to the south on the coast of Iran.

And a pristine white seagull glided past on the breeze, casting a covetous eye towards my sturgeon cutlets.

At times in Aktau you would almost think you were somewhere in one of the shabbier corners of southern Spain.

The warm sun is softened by sea breezes, and there is always a glimpse of blue sea between the buildings, which are built of local sandstone.

But Aktau lies on the edge of Central Asia, the land of the endless steppe - and it is surely one of the oddest cities in the region.

Haunting legacy

Aktau was a Soviet creation. It was built in the 1960s to produce uranium and plutonium for the military. It was a secret, closed city until the demise of the USSR.

On a bluff overlooking the Caspian Sea an entire city arose, with ranks of numbered apartment blocks grouped along the wide central avenue.

A beach on the Caspian coast south of Aktau
Toxic waste and oil leaks have contributed to ecological decline
As you approach the city today, it rises up from the empty steppe like a mirage.

But despite the best efforts of the sun and the sea, the legacy of the past lies heavily on Aktau.

Beyond the city lies a decaying industrial wasteland such as only the Soviets could have produced.

Aktau once took pride in its nuclear power station and its four chemical factories, but these shabby relics now haunt the city's outskirts like the ghosts of a failed industrial experiment.

The nuclear power station no longer works - but Aktau's water is still produced in a desalination plant on the premises.

The chemical factories are dead - but a lake where they once poured tons of toxic and radioactive waste still shimmers in the sunlight just beyond the city.

Reason to be cheerful

If Aktau's residents are aware of the environmental dangers lurking on their doorstep, most are pretty blasé about such things.

And these days, after a decade of economic decline, people in Aktau are pretty cheerful.

An oil company survey ships in the new port at Fort Shevchenko
The Caspian's oil supply is helping regeneration of the area

The reason is oil.

Western Kazakhstan is saturated with the stuff. Kashagan, one of the biggest oilfields discovered in the past 30 years, lies under the blue waters of the Caspian just up the coast.

Aktau is to be the centre for development of the offshore oil industry, and it is already becoming a transport and services hub for the region.

The crumbling Soviet-era port has been given a radical makeover.

Ships crisscross the Caspian from Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia, exporting oil and steel, and importing cars and heavy equipment for the oilfields.

People turn up here from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Caucasus looking for work.

The residents of Aktau today are a miscellany of Kazakhs and Russians and Caucasians. Sit in a café and you're as likely to hear a conversation in Azeri or Georgian as you are in Russian.

Future holiday destination?

I went to see the toxic lake with Yusuf - a rough diamond if ever there was one.

He was an Ingush whose grandfather was deported by Stalin from the Caucasus mountains to the Kazakh steppe.

Yusuf came to Aktau by way of Murmansk in the Russian Arctic, where he did his military service.

"Two years in the navy, and six in prison", he said, grinning through blackened teeth.

Aktau street scene
Even here at the ends of the earth, change is on the way

"What did you do?" I asked.

"Shot the Commandant", he said with a laugh, still savouring the memory.

Once out of prison, he came to Aktau to visit a navy friend. He found himself a Kazakh wife, and has stayed ever since.

I took a drive up the coast to Fort Shevchenko. Camels and horses roamed the steppe or grazed by the roadside, oblivious to the cars speeding past.

Fort Shevchenko is a sleepy town which feels like the end of the earth.

The Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was exiled here in the nineteenth century for writing a poem against the Tsar.

Once it was the starting point for camel caravans setting off to cross the desert to Khiva on the shores of the Aral Sea.

You can still visit the shady grove and the little underground cell where he wrote his poems during the summer's heat.

And even here at the ends of the earth, change is on the way.

The local fishing industry died years ago, but the little port is also being rebuilt for the oil industry.

From the rocky hillside where the Russian fort once stood, you can look across the bay where survey ships and other vessels now lie at anchor.

And beyond that the sun sparkles on the wide, blue Caspian Sea.

One day, I suspect, local tourists will set off from here to cruise across the sea to Dagestan or Iran or Astrakhan.

That day is still a long way off - but I am sure it will happen.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 10 June, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Kazakhstan
12 May 04  |  Country profiles
Caspian Sea pact agreed
05 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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