13 Nov 2008
Those making the daily commute across the river are not concerned about whether their homes or jobs are in Asia or Europe. Instead, they look to the oil and gas industry, an industry that is fueling the economy of Kazakhstan.
The Ural River cuts the Atyrau Oblast, as well as its capital city of Atyrau, in half. Nonetheless, everyone enjoys the wealth found in the surrounding oil and gas fields. Bordering the Caspian Sea to the North and to the East, this is the richest oblast of Kazakhstan. About 30% of the wealth of the Country comes from this area. It is the main source of money to finance the unprecedented new construction throughout the Republic and, in particular, the capital, Astana.
Kazakh nomads discovered oil long ago. This black ooze seeping out of the ground was initially used as a skin ointment. Camels carrying animal skin bags filled with the oil delivered it to the village of Guryev, the former name of Atyrau.
However, at that time, the fishing industry was the main stay of Guryev. Boats made regular trips down the river and returned with their catch of sturgeon, which was plentiful in the river and in the sea. At one time, caviar, the eggs from the sturgeon, was considered of low value. Consequently, it was used to feed those in prisons and slave labor camps. Today, confronted with over fishing and pollution, the fishing industry is nearly gone and processing plants that once lined the river are few. Boat traffic continues but with different cargo. Occasionally, there is a tour boat passing by or perhaps bridge maintenance crews using a row boat to return to shore but mostly the cargo is material and personnel associated with the oil and gas industry which is located near the mouth of this large river.
During Soviet times, the low-grade crude found along the coast and in the shallow waters of the Caspian Sea was processed at refineries constructed near Atyrau. These old oil wells and inefficient refineries still operate but at a much reduced capacity. The pipes, the distilling towers and the storage tanks, along with many of the buildings in this complex, are showing signs of major decay. More efficient designs and closer proximity to the oil fields are now in operation and soon this Soviet era installation will be shut down completely.
In recent years, huge new fields have been discovered in the Atyrau Oblast but the oil is found only at great depths. At the Tengiz Field, to the southeast of Atyrau, the wells are over 3 miles deep. Equipment, technology and personnel from the United States and Europe were necessary to develop the fields. Oil and gas pipelines are now in place to distribute the product to Western markets but more are needed.
KazMunayGas, founded in 2002, has a major office building in Atyrau. Nevertheless, in Astana, the magnificent corporate headquarters exudes the power of its dominance in the life and economy of Kazakhstan. This state-owned company controls the gas and oil industry of the Country.
Atyrau has benefited more from the oil wealth than other cities within the country. It has grown rapidly and now has a population exceeding 150,000. New apartment buildings along the riverbank are for those who work in this industry. By some estimates, the personal income in Atyrau is two to four times that of the average within the Republic. This spending power is reflected in the retail outlets, the automobiles and, also along the riverbank, the new homes. What's more, located in the city is the new office building for Atyrau District, several corporate office buildings, hotels and a hospital.
Income from the oil wealth also provided funds to construct monuments commemorating heroes of the past who were important in the lives and culture of those living in this area. Of special note is the monument to the Great Patriotic War. This was a time when the oil from Kazakhstan was extremely important in sustaining the Russian military during the defense of their homeland. On the other hand, down a narrow alley way hidden behind a row of trees is a huge statue of Lenin. Removed from prominence, Lenins memory remains, but, for some, an object of scorn as Kazakhstan continues to embrace a free market economy.
The population of this city is about 90% ethnic Kazakh with the remainder including Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar. The large, recently completed mosque on the western side of the city is for Kazakhs who, for the most part, consider themselves Muslim. But, it is not just the mosque that has benefited from the wealth of this city. The Orthodox Church, with its gleaming gold domes, is new and, not far away, is a large Catholic Church.
Disappointingly, the glitter, the grandeur and the beauty of the new does not penetrate very deep within the city nor, for that matter, to the populace, to the homes, the equipment, the roads and the electrical utilities all of which appear to be left over from the Soviet times. The old Belarus tractor works but its days are surely numbered. The operator sometimes seems frustrated with its performance. Trash pickup is much better than before but, still, it is slow, labor intensive and sporadic. The crumbling steps on the old apartment buildings are cause for alarm when considering the overall structural integrity of the concrete building. Similar problems appear in many parking lots where the concrete has wasted away exposing pieces of rebar with sharp points waiting to victimize the tires of a careless driver. The roads that provide access to the older homes are in need of repair as are the homes often hidden behind makeshift walls. These places, only a few blocks from the city center, appear as though frozen in times past. Cattle, goats and sheep can be seen searching for small clumps of grass. Students are indifferent as they walk by making their way from school. Here, just as they have for decades, outdoor markets remain as an important shopping center for many.
More apparent in Atyrau than in other large cities of Kazakhstan is the rich and the poor dichotomy. It is between those who enjoy the new high rise luxury apartments and those who survive in their Soviet era accommodations; those who live in new large masonry single family homes and those who must remain in small and decaying wood frame structures; those who drive to work in shiny new imported cars and those who make their way on a crowded bus.
Will the foundation of the new bridge across the Ural River joining the East to the West crumble like a clump of sand? On the other hand, possibly the values and traditions of the East and the West will merge and forge a stronger Kazakhstan; a country based on freedom for all.
It is our prayer that the ties that bind this country to its people and the East to the West will not be based upon gold and silver, upon what appears to be of value for the moment, but will heed the words of the great teacher. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6 and verses 19-21:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
where moth and rust destroy
and where thieves break in and steal.
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust destroys
and where thieves do not break in or steal;
for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
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