Along the Syr Darya
(Baikonur, Kyzylorda Province, Kazakhstan)

Proceeding southbound on Korolev Avenue, after passing successfully through the security checkpoint gates of the city of Baikonur (formerly known as either Zarya, or Leninsk, or also even Zvezdograd; and originally dubbed solely "Desyataya Ploshadka: Site 10"), one notices the unusual and synthetic looking green color of the irrigated and trimmed lawns framing the newly opened Sputnik Hotel, the first of its kind in the city: a hotel designed for foreign international tourists. After passing by the Sputnik, one quickly recognizes, off in the southeastern direction, the historic Cosmonaut Hotel Baikonur. Following a concrete pathway located to the right side of the Cosmonaut Hotel's main entrance and continuing in the easterly direction, the casual wanderer will enter the grounds of a public park dissected by an allée planted by—and ceremoniously honoring—all previous passengers from the Soviet & Russian space program. At the end of the avenue of trees is the location of a simple concrete viewing terrace. Having a dilapidated surface of faded cement blocks, along with utilitarian and rusted metal hand railings, this viewing platform terrace—designed to display a monument replicating (in shrunken form) the Proton rocket—overlooks the banks of the Syr Darya river. After taking in the vast panoramic view of the river and the eastern steppe terrain, with its expansive and intimidating character, one can opt for a perpendicular adjacent paved walkway, which leads in the southerly direction and transforms eventually into a dirt pathway sloping gently downwards towards the banks of the river below.

Taking a break here along the shore of the Syr Darya's meandering path, some slight remnants of former river bank activity can be found: a few formalized water basins, iron pole support structures, paved landings and 2 nondescript industrial sheds. The use for these forgotten and rusted artifacts remains for the most part unclear, as any casual questioning of the local swimmers and novice fishermen (of which there are only a handful) turns up every time the same standard uniform reply: a gentle shrugging of the shoulders, in conjunction with a silent and subtle frown; a sympathetic but decisive deferral of sorts. Perhaps these mystery riverfront fragments were once solely just diving boards and swimming accessories for the summer months? (But isn't the water here too shallow for diving?) Or perhaps they were only a type of commercial boat docking accessory? (For a non-navigable waterway with sandbars throughout?) Could the remnants relate to the rarely mentioned former (and now legally banned) horn hunters of the region, a group previously in an ever diligent search for the native Saiga Antelope herds, a once yet no longer common sight on the surrounding steppe.

To these thoughts and questions, only the so-called "idiot of the outskirts"—a regular visitor to the shore, and resident of the notorious sand swept district on the western edge of the city—had a word to say. Unfortunately however, his tendency to hiss and whistle when describing and recalling made every utterance resemble less a structured sentence than that of a mimicry: a solo auditory performance of the sounds of the spring sandstorms known to overwhelm his famously inhospitable district. And with the presentation of each new sentence (or was it actually a musical performance?) the man formulated not exactly answers to the questions posed, but instead a quiet sonic depiction—one whose elements of delivery seemed to relate something of the essence of existence found along this desolate and isolated central plain.


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