A.J. Walker


The Seagull

Today's #VSS365 was #Control so I wrote a wee bit of non-fiction for it referring to this amazing bit of space memorabilia I saw in Karaganda, Kazakhstan:

Back in the early 2000s I did some work on a project in Kazakhstan. It was the cold time of year. They only really have summer and winter on the steppe there. An autumn wardrobe or a spring catalogue would be the biggest of wastes there. Day time temperatures were circa -40C. But to be fair once it's below -20C anything lower doesn't really make much of a difference. If you're out in it and the wind can get to your skin then it feels like razor blades. Moral of the story. Stay in and out of the wind as much as possible.

Anyways, at one point I was in a city called Karaganda in the middle of Kazakhstan. It's an old coal mining area. In fact the original centre of the city has been destroyed following the collapse of the shallow workings there - it really is a bizarre sight. The hotel I was staying in was a grand affair. But no one goes to Karaganda and the only people there were us from the project.

You couldn't make some of this shit up, so I won't. There were about seven different salads on the menu. All consisted of tomato and cucumber and it seemed that the seven salads involved slicing the two ingredients in different creative ways. On the first night we were asked what drinks we would like with our meal. We all chose beer. The two waiters and then a third person came into the corner as they had a conflab. They came back. 'How many beers will you be wanting during and after the meal?' I think we settled around five or so. 'Okay, can you pay up front for that?' Yep, they had no beer and no money to buy any. Some poor bastard had to go out in the freezing night to get us beer (baring in mind it was -40 day time, it probably was at night too).

When the beer came it was warm. Couldn't chuffing believe it. They said the fridge in the hotel wasn't working very well (which was a worry for any meat based products but was of more concern re the beer). One guy pointed out that maybe they could just fill a couple of buckets with snow and that would do the job. They did, it did.

Karaganda 2

Karaganda is in the area of Kazakhstan of the Soviet space base, where the rockets have been sending up satellites and spacemen since the 1950s. And not just men but space women too. The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova who in June 1963 went up from here in Vostok 6 for 71 hours and circled the earth 48 times. The Soviets call sign for her on the flight was Seagull (Chaika) and that was what our hotel was called.

Karaganda 1

What was amazing when I asked about the name at reception was that the space pod that she returned to earth in was in the garden of the hotel. I eventually went to look for myself and ... yep, there it was decaying away. It was tiny from the outside, but when you looked in my god, it was hard to believe any person actually fitted inside it yet alone encircled the earth in the thing. There also appeared to be four Bakelite controls on it. All very Steampunk.

And below the whole thing was a pile of asbestos which was dripping from it. I really hope that by now it has been brought into a museum and/or restored and protected. Here's to the amazing seagull anyway, I'll drink a warm beer to her.

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