A report from Zarafshan, the gold capital of Uzbekistan
"Welcome to the center of the desert," flight attendants say (ironically or with pride is anybody's guess) when the plane begins its descend to the airport of Zarafshan, gold-mining center of Uzbekistan located in the Kyzylkum. Ochre-colored dunes to the west stretch to a low mountain chain in the distance. It is the Muruntau, whose northern end resembles the silhouette of a lying woman. ("That's the Sleeping Beauty," the locals say.) To the south-east, one sees clusters of standard blocks of flats built in the 1970's. They do not differ from the ones that can be seen somewhere in the outskirts of Moscow, Volgograd, or Novosibirsk. There are no monuments, tourist attractions, or old buildings there. This is a mirage town, ghost town built "by the Komsomol and prisoners" on the party orders.
The sky is unusually clear almost the year round. One cannot hide from it. It is always there - above, ahead, to all sides, and behind. The horizon is open on all four sides. The biting desert wind blows along the streets, and falling stars stream above the lights of street cafes at night. The local weather center claims that Zarafshan is the regional center of dryness.
Life in Zarafshan may surprise an outsider. No fuss, everything in accordance with the rhythm of the local industry.
Mining Central Management of the Navoi Mining and Smelting Combine towers above the town center. Caravans of coaches take gold-miners to the open pit every morning, and the town empties. Emaciated public gardens are sorry to look at. Trees take root in the sandy soil with difficulty. It takes 15 minutes to cross the city from one end to the other in any direction, and a single hour to walk around the perimeter. That is all. Uchkuduk is 90 kilometers of dunes away, Navoi 200 kilometers.
Zarafshan makes an ideal circle - three rings of highways crossed by two avenues and a grid of walkways. When miners return in the evening, the town becomes somewhat livelier. There is one supermarket and two bazaars. Everything has to be brought from beyond the desert, but prices are not much higher than in Tashkent. There are two stadiums with tennis courts, three nightclubs, and a dozen other similar establishments offering some entertainment.
There are fountains in Zarafshan even though water is piped from the Amudarja 250 kilometers away. TV tower (a modified rig) is located near the Mining Central Management. It broadcasts six Russian TV channels. TV signal in Zarafshan is free, an unprecedented luxury in Uzbekistan.
Unlike other citizens of the republic, old-timers here have only a dim sense of the times or the country they live in. Salaries of gold-miners are three to five times higher than the average salary in Uzbekistan (between $80 and $200 against $30). Employees of the Uzbek-American Zarafzhan-Newmont are paid 5 to 10 times the average Uzbek salary or even more than that. As a matter of fact, budget sphere employees here are paid the pittance typical of all of Uzbekistan, but members of their families involved in gold-mining are a different matter altogether. As for retirees who have accumulated sufficient money or received aid from their former employers, they frequently choose to live what remains them in Russia.
"There is a golden city under the blue sky..." Hobbies are encouraged in Zarafshan. An airclub, motoclub, soccer, tennis, pool, dancing, hunting, fishing... Hanging on to their relatively high and stable salaries, residents of Zarafshan do not consider their lives boring. They view their life as simple, understandable, and stable. This is how we all lived once - putting the family, nuances of contacts with relatives and friends, unadorned architecture of provincial relations above everything else. Still, youths do get restless every now and then, subconsciously aware of the longing for something new...
"Sure, I would not mind working for Newmont," car mechanic Anton Trofimov said with a sigh. "Specialists there are paid much better. But the management values its employees and is reluctant to see them go."
This is how some residents of the town drew a winning ticket in the lottery of life while the lives of others remain boringly unchangeable day after day. As far as living standards are concerned, Zarafshan is a bona fide city of contrasts.
The population was mostly Caucasian only recently. These days, however, Zarafshan attracts more and more citizens of the considerably less developed nearby rural areas. Up to a dozen people live in one and the same flat, others settle in hostels. Prices of apartments are like in Tashkent, $2,000 and more per a room. Newcomers and outsiders are vastly underpaid (and where are they not?), but they are happy with what they are paid.
Muruntau mine near Zarafshan produces almost twice as much gold as all of the famous Kolyma in Russia. Unlike in the Russian north, however, nuggets or gold sand are never found in the Kyzylkum. The precious metal is in the ordinary-looking ore a laymen would not look twice at. Excavators are used to mine it. The open pit is not usual. Between two and three kilometers wide and 450 meters deep, it looks like a meteoritic crater. The view opening from the rim is impressive indeed.
The inspection area includes the satellite-uplinked center controlling everything. The machines shipping ore to the surface leave an unforgettable impression. As they approach the rim of the open pit, trucks appear to grow from ants to monsters. A single UKLD truck carries 180 tons. Every such truck costs $1 million but it is worth every cent. The smelting shops are only 8 kilometers away. It is there that the plain rocks are melted into gold bullion, the foundation of economic independence of Uzbekistan.
Zarafshan-Newmont does not mine gold as such. It has technologies enabling it to extract gold from the ore already processed at local enterprises. A certain part of this gold goes to the national treasury too.
Terrain around the open pit resembles a Martian landscape. This land has never been fertile. Ore is what it produces.
How difficult and dangerous is the work here?
"I spent a decade working an excavator down there in open pit," said Ivan Kondratenko of the gold-mining trade union. "And here I am, safe and sound. Sure, the silicon dust is not exactly healthy but we have airtight cabs, conditioning, and individual breathing gear. It is only the men who smoke in the open that may end up with lung silicosis."
Needless to say, not everybody is that optimistic. A cloud of dust hangs above the open pit day and night. Summer temperatures here exceed 45 degrees Celsius in shade and shade is nowhere to be found. In the autumn and winter, there are cold cutting winds.
Gold-miners recuperate in the best resorts on the shores of Issyk-Kul. Gornyak resort was built two years ago near Charvak, a reservoir on the slopes of the Chimgan. Groups 50 men each leave Zarafshan for Charvak every 12 days. The trade union pays for the rest and recreation. Twelve visits to the pool with a sauna in the center of Zarafshan costs only 500 sums or $0.5. Nice, eh? An hour in a Tashkent sauna cost between $3 and $25 per visitor.
The first beauty contest in Uzbekistan was organized in Zarafshan.
Vladimir Vysotsky loved signing his songs in Zarafshan.
When the project of turning the Siberian rivers to Central Asia was discussed, construction of a port in Zarafshan was suggested.
It is not impossible to catch a live agama lizard right in front of the Agama Textile whose products are sold nationwide.
The Christian church in Zarafshan is located on the edge of the desert. Right nearby is the local plague center, a must for life in the desert.
The first mosque in Zarafshan was built in 2003. Construction of the second was suspended by the lack of funds. The building is being redesigned now. It will become a music school.
The Americans say that all of that reminds them of Nevada or Arizona. The terrain makes a perfect site to shoot Wild West movies on. The locals say that only cacti are lacking. This is all a joke, of course. All cacti will be immediately used as fuel. Life in the desert villages surrounding Zarafshan is like life in another millennium...