Located just a few miles outside of the middle of Absolute Dick All, Southern Kazakhstan, Zhanatac proved to be an often unsettling and thus rewarding stop on our All-American Tour of the steppe. A background on the place? Oh, all right…
Originally the strip mined apple of the collective Soviet eye, Zhanatac famously earned the motherland’s love during the 1917 Revolution, when without any coercion whatsoever, it volunteered its phosphorus deposits to be used as the flesh-searing, White Army-decimating pulp of Leninist grenades. And the motherland blessed Zhanatac for its gifts, bestowing its relatively massive population of deported Germans, Koreans, Kurds, and Tartars with sprawling plaster creature-filled parks, a fake lake, weird murals, and an ultimately doomed cotton cultivation system. But the expat population made the crucial mistake of being big whiny quitters who, when given the first opportunity to not live in Zhanatac and work in its phosphorus mines and be surrounded by 300 miles of barren soil and sporadic piles of camel dung and have to live in the Soviet Union with Kazakh people and their odd beliefs, would launch out of there faster than a rocket from the nearby Baikonur Cosmodrome, literally by the thousands. Perestroika gave these yellow bellies the green light to alight, and now the endless rows and crumbling clusters of abandoned, gutted, poo-filled apartment buildings amass in such numbers that they probably form some sort of voter bloc in local elections.
The week we arrived in Zhanatac, there had been two murders. Our host Laura warned us that the town was poor, so these things happen. Assuming drug or money-related butchery, we weren’t too concerned, as we neither have those two things, nor can conjugate enough Kazakh verbs to get into a deadly confrontation about them. As it turned out, one of the bored neighborhood artists had been putting on a Jack the Ripper impression, zealously practicing on a middle aged man, and the local Crazy Old Woman (who “sang all the time, and would shout to herself”), by slitting her throat and leaving her body on a trash heap. Laura’s trash heap. This trash heap.
With the expat exodus went most municipally organized athletic programs, leaving the Kazakh locals to reenvision healthy outlets for their cherished youth on their own terms. So now an evening stroll past a disemboweled apartment building is serenaded not by the effeminate and Eurocentric yelps of soccer matches but the palpable ruckus of boys cheering on their chums as they beat the living shit out of each other in late night fight clubs, or slice and dice to first blood among the rubble and glass shards and spent syringes.
Reflecting their resilient spirit, locals have transformed their inexhaustible supply of blank concrete walls into public canvases. Wandering through the wreckage, visitors can see where a bevy of modern-day Kazakh Diego Riveras have pushed the townsfolk’s imaginations to new planes for visualizing their community, by scouring the realm of the id to produce provocative, challenging depictions of the Zhanatac experience. So mostly dicks going into butts.
But words can’t really describe Zhanatac, on account of there not being nearly enough synonyms for “Holy Hell!”, so here’s our visit in pictorial form.