Month: February 2017

Colours of the night

Located 1448 km north of Saint Petersburg, it takes a 28-hour-long train ride over the Kirov railway to reach the Murman coast. Winters are long and cold in this part of the world and the nights get longer and longer the further we travel deep into Russia’s north beyond the polar circle into the Arctic’s largest city, Murmansk, in search of the polar lights. Every year around the beginning of December, the polar night begins and the sun doesn’t rise for 40 days. With temperatures between -20 and -40 degrees, everything is covered in ice and snow. The clouds hang low and merge with the steam of the misty landscape and industrial towers. The plain white reflects the colours of the night, giving even abandoned and broken places a numb beauty. In absence of the natural rhythm of day and night the light is lost as a point of orientation.  It could be 5pm or 4am; you would not notice the difference. The streets are almost empty and the tiny bars with shiny TV screens are always open. And then, …

Oil and the City

Three numbers make up a code, a code that stands for an address; if U2 knew of Aktau they would want to dedicate one of their greatest hits to this city, “where the streets have no name”. Built after oil was discovered around the Mangyshlak peninsula, west Kazhakstan, in the 1960s, Aktau has a deep and sticky relationship with this infamous energy source. It is a relationship that runs as deep as the subterranean estates from which the crude is extracted; it is a relationship that feels as sticky as the viscous oil underground; that strolls through the districts, blocks, and apartments that designate the city’s codes/addresses. One resident once told me that “oil created life from nothing” here, another that “if there wasn’t oil, there would be no Aktau”. The city has changed much from the days when it was emblematic of the expansion of Soviet modernity into the “exotic” deserts of the south; when popular documentaries showed Slavic settlers encountering Kazakhs on camels. Its planners were awarded a prestigious international prize for having …