Sunday, 23 December 2012

Amazing Place - Ust' Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan

Trees at Kirov Park
A few years ago,  my future plans for jobs were fairly clear cut.  An over-riding priority was to work in a warm country.  Then China happened. Well, more specifically, the rapid development of chinese industry and the demand for raw metals in particular has led to the sudden wealth of several countries which supply those materials.  That wealth has allowed the governments of previously less economocially developed states to invest in their education systems.
I ended up in one such programme for 3 months earlier this year in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  There the government has bought into the Cambridge International Examination board's IGCSE and AS/A-Level system so that all their students across the country will have access to a portable qualification accepted by universities world-wide.  Arriving in early March the temperatures started for me at -30C at night.  The last snowfall was on the 1st of June.
Returning home in mid- June I then was accepted into another nationwide educational project in Kazakhstan, namely the Nazarbayev Intellectual schools.  Cambridge are involved with this reform project too. Getting ready to go I visited the LD Mountain Centre in Newcastle (UK) where they were having a summer sale.  They had equiped folks before for Altai mountain expeditions so, being aware that my location for the next year was close (Ust' Kamenogorsk) I took advantage of the sale and bought a North Face "Vostok" 700g/litre goose down jacket and some Sorrel Caribou snow boots (rated to -40C).  I thought that that would be it for temperatures.  In August in Astana it was in the +30s C and then in Oskemen (a.k.a Ust' Kamenogorsk) it was similarly warm and then very wet.
Winter Sunset 
I was beginning to think that perhaps I had overdone the cold weather gear.  After all, the latitude was similar to Cherbourg in Normandy and the city altitude was only 300m above sea-level.  Stories of the weather over the previous winter from teacher who had been here a year suggested little snow and not too cold.
I was convinced by my research.  It would get cold and there would be snow.  The last year had to have been an anomaly.
I consulted with locals.  What bad weather had their parents and grandparents seen in the past?  The stories came back of cold and snow.  What was the average start of the first snow?  First week in November cmae the reply.
This year the first snow fell in October.  The 24th to be exact and hasn't melted since then.  The temperatures have dropped and the lowest was on the night of the 19/20th December at -44C.  We have taken delivery of a marvellous new set of atlases on Kazakhstan at school and Oskemen comes top of the lowest winter temperatures for a city for the whole of the country at -49C.  We're not that low yet, but, it is only December and the area has been cooled already.
The river water in the Irtysh is relatively hot and steam is contantly rising and blanketing the surroundings in fog which then freezes as a frosty coating on street signs, trees and the bridges. The latter have the appearance of a ship that has spent a trip in the high Arctic where the rigging is layered with ice.
So here I am, enjoying the chill air, the snowfall and the frozen landscape.  The opportunity for photos is huge.  Icicles on old buildings, log cabins, fir trees, misty rivers and silver birch.  For a place that will give the perfect Christmas card image, this could take some beating, even when you get the mosque in the shot!
Frosted Trees

Just out of curiosity,  I took a picture of snow building up on the balcony roof on 9th December and took the second one on 26th December and the third on the 7th January for comparison. The whole thing came off on 9th January as the wind picked up and temperatures rose.

The balcony cornice
Most of the extra snow accumulated on the 25th December.  

And then it was gone on January 8th.  Snow did return with temperatures also going back into the minus teens and twenties but by the 24th January the thermometers were reading over zero and up to +5C on 25th at lunchtime with some rain.  The compacted snow and ice now have a wet, slippery, smooth and very dangerous surface.  The sooner it melts completely, the better and safer it will be.

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