“Seriously, Keith. Why go back to Agadyr? It is a bad place.”
Over another bowl of tea at his Astana breakfast table, my former neighbor from 15 years ago was insistent.
Talgat and his wife listed the suspicious mysteries of the little railroad town in the steppe where I spent 18 months occasionally teaching English and usually doing not much of anything in the late ‘90s. Exorbitant cancer rates, depression & suicide, drug addiction, and insanity. Extreme levels even for a collapsed post-Soviet town.
“Uranium,” Talgat suggested. (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium, having supplied about 35% of the market in 2011.) “It infects the whole community. Those who could leave have left.”
Under the Soviet Union, the railroad depot town of Agadyr supported a population of about 14,000. In the late ’90s that was down to about six or seven. Now I’ve heard estimates as low as four (thousand that is. There are definitely more than four people still living there).
But I’d spent a long, young, strange, defining period of my life in that secluded little getaway where there’s not much to do but walk around in circles, play chess with your neighbors, and listen to the distorted announcements resonating across town from the train station as long-distance railroad caravans catch their breath for five minutes before rolling off again through the otherwise empty endlessness.
In December of 1998, feeling ill, I hopped a midnight, 18-hour train to Almaty and the Peace Corps medical office. A few weeks later I was medically separated in DC. Nothing serious and nothing long-term, but Peace Corps had had a bad year medically and was leaning heavily on the safe side. I hadn’t said goodbye to anyone in Agadyr. Before me, another volunteer had left similarly after less than six months.
I did return for a few days in the summer of ’99 and got the requisite closure, but for some reason I’ve wanted to go back again ever since. Just one more time to see the place between college and career that jaggedly carved out the foundations of the life that I’ve had since.
As it turns out though, my four nights back in Agadyr were pretty uneventful. Like most places I’ve visited, the reputation for rampant tension on the streets is seemingly unjustified on surface explorations.
There’s nobody left that I remember except for a batty old woman who used to sit outside my apartment building. A few people claimed they remembered me after inquiring where I was from and what brought me to town, but it quickly became clear that they were thinking of the volunteer after me, who invested much more time in the community than I did. And after he finished, Peace Corps shut down the site.
Throughout Kazakhstan I’ve been struck by statues and street corners where arbitrary memories initiate pleasant conversations, but Agadyr was just a place. Even the ghosts are gone. There was nothing to remind me of the recurring senses of failure, frustration, and isolation of 15 years ago.
It’s amazing how different a place is when you know how to leave.