(Telephone code: 71133)
Some 150km east of Uralsk, the town of Aksai has little to detain the tourist, though it plays a vital role in the economic life of the region and of Kazakhstan, as well as housing a large expatriate community. Its importance is based around the presence of one of the world's largest gas condensate fields, Karachaganak, some 25km beyond the town. The origins of Aksai lie in Novogeorgievsk, an agricultural settlement established by Ukrainian immigrants in the early 20th century. With the completion in 1936 of the railway link between Uralsk and Sol-Iletsk, in present-day Russia, the settlement developed around its railway station, which bore tihe name Kazakhstan (and, a little confusingly, still does). In 1963 the village of Kazakhstan was made the capital of the Burlin District, then earned town status, and a further name change to Aksai, in 1967.
Aksai would have remained a quiet district capital, its economy based around wheat production and on its railway station, were it not for the discovery in 1979 of the Karachaganak field. Production began in the 1980s, under Karachaganakgazprom, which was focused on the export of gas and condensate eastwards to the gas-processing plant at Orenburg in present-day Russia. The town of Aksai developed rapidly, with new microdistricts dominated by large apartment blocks constructed of prefabricated panels emerging to the east of the lower-slung old town around the railway station. Microdistricts 4 and 5 were constructed by teams from Czechoslovakia, Microdistrict 10 by an East German team. There are still many echoes in the town of its central European builders: the main shopping centre in Aksai, for example, is named Trnava, after the city in Slovakia from which many of the construction engineers came. The main camp accommodating expatriates working at Karachaganak, situated on the western side of the town, is named the Czech Camp and is still run by a company from that country.
Following independence, and protracted negotiations, a new phase of development of Karachaganak was initiated with the conclusion of a 40-year Production Sharing Agreement, with the UK's BG Group and Italy's Eni as joint operators, and a consortium which also includes Chevron and Lukoil. The focus of the redevelopment of the field has been much more on the westward export of oil and condensate, through a new pipeline to Atyrau and thence westwards, as well as the introduction of new technologies» such as the high-pressure reinjection of sour gas. The large number of British and Italian expatriates working in Aksai have brought pubs and pizzerias, as well as an unexpectedly wide range of accommodation options.
What to see
The history of Aksai and the importance to the town of the Karachaganak field are nicely set out in the Burlin District Local Lore Museum (Microdistrict 10; 09:00-13:00 & 14:00-18:00 daily), which has received support from KPO, the Karachaganak operator. It is rather unglamorously located beneath the nine-storey apartment blocks of Microdistrict 10. The first room contains doaks and artworks belonging to President Nazarbaev which were sold at auction in 2001 to support a charitable fund led by his wife. The next room, highlighting the efforts of local people during World War II, unusually features a bust of Stalin in the corner. There is a Lenin bust next door, in a room focusing on the development of education locally. Next comes ethnogaphy, with a display based around a large section of yurt, into which have been stuffed furs, weaponry, decorated chests and musical instruments.
The next two rooms highlight the mainstays of the local economy before the discovery of the Karachaganak field, focusing respectively on the arrival of the railway and on the Virgin Lands Campaign. A balalaika on display in the Virgin Lands room, and an icon in the corner, represent the migration of Slavonic peoples into the area to support the development of the wheatfields. At the back of the foyer is a room devoted to the natural history of the area, with the usual array of stuffed animals, including a beaver gnawing through a piece of wood. Also off the foyer is a large room devoted to the development of the Karachaganak reserve. Some of the labelling here is in English, as well as Russian and Kazakh. A photograph of a tropical atoll is accompanied by a label recording that 'this is how Karachaganak looked 340 million years ago. There is a sign from the village of Tungush, whose inhabitants were moved out, mostly to Uralsk, when the field was developed. There are models of drilling rigs, and displays highlighting the activities of companies working at the field. A large golden tap is that opened by President Nazarbaev during the ceremony to inaugurate the pipeline from Karachaganak to Atyrau, from where the liquid condensate heads by another pipeline to markets further west. A large model in the centre of the room shows the main units at Karachaganak and the pipeline running to Atyrau, though there has been no attempt made at accuracy as regards the scales or geographical relationships of the different components of the development.