Kosh Agach lies at the extreme southeast tip of Russia's beautifully desolate Altai Republic, some 50 kms from the Russian-Mongolian border. The driest inhabited place in the Russian Federation, the town is surrounded by mountains and infinite stretches of twisting gravel roads. From Kosh Agach, a tiny jumble of shanty-type houses and badly-stocked shops, it is over 10 hours drive to anything that can in any way be called a city - in this case, Gorno-Altaisk, the republic's capital, home to less than 50,000 people.
Russians are in the minority in Kosh Agach, with ethnic Kazakhs accounting for around three-quarters of the settlement's population. Indeed, there is not even a Russian Orthodox Church here, the sound of the call for prayer from the local mosque only serving to accentuate the town's physical and cultural distance from mainstream Russia.
‘Don't stray too far from the hotel,' my driver, Kayrat, tells me as he drops me off at the Hotel Tranzit, a small ramshackle hostel for truck drivers on their way into Mongolia. Why? I wonder. He frowns, as if debating whether or not to tell me the truth. ‘People have been going missing recently,' he replies, without elaborating. Indeed, there is something about the town, and in particular the Hotel Tranzit, that suggests the setting for a cheap slasher-type horror movie.
However, the truck driver with whom I find myself sharing a room is inordinately fond of playing the shoot ‘em up game on his mobile phone, and so I decide to ignore Kayrat's warning and wander through the town's two or three streets.
Not far from the hostel is the local recruitment centre for the armed forces. It is no coincidence that many young men from Kosh Agach choose to serve in Chechnya - with little other employment options, a stint in Russia's troubled North Caucasus is too good an opportunity to miss. The recruitment centre is painted bright red, and is by far the most eye-catching building in the town.
Tourism is the other main link to the outside world for the town and the surrounding area. Despite the almost entire absence of an appropriate infrastructure, Russian and foreign tourists are drawn to the region by its breathtaking natural beauty. While the tourist industry is still small and underdeveloped, it provides an opportunity for local residents to earn money in the summer months.
‘Most people work hard to spend their summers relaxing. We work all summer and spend the winters sitting in our homes trying to keep warm,' says Sayat, another local. Winters here are harsh, with temperatures regularly reaching minus 50 degrees Celsius.
As night falls, Kayrat drops by to take me to meet his friends and relatives. They quiz me about life in Moscow, and then one of them, Nikolai, a border guard who serves in Ust-Koksa, some 400 kms away on the Russian-Kazakh border, tells me of his only visit to the Russian capital.
‘Me and three other border guards had a day in Moscow before taking a train to St Petersburg. That place is so huge. We tried to get a taxi from one train station to the other, but the prices...insane,' he says, shaking his head. ‘Anyway, we decided to walk, but it was too far. We looked for a bus but couldn't find one, and then someone told us about the metro system. We didn't even know what that was.' He looked at me, eyes wide open, as he recalled his journey into the depths of the Russian capital. ‘Turns out there is a metro system. We went down the escalators, and tried to go through these gates. Then this loud beeping sound started.'
‘You know,' he continued, ‘you have to buy a ticket, stick it into the machine, it comes out at the top and you can go through. We got onto the platform, and thought...what now? But, well, there are maps on the walls, and you just follow them.'
Humorous as Nikolai's account of getting lost in the Russian capital may be, it also illustrates a feature of life in Russia that has long been a problem for central government. All over the Russian Federation, in the Far East, throughout Siberia, there are isolated towns and cities like Kosh Agach, settlements remote from Moscow in every way. The problem is not a new one - after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian authorities feared the disintegration of Russia itself into even smaller states as a series of republics and regions made bids of varying intensity for independence. The most famous of these secessionist-minded republics is, of course, Chechnya.
Russians have traditionally cited their country's size as one of the main sources for all of its woes. The country is simply too vast to control, the logistics of governing the largest nation on earth a hindrance to progress, claim proponents of the theory. The theory was especially popular during the ‘bad old days' of the Yeltsin years, as living standards dropped dramatically to the backdrop of economic collapse.
However, now that Russia is in the midst of an oil boom, its size has created another problem. While the oil dollars have begun slowly trickling down to even the country's most far-flung outposts, the inhabitants of these towns remain socially and culturally remote from mainstream Russia.
‘See,' said Kayrat, as we sat in his car outside his house later that evening, ‘there really is nothing for the youth to do around here.' The comment could have come from any bored twenty-something all over the world, yet stuck in the middle of Kosh Agach's lunar landscape, darkness encroaching from the steppe around us, his words carried more weight. As a mainly Muslim town, Kosh Agach has less alcoholics than others in similar remote areas, yet, tellingly, the best-stocked shops are those selling vodka, wine and beer.
The next morning we drive out towards the Mongolian border, turning back when we enter a ‘border pass' only zone. Russia's FSB (the KGB's successor) was handed control of the Altai's borders in 2007, and Kayrat tells me that security service helicopters often fly in to pick up foreigners without the correct documents. Heading back to Kosh Agach, keeping an eye open for FSB agents all the way, we make a stop at the town's welcome sign - a Soviet-era relic depicting two workers and their suited boss framed by a hammer and sickle.
Naturally, I find the sign curious, and take a photograph. Kayrat, however, sees nothing unusual in it, shrugging when I ask him if he perhaps finds it a touch odd that his town greets its visitors with a depiction of Soviet life and ideology. In Moscow, a similar sign would be unthinkable, sheer kitsch, but here, in the heart of Asian Russia, time has, in a sense, stood still since the break up of the USSR. Indeed, the only real sign that the Soviet Union is no more are the foreign cars, most of them picked up cheaply in Russia's Far east port of Vladivostok, that whizz around the town.
All of this may suggest that the area is ripe for a secessionist movement, but the options - joining Kazakhstan, Mongolia or China - are simply not attractive enough. No one here wants to leave Russia and its booming economy. "Why?" says Sayrat. "Things used to be cool in Kazakhstan, but now they are fucked up." Indeed, during Russia's recent Euro 2008 victory over Holland, "motorists drove around the area for hours beeping their horns."
For now then, social and cultural isolation is Kosh Agach's only real option. At least the view is good.
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