MURUNTAU MUSINGS (PART 1)

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The Muruntau gold deposit is in the Kyzyl Kum Desert of Uzbekistan. It is being mined in the world’s largest open-pit gold mine with production of about two million ounces a year. The gold ore resource in the Muruntau deposit, including past production, is about 170 million ounces of gold. The Muruntau gold deposit was discovered in 1958. The area had been a source of turquoise since the days of the Silk Road. Mining began on the deposit in 1967, and production has been continuous ever since.

Let’s strep back just a little. The Republic of Uzbekistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is bordered by five landlocked countries: Kazakhstan to the north; Kyrgyzstan to the northeast; Tajikistan to the southeast; Afghanistan to the south; and Turkmenistan to the southwest. Fun fact of the day: along with Liechtenstein, it is one of the world’s only two doubly landlocked countries.

Why am I telling you this? I worked on a project at the Muruntau mine on two occasions. The project was to design and construct a heap leach facility and processing plant for low-grade ores that had been getting stockpiled for many years.  We arrived in the capital city of Tashkent via Moscow, and the client indicated that we should take the train. The train is really the way to go, they told us. They sent us with our translators to the open-air market with a shopping list. I remember that we were supposed to get a dozen bottles of vodka, several onions, loaves of bread, some lemons, and I don’t know what else. We cut back on the list, and we took our several very large boxes to the rail station. We had large boxes of 5-gallon buckets for sample collection, and a huge box of toilet paper. T that time, nearly everything was in short supply in the Former Soviet Union. We had a sleeper car, but there was not enough room for our boxes. The conductor made us relocate them every once in a while, and for that, he would always need a bribe. I mean a tip. The train ride was over night, and we gladly drank the night away. We became so obnoxious that the translators abandoned us at some point. The train ride lasted about 15 hours. It was exhausting, but fun. When we arrived, one from our group looked out the window, and proclaimed, “Ah, the grand Kuh-Zie-luh-come!” That cracked us up. It is pronounced KEEzle-Kume.

My first experience there was for a site investigation, and I was there with a colleague from Canada. We were there for 45 days. That was in 1993. Due to many complications, we were never able to use the American drill rig (a Becker hammer rig) that we were supposed to have, so we had to improvise. We used the local providers and mine personnel to do the drilling and test pit excavations. We used several different types of drill rigs. One was a solid flight auger rig, and each flight of auger was a different length. About all we could use this rig for was to investigate depths to soil horizons based on the soil cuttings that the drill turned up. There were three other drill rigs, including one enormous exploration rig that used guy wires to stabilize the mast. When we got down to our final depth with that rig, we advised the drillers, and we were told that we should come back tomorrow. We did. They were still drilling. We did this for several more days, and we finally figured out that they had been instructed to keep drilling to investigate whether the was an ore body below.

There were some really funny incidents, due to the use of translators. When we were getting ready to install a well into one of the borings, we asked a translator to let the driller know that we needed them to move the drill rig five feet forward. About 20 minutes later, the translator came back and asked how much five feet is. We said it was a meter and a half.

In the middle of the job, we were able to take a really nice trip, beginning in the city of Samarkand. The city is noted for being an Islamic center for scholarly study, although when I was there, religion had been largely forgotten, due to communist rule. Samarkand’s Registan square was the ancient center of the city, and is bound by three monumental religious buildings. Registan square is beautiful. Registan was a public square, built in the 14th century, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes and a place of public executions. The detailing of the structures is amazing. From there, we went to Bukhara. That’s where the famous rugs come from (remember?). Bukhara is also a beautiful city, filled with amazing architecture. People have inhabited the region around Bukhara for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for half that time. The city is located on the Silk Road.

So, probably the most memorable occurrence of the trip, was the one time that we were able to make a phone call. That’s right, 45 days, and one phone call. Communications were so poor, that the two surveyors we were working with were terminated from their company, because, to the company they had appeared to have gone AWOL. We were driven 5 hours on a dirt road to god knows where to get to a phone booth that you could make collect calls on. For some reason they didn’t drive us to the city of Zarafshan, which was just a few miles from the village of Muruntau, where we were staying. The call home felt really great, and for most of that call, I was speaking with my daughter, who was about 3 and a half at that time. Oh, I didn’t mention that we never got any news, either. On the call, I was told that there was a terror attack on the World Trade Center (the first attack).

My colleague was supposed to be watching the drill rig during the day shift, and I was supposed to have night shift. There was no night shift. He and I spent about 23 and a half hours a day in each other’s company. We worked together, worked together, and we were roommates. He commented to me on this toward the end of the stay, and that it was a miracle that we never had any falling out of any sort. And that is quite true.

That’s all for now. More later.

END PART 1

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