Tuesday, August 31, 2010


John had convinced me to take the train to Bukhara instead of a share taxi. And the LP had agreed: Comfortable aircraft type seating, a/c, sipping a refreshing drink as the irrigated fields and unirrigated desert slipped by. I went to the large, Soviet semi-futuristic train station and plopped down $10 for a first class ticket for the 11:55.

Lug my stuff down the stairs and then back up to Track 2. Then stand and wait in the hot sun. And wait. And wait. Fuming more and more at what an idiot I was not to just go get a share taxi. Finally the 'Sharq' express train arrived an hour late. I found my way to the assigned car.

It was divided up into creepy compartments. Mine had drawn shades and had two Uzbek men in undershirts wiping their eyes awake. No a/c and sweltering. I sat there in a corner, feeling and looking pretty grumpy.

I guess they could somehow sense it. After a little while the shade got opened. Then some questions in Russian about America. Then I was offered the seat by the window so that I could properly touristfy. Finally one of them opened the window so that it wasn't so sweltering. Fields and desert rolled by.

We pulled into the station around 4, two hours after I would have arrived via share taxi. And the station was still 15 km from Bukhara. I ignored all the pestering taxi drivers with their wildly inflated tourist prices and found one who gave me the real price. He dropped me off at Bukhara tourist central.

Which is Lyubi Haus, a shady square around a shady square pool dating back centuries. More modern were all the little open air poolside restaurants. A couple of hotel touts were actually well mannered and respectful, and directed me to the hotel I was looking for. Left at the small domed marketplace and about 400 meters down a dusty street lined with dusty brown houses.

Komil's B&B was in a tastefully upkept old Bokhara house, replete with wood carved rooms, tapesries, old wooden chests, etc. Also with a/c, a fridge, modern antique bathroom, and a tv where I could watch Uzbek music videos. (At least half of all programming on third world stations are music videos. Extremely cheap to broadcast.)

After a little relaxing I set out to find eats. A couple of people had noted how they had gotten violently ill here; David at Stantours (my Turkmen tour agent) had laughed and assured me that everyone gets violently ill in these parts. But after a km or so of walking I found 'La Bella Italia', about as upscale place as I could reasonably hope to find.

To show you how incredibly cheap Uzbekistan is: A meal of a decent, large potato and beet salad, a very large bowl of soup, a pretty large and pretty good pizza, and a 1.5 liter of fizzy water set me back $6.

Back to the Lyubi Haus to hang out a bit. Back to the room. Breakfast of crepes and figs in the morning. Then a late start on walking around town.

Samarkand has grand, 'modernized' monuments . set down in the middle of a pleasant, though active, city. Bukhara has smaller, more numerous, but nonetheless still pretty damn exotic arcades and medressas in a kind of deliberately preserved 'old town' atmosphere. Since I knew beforehand that I wasn't stumbling upon an undiscovered city, the quasi 19th century atmosphere was fine by me.

Bukhara had been one of the most important Silk Road cities for around 1000 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Emir of Bukhara controlled most of Central Asia. Then the Russians took over. Then the Bolsheviks. Who created 'Uzbeks' and 'Uzbekistan' from a bunch of people who considered themselves Turks or Persians.

But before all that, in around 1100, some Khorezms built this 200 foot high massive Kalon Tower that I was now staring at. Very alien looking architecturally, but at the same time very amazing aesthetically. Apparently Jenghiz Khan was so blown away by it that this was the one thing in Central Asia that he didn't level to the ground. The rest of the 'square' was occupied by two large medressas a la the Registan, though not quite the scale. Still the effect was stunning. And I would have stayed longer if not for the heat--my thermometer would top out at 106.

A little further on was The Ark, which isn't an ark at all, but the remains of the fortress/castle formerly occupied by the Emir. Only parts of the walls and buildings remained, since the Bolsheviks had bombed it to hell in 1920. (They also bombed that tower, but, nice guys that they were, they then repaired it.) Walk up the ramp, pay my entrance fee, walk up some more in the hot sun and walk through a couple of small museums.

Then back out to circumnavigate the thing in the even hotter sun. Stop to visit the dungeorn and see the infamous 20 foot deep 'bug pit' where a couple of famous British adventurers were kept for three years before being beheaded. Then back to the tower area and thr rest of old town Bukhara.

My allergies had been pretty bad back in Almaty. Since then they had been relatively slight. Including at Samarkand. But this morning within 3 minutes of leaving my a/c room I was consumed with violent sneezing fits. So all day I had been popping antihistamines like M&Ms (actually, I wouldn't eat that many M&Ms at once), and still keeping it barely at bay. So now I found myself an Uzbek pharmacy to buy even more Russian pills.

Back to the B&B for a specially prepared vegetarian Uzbek meal. It was okay, but there wasn't that much of it. I was glad that I had a hunk of high priced cheese stashed in the fridge.

Maureen is glad that there is Skype. Now when I sit down and eat a meal we can chat away, me talking to a netbook and the netbook answering back.

On Wednesday I woke up bright and early and for the first time on the trip didn't feel any significant pain. Gloriously. I put my things on and headed on over to hang out with the Kalon Tower for a while in the early morning light. As I wandered back for breakfast I ran into the morning's first busload of French tourists. Seems like European tour companies book giant bus tours of Central Asia. And they all stop here in Bukhara.

And I am always amazed at how incredibly slobby all European tourists are. They invariably wear clothes that the fattest trailer park person in Missouri would be ashamed to be seen in. Since they would never dress like this at home, it's almost as if they are deliberately disrespecting the third world countries they go to. Especially since it's very important in these countries for middle class people to try and look decent.

Especially because today was their biggest holiday, National Uzbekistan Day. After breakfast I went back towards the tower, and then veered off towards Bukhara's main public park. Many, many Uzbeks were also headed there, the women all decked out in their finest tunic/dresses.

In the middle of the park was a small amusement park, complete with the oversized ferris wheel which virtually every settlement in the former Soviet Union seems to have. A ways off to the side was a 9th century mausaleum (okay, I guess Jenghiz Khan spared that too). And then in the back of the park were a few remains of the old city walls. It was still pretty neat to realize that here I was strolling around in a place that about 150 years ago was more exotic and remote than Timbuktu.

It wasn't so hot today. The temperature barely hit 103. I kept swigging water and goggling at the stone spires and domes. I didn't even mind all the French tourists. Actually, there wasn't much of anything happening on the streets. Even the vendors were giving up and closing up due to the holiday emptiness. I went back to my room, turned up the a/c, and blogged away.

In the evening I met up with the two young British chaps who would be joining me on my Turkmenistan tour and we had dinner together. I had already arranged for a car to take us the 100 km to the border tomorrow. Now I just had to pay my hotel bill, pack up, and inform Maureen that internet might not be happening for the next five days.

I'm all excited. Turkmenistan awaits.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


John (his American name) had lived in the States for about seven years when the recession hit in South Florida. Then his uncle (shades of Rugby) convinced him to come back home to get in on the ground floor of the new booming tourist industry here in Samarkand. Uncle then conveniently had an old gutted out house that John could buy and completely modernize.

Now he had a B&B just minutes from the Registan. He led me down the side street to the place. The room was pretty nice; all the bathroom stuff seemed to work and the a/c certainly did. We agreed on a price of $85 for four nights, and I settled in.

By now it was dark, and I returned to the main drag to find some food. There was a semi-decent looking place with nice owners and only okay food. By the time the young girl came out all decked out in Uzbek finery and doing a five minute graceful dance, I was her only audience. When that non-hubbub died down, I noticed a larger hubbub starting across the street.

I went out and there was the most godawful sound and light show going on. With horrible poetry in English. And I was probably the only English speaking person who was in its range. I crossed the street to the Registan.

Let me explain the Registan, which is Samarkand's greatest claim to fame. There are three rather large courtyards fronted by three enormous facades facing each other on three sides of a square. Viewed from the fourth side, even at night and with horrible lighting, it was pretty awe inspiring. I sat there for all fifty minutes of horrible poetry.

Then I sauntered over to a small open air ice cream stand, where I bought three scoops for 40 cents. Uzbekistan is incredibly inexpensive. Then I crossed the street to the supermarket, bought some cheese and bread, and headed back to the room.

The next morning John and his Uzbek ladies served up an incredibly large breakfast. I would need to be fortified for a day of sightseeing in the heat. Off to the Registan I went.

In the daylight the buildings were of course that much more spectacular. Not quite Moghul, not quite Persian, totally exotic. With their blue tiled domes and facades and minarets, just about everywhere I looked there were perfectly framed pictures. My camera went click and click and click. The courtyards inside weren't as monumental as the false front exteriors, but they were very aesthetically balanced. Most of the small rooms were occupied by small tourist shops womaned by small Uzbekis. I walked a bit, sat and contemplated, walked a bit more, sat some more. I am not easily impressed. But I was very impressed.

Finally it was time to head on out, and I proceeded to the next major site, a large mosque from the same era. I strode along a pleasant, wide, white concrete pedestrian way with upscale (for Uzbekistan) stores fronting it. Some have criticized President Karimov for prettifying the area too much, but--although I certainly enjoy old, rundown buildings--I happened to find it all tastefully done. After all, the original builders certainly intended their places to look clean and snazzy. And it's kind of culturally imperialistic for us in the West to tell the Uzbeks how they're supposed to like their national monuments.

Many Uzbek women walked by in their Friday go-to-mosque finest. I paid my entrance fee to this mosque, (not a working one), oohed and ahhed, and snapped some more pictures. After I exited, close by was a pretty huge bazaar area, which was bustling with a lot of Friday shoppers.

Then it was about a km to the third major site/sight, a lineup of about fifteen mausaleums at the edge of a giant cemetary that Karimov had just finished refinishing. The effect of the light brown stone, extravagant blue tiles, and bright sunlight was dazzling.

I walked back to the Registan marveling at what a world class tourist experience this was. Right up there with the Taj Mahal and St Sophia's in Istanbul. And President Karimove had worked so hard on it. But the irony was that it's almost impossible to get here. And it's even more almost impossible to get a visa. So for now you can eat your hearts out, Decadent Yuppie Tourist Scum.

Uzbekistan is so inexpensive that I still hadn't used up the $80 in sum that I had gotten at thoe border. But now I had to change some more money. The official rate is 1600 to the dollar, but
everyone changes on the 'black market', which is basically any hotel, restaurant or business. I went to last night's restaurant, where I traded one crisp new 100 for 210 1000s.

I couple of hours later I was back at the restaurant. This time there were no dancing girls, and I had to endure a truly dreadful attempt at a pizza.

John not only served up one of the world's best B&B breakfasts, he also had wifi. So in the morning I could not only dawdle around eating blintzes and burfee, but I could Skype the wife. See if the Phillies won. Check out how freaked out Paul Krugman was. All the important stuff.

Around 11 am I got it together to go do some more sightseeing. When I got to the Registan I turned left and went about half a km to see the fourth major attraction, Timur's mausaleum. (For those of you not buffed on your Central Asian history, Timur (or Timurlane) was a local boy from the 1400s whose capital was Samarkand and who conquered everywhere from Delhi to Istanbul.) Once again a large area in front of it had recently become a beflowered and befountained plaza. Once again I was not offended, but found it rather pleasant.

This was the last major historical monument. I continued walking into the 'Russian', modern, part of town. Samarkand is actually a city of almost half a million, and like every other Soviet creation consists of broad tree lined boulevards, long, wide, four or five story buildings, and a surprising amount of greenery that nonetheless always ends up looking and feeling pointless and boring. But I actually kind of liked the whole place.

And I got real excited when I found an honest to good honest and good Italian restaurant. For the first time so far on the trip there was some truly yummo food.

Then a meander back to the B&B. Turn up the a/c. Take a quick shower. When I went back outside twilight was a'coming. And John asked me if I wanted to join him and his family for dinner. I was glad to accept.

The Uzbeks are all Muslim, and most of them seem proud of that. But 80 years of Communism had eroded a lot of their traditions. For instance, even though they don't drink nearly as much as Russians, beer and spirits are sold everywhere. And almost nobody observes the Ramadan fast. But they do still enjoy the big overdone nighttime meals which are a large part of the Ramadan ritual.

And when John had said 'family' he hadn't just meant mom and dad and the wife and kids. There were well over a dozen men seated crosslegged around a low table. That was for the chai and appetizer part. Then we all moved over to regular tables, where there was bread and soup and more chai. The Uzbeks are like Turks in that they come across as shy, but are actually pretty warm and eager to please. Seated next to me was one of John's young cousins, who had actually just won the lottery. The green card lottery, that is. In a few days he was flying to Florida to move in with John's brother. He was pretty excited, yet still shy.

The Uzbeks, like so many third world people around the world, just absolutely love America. Granted, it is a vision of America that isn't necessarily grounded in reality. But the first question they invariably ask a foreigner is if they are from America. 99% or them aren't. So when I tell them that I am, they are so damn delighted. Of course, then I have the responsibility of patiently enduring all their questions. When I don't speak Russian or Uzbek and then don't speak English.

In John's cousin's case, he did have a basic English grounding. But it was mostly book learning. So now I had the responsibility to talk as much as possible with him so that he could practice English in the real world.

I was happy to accommodate. But I had been careful to fill myself up on soup and bread, knowing that there would be little vegetarian gnoshing when the main courses came in an hour. So right before that I excused myself and retired to my room.

(The women, by the way, were having their own party in another area. I know that the fact that traditional societies tend to do that is always presented as odious and somehow oppressive. But here's how it works: Men tend to be very devoted to their wives and children. But the plain fact is that at get togethers in every culture men usually like talking politics and sports with other men; women like talking children and men with other women. Traditional societies just don't pretend otherwise.)

In my younger days (say, three years ago) I would lead as action packed a travel life as possible. This is not because I couldn't stop and enjoy myself. It was that I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn't stop. But now that my fast descending decrepitude is asserting itself, the trick is to hold back so as not to overextend. So I had planned to sit around Sunday and do nothing. But at 10:45 I decided to go on that day trip to Shakhrizabh, about two hours away. I walked up to the Registan, where hopeful share taxis were waiting, and a guy snagged me. He still had two more seats to fill, and I gave him until 11:30. At 11:29 he had found them and we took off.

We passed a flat landscape of fields and vineyards and orchards for a while, and then started climbing over the sort of brown, slightly bushy hill/mountain that you would see in Sonoma or Napa County. A lot drier and rockier on the other side. And then we were there.

This was Timur's hometown, and is where he had his giant palace. All that was left of it now was a 130 foot tower. Intimations of mortality again as I was spiralling up the 104 high stone steps. Even worse when I was coming down. I realized that my only hope was that Medicare will still exist in a few years so I can get that knee replacement surgery.

I then wobbled along on my damaged knees about a km to where there was another blue domed, blue tiled mosque and mausaleum. My thermometer read 100 degrees, but it's always a couple of degrees high. Sunday market day was happening all around me.

It was actually a fun small Uzbek town experience, but now I had to return. I stopped a marshrutka that said 'Kitob' (in Cyrillic) and rode the 10 km back to that small city. Where I quickly got a share taxi back to Samarkand.

There was nothing to do now except, eat, sleep, stuff all my crap back into my bag, and go.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kazakhstan Can Two / Tashkent

Immigration was again a snap. I trundled on through and got back on the marshrutka. Truth to tell, the environs looked about the same as we continued along the wide valley floor towards Taraz: Nondescript fields, scattered trees lining the road, brown hazy mountains in the distance.

We got to Taraz around 3:30. The climate had returned to being reasonably hot. A waiting marshutra had one seat to fill. I was it, and we immediately took off. Now the agriculture thinned out and it the landscape was similar to what it was a lot further east going towards Charyn Canyon: Mostly flattish brown dirt with hints of green and scattered scrub. No real towns for the next couple of hours.

We pulled into Shymkent just before 6. A young, friendly, honest cab driver immediately offered to take me to the Olenbazy Hotel for not much money. Shymkent turned out to be surprisingly big, around 500,000. In normal terms it wasn't incredibly prosperous, but compared to Bishkek it could have been South Florida. The Olenbazy was in front of giant Olenbazy Square. It was refreshing to see how much nicer greenery and fountains and giant statues were when they were taken care of.

For $20 I could get a stuffy, really crappy room. For $33 I could get a much nicer room with a/c. I splurged. Then I lay down in the a/c for a while. Then I had to attend to my never ending need to find edible food.

About 200 meters down a clean, nice modern street I found a clean, nice modern Turkish restaurant. The Turks and, surprisingly, the Korean businesspeople are the ones taking over Central Asia. The extremely friendly restaurant people served my up gut busting portions of dolma, pide, and baklava for less than I paid at 'Fat Boys' yesterday.

That was the high point of my evening. When I got back to the hotel room I discovered that for all its clean tiled facade, there was still much of the old Soviet in it. The toilet seat fell off of the toilet. Remember those old jokes about Soviet sandpaper toilet paper? They were/are true. I went downstairs to the 'internet center', got off a few emails, and the connection died. Well, at least the a/c was still working. I went to bed.

These days when I wake up in the morning my mind is alert. And my body feels like it was just worked over by a bunch of drunken Hells Angels. I lay there and went over my options for the day. I could take a day trip to a mausaleum in the city of Turkistan and come back. I could hang out in Shymkent. I could go to Tashkent. Or I could be really ambitious and try to get to Samarkand. I went down to check the internet. Still out. That conveniently collapsed my options down to Tashkent.

My 'free breakfast' included a bowl of cream of wheat, two tiny pancakes with an imaginery wisp of sour cream, and a cup of black instant coffee, no milk.

I got my things and went outside, immediately getting a cab to go to where the share taxis left for the border. There wasn't much business this morning, so I had to pay a lot more than the going rate to get the share taxi moving. Now the land we were going through was dry, slightly green, grassy hills, kind of like central California north of San Luis Obispo. Pretty much empty.

The border here was a pretty elaborate setup. But taking pictures of borders in these countries is an even bigger no no than taking pictures of airports. The cab driver directed me to his sister (!) who had a little money changing booth. I pulled out my $80 worth of Tenge. Now it got interesting, since the largest denomination bill in Uzbekistan is 1000 Som, which is worth about 45 cents. So in exchange I got two giant wads of 500s and 1000s. Feeling like a successful drug dealer, I stashed them in my backpack. And headed for the first gate.

Painless again. Even Uzbekistan, which I had been a little worried about, seeing as how it's supposed to be a police state and all. But I was out the other side and dickering with cab drivers in little more than an hour.

Uzbekistan wasn't at well off as Kazakhstan, but it was much better off than Kyrgyzstan. And it had an immediate air of permanent semi-slapdashness. A slight hang looseness not in keeping with honored Soviet tradition. Moreover, Uzbek used the American alphabet! (By the way, the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen are all variations of Turks and the Turkish language. Tajiks speak Persian.) Well, okay, many of the signs were still in Russian, but this was all getting too easy.

I got a guy to take me to a Metro stop in Tashkent for under $3. Then I took the Metro to the southeast corner of town for 25 cents. Then another couple of bucks to take me to the guesthouse door. I rang the bell.

Nobody answered. Hmmm. A went over to a step and sat down, pondering my position. Try to get to Samarkand? Ten minutes went by. Then people showed up, opened the gate, and profusely apologized for not having been there. Considering that my reservation wasn't until a couple of days from now, I couldn't really blame them. And I was glad that they would have a room available at 4 pm.

When I made the online reservation, it came with a note that there was 'No Harlotry Allowed'. Then I later noticed that the guesthouse was run by an evangelical Christian group. So I was half dreading an attempt at proselytazation. But these turned out to be people who were actually trying to act Christian instead of just talk Christian. They were very friendly and refreshing.

And they had internet! And Uzbekistan didn't block Blogger! Although while here I could only use it from 9 to 5 during office hours. Still, I was finally able to communicate a little. Then they directed me to where there was, what else?, a Turkish restaurant about ten minutes away, I left my bags with them, and went and had a pizza.

I came back, moved into my room, turned on the a/c (everywhere in Tashkent seemed to have a/c), then headed out to see what I could see before it got dark. The impromptu taxis here were even more ubiquitous. And cheaper. A couple of dollars would get you just about everywhere. And Tashkent, like all Soviet cities, was incredibly spread out, with endless boulevards and parky areas and fountains and...

You had to hand it to the Soviets. They really tried to be grand. But all of their green spaces and quasi-modern triumphant sculpture and such are almost invariably uninspiring. Of course, trying to make atheism inspiring was always going to be a tough sell.

But that's what you need to know about the Soviet Unioners. They were an odd mix of atheism and utopianism. Which made for so much of the bizarrity of their manifestations. But it's also important to remember that many of them, including the bureaucrats, were motivated by a sort of selfless idealism.

Anyway, Karimov, the present and future ruler, is keen to bring Uzbekistan into the modern world. So many of the avenues are lined with spanking new construction. There's no oil money here, but somehow he's coming up with the cash. And there are a lot of nice snazzy new apartment buildings going up, too, so at least some people are doing well. On the other hand, the fact that you can get every other car to stop and take you to the other side of town for two bucks means that a lot of people aren't.

I went to the Chorsu area, the old part of town, but didn't get much past the giant bazaar. Which like most bazaars in most poor countries, isn't about exotic spices or antiques, but concerned with selling lots of fruits and vegetables and cheap plastic crap to the locals. There were a couple of old tiled mosques and a smattering of people in colorful Uzbek garb.

Next I took the Metro. Since taking pictures on the Metro was even more verboten than taking them at the airport or the border, I was expecting the stations to be really fancy and artistic, like the ones in Moscow. Uh uh. Really blah. And blah train cars. And it was about the least populated Metro ever. I got off at the Oybek stop, where I started walking around looking for the Tandoori Indian Restaurant, which the LP said was 'an enduring Tashkent favorite'. But the LP has a habit of touting luscious sounding restaurants which turn out not to have existed for at least ten years. I finally found the address, which was currently occupied by a giant hole in the ground.

I stuck out my hand and took a car back to that Turkish restaurant. But I wasn't going to have another pizza. No, I would have them direct me to an internet place. Which they did, but it was closing in 5 minutes. So I bought a little bread and cheese and went back to my room in the dark.

An hour later I was regretting not getting that second pizza, and I was ravenously devouring my meager rations. I had also noticed a slight problem with my accommodations. My 'mattress' was about an inch thick, and it rested upon an incredibly hard slab of thick unyielding particleboard. Even when young and with a good back it would have been unbelievably painful. Fortunately there were two other beds in the room, and by piling up all three 'mattresses' it became barely tolerable.

Other than that, it was a really nice little setup. The next morning 4 Chinese ladies--excuse me, Hong Kong ladies (they were insulted to be lumped in with China)--told me about a great place in Samarkand.

But first I had to wait for the nice Christian people to show up at their office, and check my email. Then I felt the need to see a little more of Tashkent. After all, although it was supposed to be foreboding and boring, so far I had found it kind of pleasant and boring. And you call this a police state? Sure there were cops on just about every corner, but the biggest one was about 5'6" tops, and they seemed intent on doing as little as possible. Anyway, so long as you avoid eye contact and always look like you know what you're doing, even in real police states they'll usually leave you alone.

But after going to the main park and walking around some, I had run out of things to do in the big city (population 2.5 million). So I took a car back to the Turkish restaurant and had another pizza for the road.

Then back to the guesthouse, pack up my belongings, and take a car out to where the share taxis left for Samarkand. As usual, pretty aggressive guys, but once one has snagged you they all quiet down. I stood around waiting for about a half an hour until my guy had snagged his full allotment.

These included a man who spoke basic English and his university bound son who was actually pretty good. He of course was eager to get some real practice in, and I was happy to oblige. The next four hours included a lot of, 'Sir, which is your favorite country? For beauty? Where do you find the nicest people?'

Also included was a stop at a roadside melon market, where everyone got out and bought beaucoup de melons. Maybe the vendors don't need to take any home at night. The rest of the scenery alternated between irrigated farmland and semi-barren to barren waste. I looked out the window and absorbed the reality that here I was in the middle of friggin' Uzbekistan.

The roads so far had been paved, but not up to an incredibly high standard. Usually four laned, although nobody abided by lanes that much. Traffic was never too heavy, was more chaotic than the States, but a lot less so than Mexico.

As we got near Samarkand, the kid's father took out his mobile and called the B&B the Hong Kong ladies had raved about. The guy said that he would meet me at the supermarket in front of the Registan. The cab driver had become really friendly and was more than eager to take me there. I shook hands all around and walked across the street into the Samarkand about-to-twilight.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Can't

It would have cost me $160 to get a Kyrgyz visa in the States. And I would have had to wait for three weeks. If I was lucky. But flying in on a $70 ticket I could get a $70 visa at the airport. Okay, $100 for two entries. And I had to wait in line behind a bunch of Korean businessmen.

But after that the rest of immigration was a snap. And my driver was actually there. We drove in on a deserted road for about 30 km.

The inskirts of the city looked pretty desultory in the late night. He pulled into the guesthouse carport and showed me to my room. There was a creepy little bed and a light that didn't work. The communal toilet had no seat and no toilet paper. It was just before 4 am and little Mikey had had a long day. I fell asleep.

I awoke at around 11:30. Bishkek was supposed to have the same climate as Almaty, but outside it was grey, cold, and rainy. I went back to bed.

By 12:30 I realized that I had to get up and see what I had gotten myself into. I had been communicating with Gulnara, who had seemed friendly enough. A Kyrgyz relative said that Gulnara was in Japan. No one else in the family spoke any English.

Well, I guessed I had to walk into town. Which was several miles away. Through the rain. I put on a shirt and a jacket I had brought along for the high Pamir, and started out.

The main road I walked along was just as dreary as the weather. When I got to a major intersection I sat down on a step outside the rain. A chirpy female German backpacker came by and cheerily told me about the nice coffee shops, etc., that I would find on the main drag. That sounded good, because besides being cold and wet I was hungry.

Walking towards the center I passed more Soviet parks and monuments, but they were all woebegone and ragged. It looked like twenty years ago Bishkek and Almaty were roughly the same, but they had been going in opposite directions ever since.

When I got to Chuy, the main street, things didn't improve. Nor was there anything approaching a nice coffee shop. I walked past the monument to independence, the presidential palace, etc., etc. There weren't even that many other people walking by. It was that poor.

I found an Italian restaurant, but it was empty, creepy, and overpriced. I walked into a place that advertised cheese samosa/pierogies. 'Vegetarian' is the same word in Russian, so it was easy for the girl there to tell me that she didn't have anything I could eat. The cold rain had devolved into a cold drizzle. I walked back into it.

Finally I found 'Fat Boys', the supposedly expats' favorite. I ordered some soup, some spaghetti, and some roast potatoes. It was high priced, barely edible, and very greasy. I finished it and started my long walk back to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse had advertised that they had internet. Of course they had lied. And John's internet had been off and on for three days. Mostly off. So far I had had better luck in West Africa.

My leg muscles were holding up pretty well so far. But the joints connecting them weren't. Right now where my thigh bones were connected to my hip bones it was feeling pretty brutal after eight miles of pounding the pavement. It was 7 pm, I was freezing, and I went to sleep.

And didn't wake up until 7 am. In the morning the weather had turned to partly cloudy. I had penciled in a couple of days to take a little trip into the mountains, but if it was this bad at 2,000 feet I could only imagine what it was like at 10,000 feet. Cold and muddy and no infrastructure. And the Kyrgyz people weren't seeming all that warm and friendly either. I knew that times were super tough, but sometimes times get tough because the people are jerks.

I didn't want to make snap judgments about the Kyrgyz. On the other hand, I didn't want to hang around and find out. Moreover, another German backpacker I met at 'breakfast' regaled me with his miserable tale of trying to get out of the mountains yesterday. What was I to do? Walk around Bishkek some more? It seemed crazy that I would go to this effort to get to Kyrgyzstan and then stay only 24 hours, but I didn't see any point in staying. If I was going to be doing nothing I'd rather be doing it somewhere exotic like Samarkand.

The border with Uzbekistan was closed, seeing as how about a month ago the Kyrgyz in Osh had just massacred 1000 Uzbeks. The guesthouse driver guy taxied me to the West bus station, and I found an oversized marshutra (Russian for 'minibus') that was heading for Taraz in Kazakhstan. I grabbed a quite comfortable seat and waited around for an hour or so while he rounded up more passengers.

Whilst sitting I could ponder the absurdity of the West's portrayal of Central Asia being run by brutal dictatorships, except for the bright shining beacon of Kyrgyzstan's democracy. At least as compared to Kazakhstan, what insane twaddle. Any Kyrgyz would give anything to be living in Almaty.

Generalizing: To the extent that anyone in countries such as this care at all about Free And Fair Elections, it's down around #47 on the list. And the few intellectuals who do care have this sweet, idealized vision of democracy that has absolutely nothing to do with the degraded mess that we have sunk to. Consider: Putin has approval ratings of 80%. So do the Chinese leaders. Virtually no Western leader is above 30. Talk about the Emperor's New Clothes! Because we're still strutting around tut-tutting about how obviously superior OUR 'democracy' is.

Well, enough fulminating. Because the marshutra was filled up. And we were headed down the nondescript agricultural road due west towards Kazakhstan.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kazakhstan Can

Friday morning saw me at the bus stop across the street from the Kazakhstan Hotel. Waiting. Finally at 10 am the special bus pulled up and all of us with our daypacks slung over our shoulders scrambled to get a seat. Fifty Tenge and forty minutes later we were up the foothills to Medeu, a pretty huge skating rink in the pines.

Nobody else seemed to be going any further, so I had to pay 1500 Tenge for a taxi ride up, up, up the 7 km or so to the Chimbulak ski lodge. Construction was going on all around for the upcoming Asian winter games in January. I followed a group of hikers around through some construction, and found out that the ski lifts were still working. I paid my money and hopped on board.

There is nothing more peaceful and quiet than riding a ski lift in the summertime. You're going away from the lodge, and surrounded by trees and hills and grass silently sailing by. What's more, the sky was a perfect blue, and even here at around 9,000 feet it was t-shirt weather.

At the top around half of the people were hanging around near the lift, and we others drifted off walking further up. Man, it was steep for bad, old knees. Above me was the craggy rocky top of Communism Peak. About a half mile and about 250 meters up I made it up to its cwm (great Scrabble word), the bowl-like depression at its base. I sat in the grass for a while and then headed back down.

By now many more Russians had made it to the top of the lift, and they were gabbing and gabbing away. I'd hate to be here on the weekend. I rode the lift down, and now it was the opposite experience, heading back towards civilization. The taxis were adamant about 1000 Tenge per seat to get to Medeu. I was tired of paying extortionate amounts, and decided to walk.

Big mistake. The road was super steep, there was construction all around, and my knees were getting beyond shot. After around 800 meters I gave up and hailed a cab and paid him his money.

Now the wait for the bus. When it arrived there was a mad dash with too many people and too few seats. I was pushing aside little old ladies (and they were pushing back pretty hard). I wasn't proud of myself, but there was no way that I was going to stand for the next 40 minutes.

We arrived back next to where John teaches, so I stopped off to see him at his office. Then it was down a few blocks to a place I had noticed on my walk yesterday. Pizza Hut. It was overpriced and not very good. But now I could add Kazakhstan to Yemen, Nicaragua, Andorra, Luxembourg, and the 20 other countries that I've had Pizza Hut in.

Saturday was supposed to be one of my rare 'off' days where I had no adventures planned. But Ilya the Ukranian had showed up last night to Couchsurf, and he informed us at 8 am that he had hired a car and driver to take him 30 miles away so that he could photograph some old apple trees by the side of the road. We were invited along, so we pulled on some clothes and went.

We wound up in an area you wouldn't expect to find in Kazakhstan. It kind of looked almost tropical, or like the mountains down South, with a hazy atmosphere, lush overgrown vegetation, and valleys and steep hills on the horizon. Of course, this was the summertime. In winter it would be frigid and impossible to reach. But now it was dotted with all kinds of claptrap structures, neglected farmhouses which were the summer dachas of any number of city folk.

One of them was Nina, a 60 year old Russian who came to ask why John was taking pictures of the construction of old tires she used for a retaining wall. When she determined that nothing sinister was going on, she invited all of us, John, me Ilya, and the driver, in for tea, bread, jam, homemade cheese, etc..

Nina loved to talk. And talk. John had an appointment at 2, but was too polite to break in. I would have had no trouble being rude, but couldn't speak Russian. Finally the situation was brought to Nina's attention; she was a little upset that son Sasha wouldn't be able to take us to the Russian saint shrine somewhere off in the hills. But Ilya was game to stay. Don't worry, he'd find a way back. I joked that this was the last we'd see of him. He was one of those people who had too much friendliness and too little smarts.

For the last few days I had had a lot of fun deciphering all the Russian signs. It turns out that most of the modern words, such as 'supermarket', 'hot dog', and 'bowling', are pretty much the same once you transliterate the Cyrillic. Which means that you can actually figure out alot of things. But now at 4 pm John and I had to figure out what the Russian was for 'antihistamine'. Although one of the reasons I had left New Mexico was to escape my allergies, they had followed me here with a vengeance, and I was going through at least 8 Benadryl a day.

They didn't have Benadryl in Almaty. But 'antihistamine' in Russian is 'antigystamine;, and they did have several types of those. At very high prices. I chose the cheapest one and hoped that it would do the trick.

Next we took a bus to a hypermarket and got a few provisions. Then back to the apartment, freshen up, and John and I went down to meet his Kazakhi fiancee at the vegetarian restaurant. Govinda's. Run by the Kazakhi Hare Krishnas. And just as we arrived so did around 30 of them, all decked out in saris and robes and chanting away.

The food was underly spiced and overly greasy, but what the hey. How many vegetarian restaurants were there in Central Asia? To John's knowledge, this was it. We walked back through the hot, muggy night. It had been pretty damn hot the last few days. John said that it was about the worst he had seen so far.

The next morning I was up at 6 and out the door for my big bus excursion. It started three miles away, so I just held out my hand. The first car stopped, I told him my destination, offered 300 Tenge and off we went. The way it works around these parts is that virtually every other car is an informal taxi, and as opposed to the formal ones, most of these guys are really nice and reasonably priced.

There were two bus loads of us going out to Charyn Canyon. Almost all working middle class Russians and Kazakhs. About three hours on the road, and then 45 minutes to go 6 miles on a gravel road. It started out flat and agricultural, and then morphed into slightly rolling brown wasteland. When we got to the end we all got out and started walking downhill through the canyon.

It would have made a nice state park in Arizona or Utah. The canyon itself was only a few hundred feet high, but the main attraction was strangely eroded rock formations along the ridges. After about three miles of down, down, down, we arrived at a moderately wide river with shady trees alongside.

I couldn't rest all that well, since I didn't know the particulars on how and when we were supposed to get back. But finally someone told me that the bus left at 4. It was 2:20 and I am the world's slowest walker, so I started back.

It's not that it was horribly steep. But it was 95 degrees. And the two liters of water I had brought along weren't enough. I arrived at the top wiped out and dehydrated.

The bus didn't leave until 4:30 because of dawdlers. As we rode back I noticed once again all the impromptu fruit stands by the side of the road. There were many giant piles of hundreds of watermelons. I wondered how they thought they could sell them all. Then I saw someone putting 10 watermelons in the trunk of his car. Then I realized that the seller would have to take all of his unsold watermelons home with him at night. And then bring them back the next day.

We were back in Almaty at 8:30 and I was at John's apartment at 9. Ilya was there with a giant swollen foot. Sasha had talked him into trying a motorcycle, he had crashed, and had spent the entire day at the hospital. A couple of other Couchsurfers had also arrived.

I took about the 9th shower I had taken since arrival, and bustled about getting my things together. A taxi came at 11 and took me to the airport. There is exactly one flight a day between Almaty and Bishkek, a small prop plane, and it leaves at 1:30 am.

At the airport I was annoyed that taking pictures at airports is verboten, and the police there wore ridiculously oversized green Soviet army hats on their small Kazakh heads. Also that I hadn't taken a shot of one of the Presidential billboards. Nazarov (?) seems to be still completely bought into the Soviet ideal, and his picture is inveriably comically stiff and pasty, standing there as if he has just successfully concluded another five year plan.

Ah well. Stare at the walls for awhile. Then board the plane.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From There To Here

Just to remind me from the start that small mistakes can be very costly, I realized as I was emptying my pockets at the airport that for the first time ever I had forgotten to bring along my little bottle of headache and allergy pills. Buying the smallest box of each at the airport newsstand set me back $18.

I've learned my other lessons, though, and slotted three hours for between planes. The Atlanta airport was filled with miserable people who hadn't done that and who had missed their connections due to thunderstorms in the area.

As the crowd coalesced for the Dubai flight I started talking to a military contractor who was going over to Afghanistan to fix helicopters. He pointed out that at least a third of the flight were other military contractors. A lot of Type A personalities who were constantly surrounded by really loud machines spitting out lots of firepower. Given those parameters, I understood how, even with the best of intentions, it would be nearly impossible for peace to somehow emerge from such a situation.

Every seat in the 777 was full. For fourteen hours. Two years ago when I took a fancy Emirates flight to Dubai I was amazed by the 100 movies on demand at my personal seat video. Now the deal was old hat even on a crappy airline like Delta. I alternated between choosing movies and trying to sleep in my locked and upright position.

We flew right over Baghdad, but the dust and haze was such that you couldn't see anything. It was dark again when we landed. A zip through customs and then the culture shock of being in Dubai.

The main part of which was in how happy everybody was. After all, over 80% of the population is from India, Pakistan, or the Philippines, and to them a life where things were neat and clean and stuff actually worked was pretty much Heaven on Earth.

An official airport taxi to Sharjah (about a half hour away) would have cost over $50. So I paid $1 to take the spanking new automated Dubai Metro to its next stop, got off, and then got a regular taxi for $17.

The 4 star hotel turned out to be only about 2.7 stars. But it was the size of an apartment, complete with a full kitchen and a washing machine. To sleep at 11 and then up at 6:30 and my free 10 mile lift to the Sharjah airport for the 9 am discount flight to Almaty. Surrounded by new freeways and buildings and all, I concluded that even with the economic downturn it was still impressive as hell what the UAE had accomplished from absolutely nothing in the middle of a flat, brown, ugly sand desert. And all of this without the slightest hint of democracy.

At 2:30 local time, surrounded by a bunch of Russians and Kazakhs, I deplaned onto the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. Immigration was a breeze. And then I was surrounded by a bunch of predatory taxi drivers wanting absurd amounts of money to go into town. Even though I knew the rate should be 1500 Tenge, I told them I would pay 2000 (about $12). One guy went for it, so I went to his car.

Big mistake. It turned out that he had no idea where the (pretty obvious) address I had given him was. For the next hour and a half he drove around and around and around. He didn't speak a word of English. He wasn't very bright. And he was probably the only person left in the entire world who didn't have a cell phone. Around and around and around. Then when he finally found it he wanted 4000 Tenge. I told him not a chance. But I didn't have 2000 Tenge to throw in his face. Because the ATM at the airport had only spit out one 10,000 Tenge note. So now I had to find someone on the empty street to have change. Which would be like getting a stranger to change a $300 bill in the States. But I finally found a guy, changed the bill, and gave him the choice of 2000 or nothing. He took the 2000.

Now I had to find a mobile phone so that I could call my new Couchsurfer friend John, an American guy my age who teaches at a university here in Almaty. I got a hold of him and he directed me to his apartment, where a Hungarian backpacking couple who were already staying with him let me in. As I somehow knew it would be, his apartment was up six long flights of stairs. A little later he showed up, and we walked around Almaty a bit. I could immediately tell that it was one of the better examples of a Soviet city, with relatively decent stone buildings of four or five floors and lots and lots of trees.

The next morning I woke myself up so that I could seriously walk around Almaty. The city of over a million is at the base of a semi-impressive mountain range, so it slopes from south to north from up to down. I headed up south. A quiet tree lined street up to the usual semi-Soviet independence monument, then over to an overpriced cable car up to a little park overlooking the city. In several directions there were a smattering of new fancy, schmancy office and apartment towers. Kazakhstan has lots and lots of oil, so it has done about the best of all the former Soviet republics. The President is somewhat of a benevolent despot, and is well respected for what he has accomplished. This is by no means a police state. In fact, you rarely see any signs of authority.

Back down the cable car, and then wandering north down the hill to Prokofiev Park, the city's main green space. The big attraction here was the 1908 Russian cathedral, brightly painted and domed like St. Basil's in Moscow. Then west along the main shopping street to find the office where I could buy my ticket for the Charyn Canyon tour. By now it was four and I hadn't eaten yet, so I found a Turkish joint where I got an ersatz pizza. After that it was back up the hill towards John's apartment.

John is an ex-hippie and a Quaker, and when he found out about the Couchsurfer thing earlier this year he got really into the idea of providing a place for people to stay. So he's turned almost no one away, and at one point he had 16 people crashing on his floor. Last night it was 7, but today it was back down to 3.

Present day backpackers are considerate and polite. But they also need to be checking their email four hours a day, and they need to go to a bar or disco every night until the wee hours. A new academic year was starting for John at the university, so he was working really long hours. Still he found time to hand out with me for a while in the evening.

Then it can time for me to go online and post this blog. But apparently blogger.com is blocked by the authorities here in Kasakhstan. What??!! I mean, I certainly approve of censoring other people's thoughts. After all, they're almost always wrong. But MY thoughts? Now that's pretty creepy.

Nevertheless, I finally realized that if I send this as an attachment to wife Maureen, and she remembers how to cut and paste, this all important blog post can still get published in a timely manner.

The gong of freedom will not go silent! Stifle me they shall not!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Turkmenistan or Bust

This trip started some nine years ago, when I first got it into my head to go to the five former Soviet Republic Central Asian countries. The 'Stans. The idea was to land in Turkey, go overland through the Caucausus, take the rustbucket ferry across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, loop around Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghyzstan to Kazakhstan, and out through China, ending up around the world and back home.

Only problem was that you can't go through Turkmenistan without prepaying a tour and having a guide with you the whole way. Yes, you can do it with a transit visa, but for that you'd have to go to the Turkmenistan embassy in a neighboring country and wait up to two weeks while they processed it. And at the time they didn't even have an embassy in Baku.

So I gave up in '04 and just went to Turkey and the Caucausus. But every year I've kept re-examining the situation, looking for some way to get around the damn Turkmenistan problem. And it always ended up being intractably impossible. So this year I finally cried 'uncle' and contacted a Canadian guy in Kazakhstan who specializes in 'tours'. And in exchange for a whole lot of money he booked me with two other guys for a five day, four night Turkmenaganza. Starting September 2 (in sh'allah) I'll get to see the almost non-existent ruins of the grand city of Merv, the truly bizarre (North Korea meets Las Vegas) capital of Ashgabat, and a giant hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere that spouts an even more giant spume of natural gas permanently on fire.

But that's not all. Because I've also signed up for the other four 'Stans. And since I've waited so long, the visa process for the other four--which used to be an insanely complicated Soviet process of letters of introduction, prepaid this and that, and embassies which never answer their telephones--is now modernized to the extent of only being really annoying and time consuming.

But I've done the work and gotten the dang things, so on Monday, August 16, I take a cheapo flight to Dubai, and then an even cheaper flight to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. After a few days there I go to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrghyzstan, and from there... Well, I was going to go over the mountains to Osh, and from there to Uzbekistan. But a couple of month ago Osh had riots that killed a thousand or so Uzbeks, so the border between the two countries is closed. Which means that I'll have to go back to Kazakhstan and from there to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan.

Then it's to the fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, with giant turquoise mosques courtesy of Timurlane, grandson or so of Genghiz Khan. Who was the guy who a hundred years before had totally destroyed all the fabled cities which used to be in the area. And then on into Turkmenistan and out again in northern Uzbekistan, where there there is the fabled city of Khiva. Plus the ecological ruins of the Aral Sea, which used to be the fifth largest lake in the world, but is now almost totally dried up because of the irrigation plans of the former Soviet Union.

Down south and east again towards Tajikistan. Here it gets a little hazy, since there are three different ways to go. The wife doesn't want me to take the Afghanistan option. But the idea is to somehow get to the Pamir Highway, which goes along at 12,000 foot for several hundred miles.

Then it's back into a corner of Kyrghyzstan, and hitchhiking bright and early on a Chinese truck that is going over Ishketran Pass into extreme southwestern China and the city of Kashgar. And a couple of days later I take the bus that goes down the Karakoram Highway (or KKH) over and through the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas on into Pakistan. Which is supposed to be the most majesticest mountain scenery in the world.

Although here it gets tricky. First of all, there was a massive landslide in January in Hunzaland, creating a twenty mile long lake. On good days there are little boats ferrying people and stuff back and forth, and for a while the Pakistani army was giving free helicopter rides across. But they're not there any more.

Because for the last couple of weeks Pakistan has had its worst floods in history. And said floods and rains have pretty much wiped out the KKH at too many places. So right now the people of Hunza and their mountain neighbors are completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Now you would think that would mean that in five weeks time (when I was hoping to arrive) they could get some sort of road happening, especially with their Chinese freinds sending down road crews. But China has been having landslides of its own. And the Pakistani government, which is pretty much dysfunctional in the best of times, is having to deal with literally millions of washed out people downstream.

So I probably won't know until two days before I head over to China whether I can even do it or not. And if I can't, then that entails hanging out in Tajikistan and Kyghyzstan that much longer. Which would be great, except that this entails getting a new round of visas. Which is so friggin' complicated that I won't even try to get into it here.

And even if I do make it into Pakistan, I still have to find my way to Peshawar. Which probably isn't the smartest city to be flying from. But that's the only place in Pakistan from which to get back to Dubai cheaply.

Unless I went to Karachi. But that's probably even more dangerous. And flooded.

Whoa. Just writing down the short form is exhausting me.

And now I have to go and do it.

So off I go.