Ah yes, Urumqi.

It is 2:15am and I am definitely feeling the anti-Urumqi vibe from the internet. The capital of the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang elicits predictable hysteria: ‘depressing!’, ‘creepy!’, ‘give it a miss!’. And it had all started so well, not only did trusty Air Astana get us in a whole hour early (see below) but the notorious Chinese immigration barely bothered with fingerprinting and retina scanning, let alone my choice of reading material. Then (shades of Iran) the taxi driver’s whole extended family was on speaker to make sure he got me to the depths of the Uighur quarter post haste, plus the hotel had all its lights on and a full, mostly awake, night-time staff.

But that was an hour ago and here we still are with the C-team milenials-at-the-desk who not only are appalled to see me (despite my reservation being clearly evident on the computer along with my frantic [and unanswered] queries for them to confirm they can legally host foreigners, a hazard in this region at least), but they have coerced me into paying my bill up front and have now started on what seems like a satisfaction survey (they’re currently scoring 0). Our problems are compounded by the fact that not only do we not share a language with each other, none of us share a language with Google Translate: to wit neither the millennials nor I speak Chinese and GT doesn’t do Uighur. Enough is enough. ‘I have to tell you’ I enunciate icily ‘At this point I’m starting to get really annoyed’. The universal body language of the irritated mom does its trick and within 20 seconds I am in the elevator and within a minute in the (fabulous) bed. But I must admit my first thought when it becomes clear that the 10 or so men in the room next door are either having a college reunion or plotting a major insurgency is ‘I can’t do this’. Fortunately my second occurs 8 hours later, and when I finally locate the sumptuous breakfast I am fully restored.

The breakfast room at the Aksaray Hotel. Can this be the market for all that subway art in Moscow?



First on the docket, and the whole reason to be in Urumqi – the museum, one of the best in China. And it doesn’t disappoint. On first floor, and uncannily like Almaty but much better done, charming dioramas of all the (same) ethnic groups that from time immemorial have also called Xinjiang home. On the second, incredible archeological artifacts and the world-class collection of 3000-4000 BC mummies preserved stunningly by the intense dryness of the desert climate. Finally, the over-the-top fancy exhibit, a joint Chinese/Japanese effort to excavate Han and Xing dynasty sites (many unusually fervid hands-across-the-water ecomiums). The message is, well we might not have been here first (the fossil record clearly belies this) but we definitely did the leg work of civilization. (Actually the Uighurs did come much later, from Lake Baikal of all places. They must have asked themselves was it all worth it). In any case it is maybe somewhat beside the point in 21st century Xinjiang where ongoing ‘civilization’ evidently equates to faceless apartment blocks and escalating pollution, not to mention cultural realignment.

A whole slew of amazing museum pictures.

First up, the jolly ethnic dioramas seem to belie the reality on the ground.


Some gorgeous Uighur clothing from the 19th century


Can’t forget the hats


Onto 2000-3000 BC artifacts. The one on the right was labeled a eunuch, begging the obvious question.


Where did that coral come from? Lake Baikal? And the agate?


Sophisticated 3000 BC gold 


The intricacy of this weaving is remarkable


The inevitable stone tools. But these are from 30,000 BC. They are actually about the size of a brick.


And finally, the piece de resistance. A whole passel of mummies.


She had her own room, but sadly no English translation


Look at the bridge of the nose, definitely not Asian


The dry climate meant their clothes were amazingly preserved


Including the facial decoration


So what about Urumqi? The internet hysteria is focused on overbearing police harassment around the bazaar area, where I’m located. Lonely Planet is dripping with affronted back-packers who have had to present their passports, sometimes more than once. The much-reviled police checkpoints every 100 meters are still there (and built of brick so clearly intended to have some permanence) but are shuttered up and gathering dust, so whatever prompted their construction is clearly not an issue right now. All ongoing efforts are directed at the single entrance to the bazaar which is replete with pat downs, scanners etc. (I note we are already at the stage of waving our special friends through unchecked [and a higher proportion of young Uighur men to Uighur grannies which, not to stereotype, seems like defeating the purpose]). Superficially it’s no worse than the shopping mall in Shymkent Kazakhstan or the Tashkent subway. Once inside the police presence is minimal and not particularly focused,  certainly not on me, even though I seem to be the only Westerner here. Maybe on account of the surreptitious snacking.

The entrance to the market, it would not have been wise to photograph the police checkpoint (out of sight below).


The market is treated with disdain on the internet, it wasn’t at all bad, less Chinese knockoffs than in Istanbul and Uzbekistan.


What looked like a spontaneous afternoon hoe down.


On the other hand the scanners at the entrance to the park next to my hotel, the single evidence of green in the whole benighted neighborhood, are also shuttered and the deserted park is soundly padlocked. As I watch the Uighurs struggling to avoid tripping over the hordes of kids playing on the grimy pavement outside, I must admit I feel a bit like spitting too.

Not a good picture of the aggravating padlock on the park (scanner in background). Uighurs watch me take it with sardonic smiles.


My new friend the English-speaking Assistant manager (who works days and has scored a definite 5 on the survey) tells me to check the time of my flight – all China runs on Beijing time, but Xinjiang exerts autonomy by moving the clock two hours forward (so it matches Almaty, see Air Astana above).  We compare our watches, which are set at different times. In that understated way the gentle Uighurs have, she winks.

Almaty gets its party on!

Those of you kind enough to follow along last year might recall I characterized Almaty as the Bruges of Central Asia, and with those precise expectations I fly in on my new favorite airline, Air Astana (a new plane, adorably upbeat staff, endless goody bag, that chicken curry they all serve but with a real knife and fork, all the wine or beer they think I want, and a seatmate who turns out to be an actual Kazakh film star [despite being way back in row 43] all for $100). But no! It is not to be. Almaty has got its party on!

My genuine Kazakh film-star seatmate Serik Sharip (220,000 followers on Instagram) back from Moscow promoting his most recent film (if you like me find it hard to see the resemblance, rest assured I got independent verification from the doting flight attendants).

Negligently I have failed to take into account that Kazakhstan is one of that random grab-bag of countries (Afghanistan, Albania, Azebaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo) celebrating Nowruz. The upshot is that everyone is here – in from the steppes and down from the hills. The nomads have brought their yurts and  swords, rural crones are hawking fermented bulgur from grimy plastic buckets and everyone is out for a decorously great time. Every five yards a surround-sound stage is over-amplifying patriotic songs with the biggest not two blocks from my apartment. Not to worry though, this is still Almaty, so the festivities will be over by 10; a good night’s sleep is still on the cards.

As usual the stylin’ Tajiks win


But the nomads come a close second. Normal size folk for scale



This Kyrgiz (you can tell from the hat) has brought his hand made saddle for sale . He’s asking 1 million Tenge ($2000). No takers he tells me sadly (the average Kyrgi monthly salary is $1000).


City slickers eternally grateful they don’t still have to live in a yurt


I get shanghai’d into the frame


Surround sound Almaty style. Despite their natty green suits, the band (in miniature on the left) is singing patriotic songs.


But Nowruz this year is making a political statement. As one of his last acts, the former president (he just resigned on Thursday after 30 years) has changed the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. The problem being that while Russian sounds like cats sliding around under furniture, Kazakh sounds more like a hamster and a gerbil having it out on a training wheel. All that excess energy requires a whole extra 16 letters neither the Cyrillic nor the Latin alphabet can envision (42 in total). Diacritical marks are all very well, but some words will demand more than 10, making it all very taxing.

No-one is feeling Happy Nowruz in the Latin alphabet, and that’s only one diacritical.


 Kazakh written in Cyrillic has extra letters (like the weird F). But  transliteration of the four letters (bl is one letter) from Kazakh to Latin requires two diacriticals.  GT tells me it will look something like Sigw with a cedilla on the S and a circumflex on the g.


These delightful young linguistics students collared me for an interview on English accents, then I grilled them on Kazakhstan politics. They allowed that ‘Its time’ for Nazerbaev to step down (Ms. on the left) but as to his daughter taking over Ms. in the white shirt was firm :

‘We’re a democracy but we can’t talk about everything’.


Actually Kazakhstan is in an increasingly tough situation. To his credit, Nazarbaev built a successful independent and regionally influential economy while by and large avoiding the ridiculous vanity projects and crushing oppression that characterizes some of the neighbors (Turkmenistan we’re looking at you). His successor will need a strong left arm (to keep Russia away from the mineral deposits) and a strong right arm (to keep China at bay). Note that the back is quite firmly to the US and Europe; most young people believe that Russia is a good role model, they don’t like the Chinese*. Kazakhstan has styled itself as the buckle in the Belt and Road initiative but is facing increasing internal pressure to go to bat for the ethnic Kazakhs who are being harassed together with the Uighurs, and the new leader will have to manage these expectations. More about that, probably, next week.

The father of the nation, subway style. It doesn’t look much like him either.


On a dank and drippy Sunday I take myself to the museum to find out what stories Kazakhstan tells about itself. Excitingly, I find a drone picture of the ruined city in the middle of the Steppes I visited last year.

From this angle the huge pile of archeological debris that is Sauran is tantalizingly evident (the road we broke down on is in the distance).


These XII century pottery fragments look just like those I scooped from the surface.


If Moscow smells evocatively of coal, this old Russian area still smells disconcertingly of gas. Remarkably, in the interim, Marina, the usually taciturn ‘concierge’ for my old soviet apartment seems to have acquired near perfect English. ‘Third time!’ she trills, thrilled to see me. I settle into the planned activities of laundry, salads and yes, the banya.

Ah the banya! The Russian baths in Almaty are renowned throughout Central Asia and I’ve been dreaming of them since last year. After an inadvertent 9 mile walk back from the botanical gardens, it’s time.

I should have checked with Google maps before committing to walk back down from the base of the mountains.


The Russian baths are famous throughout Central Asia.


At least on a revisit I’ll be able to cope with the order of operations with my glasses off, always a challenge. I collect the necessary bundle of birch branches, sheet (peshtemaI), and towel.

All kinds of branches for beating on sale. That’s my bunch, right there.


No rookie mistakes! this time the towel stays with the clothes in the locker while the peshtemal, along for the ride, becomes uselessly sodden. First off an ostentatious scrub in the communal shower. Soap must be lathered thickly and how very clean one has become independently verified via the side eye. Skipping this step elicits the cold shoulder, but this year I pass muster. The initial visit to the first circle of hell (AKA the  steam room) will only last about 5 seconds, but acclimatization will eventually occur, whereupon the jedi (who strangely is fully clothed and in a balaclava) will appear to thwack handily with the birch branches, front to back, top to toe. The branches have become pliant and aromatic from soaking, but in combination with the intense heat it is rather traumatic, all the more because the jedi terminates the experience unexpectedly with a swift couple of basins of cold water. A nap must then be taken to hasten recovery, followed by a revitalizing swim in the cold, dim hamam pool, lit only through a single hole in the roof. The steam room/nap/pool combo can be repeated as infinitum, but the Finnish sauna is for wimps and must be shunned. The whole three hour experience including the jedi, an equally fierce massage plus a nice cold beer with the very clean ladies costs $12 (absolutely no photos please).

Nowruz has also thwarted my travel plans somewhat. Those ethnic Kazakhs returning to China have bought up all the train tickets, and since the train only leaves once a week, I need a plan B. Fortunately Air Astana once more comes through in the clutch, and I am off tonight to Urumqi. Hopefully my VPN will allow me to circumvent pesky internet blocking, but that’s as yet untested, so sayonara! Hope to reconnect soon!

* Nazarbayev Generation. Kazakhstan’s Youth, National Identity Transformations and their Political Consequences.  voicesoncentralasia.org

Five things I forgot about Moscow

I’ve finally become adept at the strategies necessary to fully milk British Airways of their frequent flyer miles – it’ll be from London into China via Almaty by way of Moscow ($127) and out of China to London via Hong Kong by way of Helsinki ($100). And so to Moscow, where the smell of coal in the evening air elicits a Proustian punch in the gut. Sadly though, Proust then leaves me in the lurch, to re-learn the hard way.

  1. That the male Muscovites who feel compelled to seize one’s luggage and run it up the nearest flight of stairs are not generally concerned about one’s own intentions re: those stairs.
  2. That the babushkas milling at the Metro exits are not there to provide directions and so, when asked, will recoil in horror and let loose the evil eye.
  3. It is possible to reach anywhere by Metro within 15 minutes but only if (a) on the correct train and (b) it is going in the right direction.
  4. That the trams are pristine and look very appealing but at the first intersection they will abruptly veer to the left and proceed express to a hospital in the suburbs.
  5. Google Translate cannot charm art museums into discretionary senior discounts.

Which takes care of the first morning.

Who knows where I ended up, but here is ‘Pub Boston’. I didn’t go in.


Still the ‘light jazz’ at the Metro, when I finally found it, was very cheery. His mom was working the crowd, collecting donations.


The bowels of Moscow

The first sight of our guide-to-be, Maxim, casts immediate doubt on the notion that ‘Bunker 42’ will be a nice Stalin-era re-enactment equivalent to our local ‘Plimoth Plantation’ as I have so eagerly anticipated. With a haircut and voice to match the head-to-toe military ensemble it is hard to imagine him changing into jeans and going home to eat chips in front of the TV, like the performers at PP presumably do.

Maxim totally looks (and acts) the part. But how much of an act is it?


Originally the actual Soviet nuclear command center, Bunker 42 – 18 long flights of decaying concrete steps beneath street level – is the single decommissioned example from a warren of bunkers in the bowels of Moscow still in use by the current iteration of the KGB – which Maxim tries to reassure us is merely a bureaucratic arm of government (on reflection, this is probably true).

Eight more floors to go


Bunker 42. Presumably 1-41 (at least) are lurking somewhere else.


Apparently the poor sods who actually built it were told they were expanding the Metro system.


Luckily for him Stalin died before it was finished and Kruschev sensibly declined KGB invitations to visit. Btw, would he really have had a picture of Lenin on the wall?


Its pièce de resistance is the command console replete with evidently fully functional Cold-War era computers, flashing lights and all. Maxim even invites a couple of volunteers to participate in a ‘nuclear launch’ and we are treated to a full-on surround-sound simulation of the whole shebang with visuals courtesy of a histrionic Soviet propaganda film (absolutely no photos please). It would all be agreeably hokey except here we are in the bowels of the earth next to an actual nuclear bomb (presumably also decommissioned, but who knows with these guys) and a table full of ICBM models, with Maxim fondling the most current version. It is all rather unnerving.

Apparently they were all sitting here during the Cuban missile crisis just waiting for the codes. The red button on the right hand side does the job.


And here is an actual atomic bomb, hopefully disarmed, but looking suspiciously intact.


Even the East German (who’s presumably heard it all before) is totally creeped out, let alone the phalanx of Netherlanders who make a pell-mell dash up the stairs at the earliest opportunity. In honor of my advanced years Maxim invites me to ride up with him in the elevator. Since it was last serviced pre-Perestroika we have plenty time for a chat (if I imagined he’d break open the metaphorical bag of chips I’m wrong)

M: Where you from?

Me: Well I live in the US.

M: I was in US, for a few years, New York.

Me: Studying?

M: No.

M: So what about Russia?

Me: Well I’ve been reading a book* that says Russia is a Mafia State (the thesis of the book is that the current Russian state cannot be considered classically totalitarian since it exists primarily to facilitate kleptocracy).

M: Yes, like US. And so what about Kennedy?  He killed because he too good relations with Russians (I make careful note of the phrasing and try to parse out what he really meant later).

M: And what about Crimea?

Me: Well if you’re so worried about border security I think you’d better get out of Crimea.

M: But Crimea is so small. Never mind, is Russian joke.

Me: Oh.

M: We love our Tsar and we are not a democracy. I hope we will never become one.

Me: Oh. And where are you from Maxim?

M: Ukraine. When it was part of the motherland.

The doors open.

*‘The future is history; how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia’ by Masha Gessen. Readable, but using activists as the hook turns it into too much insider baseball, 3 stars.

Even more social realism

Off to the New Tretyakov Gallery, which Google maps failed at so miserably at last year. While my 3 day unlimited Metro pass ($5) will handily underwrite all transport errors, I manage to cruise in in under 15 minutes, a whole 30 minutes early. But not alone. The plaza in front is an ocean of pensioners stamping their snow boots grumpily where they expected the snow to be (it isn’t and won’t be despite the forecast). But they are on to something – it takes the Tretyakov folk a full 45 minutes to decide whether to use entrance 1 or 3 for tickets, necessitating much shuffling back and forth and even more convivial complaining that this is presumably a decision they have not been suddenly faced with today.

The snowy side of the new Tretyakov, the pensioners are grumpily milling at the front.


Inside, the definitive collection of Soviet era art, including a fair selection that had to be dug out of attics once Stalin was no longer around to offer critiques via a bullet in the head.  Totally absorbing how Russian art so rigorously reflects the trajectory of society in a way that European and American art, with their emphasis on genre rather than context, does not. Not surprising then that we pensioners are outnumbered by swathes of elementary school kids crouched in rapt attention in front of notable works. (Less obvious is why one of the most popular is a drab rendition of still life with cabbage. Another Russian joke or impenetrable metaphor? or maybe the ability to recognize cabbage is a critical social skill. In any case I couldn’t even get near it for a snap.

Some random favorites from the collection

Gotta have a genuine social realism number


The gulag room


Shortly after this portrait was finished, the subject (another artist), got a bullet in the head critique from Stalin.


Another apprehensive artist looking understandably reluctant to pose.


The 90s were a whole other thing. They seem to be over. This time I didn’t see a single person drinking, in the streets or otherwise.


Funny, never saw any Putin satire


In the walkway to the Metro, the wannabes. Technically superb but sales might be better if they copied something interesting.


In the evening another Proustian moment at the opera: Nabucco was the first I ever saw performed when I was 16, in Llandudno of all places, by the Welsh National when they used to do their summer rounds. Even through a Proustian filter it is  handily eclipsed by this Novaya theatre version – an electric even transcendant performance despite the manager having to appear on stage beforehand and apologize profusely for a Latvian coup d’etat in the cast (I think).

I don’t know whether the sold-out crowd was as surprised as me that they staged it as a fascist-led deportation of Jews set in the 1930s (the 80s was probably a bridge too far). Still the audience stays in its seats and at the end applauds the chorus as enthusiastically as the principals.

Somehow that seems immensely important. At this time. In this place.

A $12 seat at the Novaya opera.


O Lisboa!

First a quick detour to Lisbon for a solid week’s bon voyage R & R with Jim. My third visit in 5 years and once again Susana has obligingly moved out so we can move in. A lot has changed. This time instead of opening the French windows onto a construction site, we see a charming waterfront esplanade that can deliver us everywhere within 10 minutes and without having to tackle the interminable hills.

The hills of Lisbon look better from the top.


The clouds have been abolished and the temperature holds at a delicious 70° (the guys selling ‘pitcher cocktails’ on the plaza have already made their fortunes). But we don’t love Portugal because of its firm commitment to being a functional first world country in which both the public transport and bathrooms are abundant and sparkling, we love it because the cheerful Portuguese are able (and more to the point constantly willing) to converse with us in impeccable English (only the table of construction workers sitting next to us at Friday lunch were willing but unable, but they were well into their second bottle of wine by then).


Winners in the conviviality stakes get a plaque outside their doors


What a shock then (and how ironic after years of traveling in some of the more sketchy corners of the world) that here on the steps of Sao Catherine church I distinctly feel someone surreptitiously ferreting around in my purse. Fortunately I manage to intercept her before the deed is done, but a couple of days later here she is again, like a bad penny, at the Belem tram stop at the other end of town (she is cunningly disguised as a tourist, and I recognize the hat). Most satisfyingly I keep my wits about me and whip out my iPhone for a snap, thereby enabling a positive ID as ‘Rumanian’ (Lisboa tourism’s euphemism for gypsy) and so the irreproachable Portuguese reputation remains intact.

Nothing doing for my personal pickpocket at this bus stop except the 1000 yard stare (her partner is standing behind me, looking a bit agitated).


The gardens of Sintra are redolent with the end of the mimosa and the beginning of the wisteria, girding themselves for another year of competition mano a mano . At the top of the Hill we have the Palacio de Monserrate (thanks to one William Thomas Beckford, who despite being the the ‘richest Englishman without a title’ had to leave home in a hurry due to certain indiscretions). A t the bottom we have the Quinta de Regaleira (thanks to King Pedro ‘the artist’). One can only imagine the sniping, back in the day.

Montserrate is fully articulated gothic drama.


Quinta de Regaleira has slightly more of an arriviste vibe


At Cascais an unusual exhibit from Paula Rego. No pressure at all to have your own museum while you’re still working artist.



Our most ‘authentic’ meal –  the pile of vertebra is boiled and served with cabbage (also boiled). We substituted french fries for boiled potatoes. It is a classic meal from Coimbra, up in the northern hills.


Coimbra is the home of yet another oldest university in the world this one from the 1200s. In one dank room we stumble on this poor soul who seems to have been defending his thesis since 1400.


2019: Turn east toward X’ian

March 18th 2019

This year I’m not traveling alone, exactly. I’m bringing along Colin Thubron (The Shadow of the Silk Road; The Lost Heart of Asia; Behind the Wall) as a talisman against all those complaints I got about last year’s writing, which I have internalized as ‘lose the hapless whimsy and let’s have more Insight’. Fortunately for me, Colin is only here in virtual format – I have a suspicion that as an actual companion he might be rather trying. Still, insight being his specialty, it seems right to let him have the first word:

‘A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.

            Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.’*

So with Colin’s permission this year’s web of choices will start, not where I left off deep in the south of Iran, but close to where I began, in Kazakhstan. But this time instead of turning right at Almaty, we’ll go east toward X’ian.

*‘The Shadow of the Silk Road’ My Kindle tells me 43 people have highlighted this quote (44 now presumably) and I have the feeling that at least 10 of them may have resulted in Joanna Lumley using the second part in her BBC series. If it’s good enough for the BBC, it’s certainly good enough for me.

On the road again