Wild, Wild Kyrgistan

Oh how those Silk Road traders on their way between China and the softer, gentler south must have hated Kyrgistan! The awful mountains, that awful climate, those awful nomad protection racketeers squeezing them for every penny with the awful specter of disembowelment always at the end of their swords. No wonder they put their heads down and scuttled through post haste leaving nothing behind. So Kyrgistan is a tougher nut to crack than Uzbekistan: not only are there no sumptuous remains to admire and no public transport to speak of, there is also no southern-style hospitality culture. Ah yes, those fierce nomads are still here alright, unhappily housebound, their hearts still up there on horseback in the wild, wild hills.

An unwelcome sight on the Silk Road memorialized here: nomad extortionists promising safe passage for a fee.

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And so, Urmat (or as he likes to refer to himself in emails Urmat!!!), who will hopefully reveal this impenetrable country to me, but who currently defines a new low in even my lax standards for research. Discovered indirectly in the bowels of the LP forum archives via an Australian lady (of about my age) who reported in 2014 that he had taken her on a nice trip, he has no verifiable internet presence. Nonetheless, we are soon planning our own 5 day adventure to include age-appropriate hiking and a visit to the last caravanserai standing, up in the Tien Shan mountains at the Chinese border.

The Tien Shan mountains, our final destination

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Still, during the protracted wait for my baggage at Bishkek airport (I have elected to pass up the opportunity of a 17 hour shared taxi ride over the mountains from Osh for a mere 40 minute flight on Manas Air  – the only Kyrgiz airline the British Government approves for its employees, and then only in absolute emergency) I have plenty of time to reflect on the many different ways spending 5 days in a car with someone I’ve never met could be a very poor idea.

Manas Air: It was probably most concerning when they started taking cell phone pictures of the inside of the engine.

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I needn’t worry, despite his unprepossessing exterior Urmat has all the attributes necessary to make the trip a blast: He is an adept driver (even though the steering wheel on his 4 wheel drive Nissan is on the right side (as is driving in Kyrgistan) a double whammy which he confesses makes him “very frightened indeed”); an adept conversationalist (especially when bolstered by GT); a convivial joker (the first funny story he tells me, on the way from the airport, is of his 6 year old son pleading for “Minecraft” for his computer, except Urmat hears ‘Mein Kampf’. “I was very, very worried” he tells me shaking his head. Critically he is also a foodie.  No wonder he has effectively cornered the market with solo ladies of a certain age.

Urmat is proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

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Bishkek to Cholpon Ata

 We take off from Bishkek on the Chui route of the Great Silk Road, first stop the 9th C. Burana tower, the last remaining artefact from Balagasun, capital of the vanished Sogdian empire, and later capital of the Kara-Khanids, which I have been determined to see. Unfortunately it seems that when the top half fell off in an earthquake in the 15th century the locals carted away the bricks, so the Soviets couldn’t ‘restore’ its full glory.  As a result it is totally underwhelming and despite a smattering of old graves and petroglyphs (any actual treasures having been hauled off long ago to St Petersburg) there is absolutely no palpable evidence of its historical importance, whatever the internet would have us believe. They don’t even charge admission. U. has clearly heard these complaints before and tactfully raises the contribution of Photoshop.

The Burana tower is most disappointing. The lure of Photoshop is obvious given the benches out front and the steps up the side.

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Underwhelming gravestones

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A 5th century BCE petroglyph, but why on that rock particularly?

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As a consolation we drive through Tokmok, where the notorious Tsarnaev brothers were raised. It is still home to about 1000 Chechens (none of whom are out and about). After seeing the village, it is easy to imagine the anger after failing at the American Dream.

Lake Issy Kul. No beach resort looks its best off season

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We are soon circumnavigating Lake Issy Kul. Enormous and slightly saline, Issy Kul never freezes and in summer its north shore is heaving with Russians and Kazakhs all simulating a full-on beach vacation, karaoke included. This time the internet is not wrong, and its epicenter, Cholpon Ata, is indeed hideous.

Because no Soviet era beach paradise is complete without its statue of Lenin

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This will be wall-to-wall sunblock in July and August

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But it is out of season and everywhere for the next 200km except the optimistically named ‘Sunny Paradise’ is closed, so we are forced to check in. The unlikely rate of $6 per room is a reduction from last year when it was 10. U. hypothesizes she is being squeezed by new hotels (however the fact they are closed makes this theory less persuasive).

My $6 ‘suite’ at ‘Sunny Paradise’ wasn’t too bad apart from the all-night poker game next door.

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Fortunately the local fish restaurant is open and fortunately too someone has caught some fish (not the Kyrgiz, fishing is not in nomad culture).

Superb lake fish especially with a beer. Not shown, the first of many liters of Kazakh Coca Cola, U. will polish off since he doesn’t drink alcohol at all.

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Cholpon Ata to Karakol

 Fortunately U. loves to drive. He especially loves to drive off piste and is never happier than when chugging up (or down) some impossible gorge at 2mph. First order of the day is therefore to circumnavigate two: Grigoryevskoe and Semyonovka – up one and down the next. There is however a small matter of the 6000+ foot pass at the top. From tire marks the one person who has been up this year also had to return – but yesterday or a month ago? Happily the shepherds hurtling towards us in a Soviet era UAZ (extreme off-road jeep) give the thumbs up: (They have been putting together their yurt camp for summer grazing; in a couple of weeks they will move their flocks up into the mountains until the fall).

The Grigoryevskoe gorge. This is the road, not beside the road.

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The pass at just over 6000 feet is just round the corner and relatively free of snow

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Indeed the top of the pass does have little snow, but as we start to descend it becomes clear why they were so skeptical of our tires: the road is solid mud from the snow melt, and at exactly the worst pitch. U. tells me to get out. Apparently my first hike will be to meet him at the bottom of the 4km. steep bit. He takes off, sliding from side to side, and I try not to look. Later, he explains laconically “If I drive off the mountain with you it is two problems; I always prefer to simplify”.

Fortunately the car is still on the road when I reconvene with Urmat at the flatter bit.

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Unlike the Grigoryevskoe side which was jagged, stony and narrow, Semyonovka is a stupendous bowl, Wyoming on steroids.

The Semyonovka basin. One photo can’t do it justice but I haven’t figured out the pano mode. Note the summer yurt in preparation.

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It will be a site of the biannual Nomad Games this fall. Surprisingly an American team competes in the goat-head polo event; less surprisingly they aren’t very good. Is it difficult to practice hitting a goats’ head around in the USA U. wonders?

The road out of the Semyonovka basin.

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I have been alerted to the can’t miss experience of the rock pools beside the lake that advertise themselves as a hot spring, so I am prepared with a swimsuit, but not unfortunately with the fur coat necessary to reach them from the changing room unfrozen, nor as it turns out, with an adequate towel. Nonetheless, while U. retires to the car for a nap, I spend a pleasant hour and a half in the toasty water chatting with a Spanish/Romanian couple circumnavigating the world in a tiny camper. They are desperate to unload their horror stories of sleeping in Russia in March (-15°, ice on the inside) and to wax lyrical about Iran. Their 12 year old daughter seems decidedly less enamored of the whole enterprise

With a population of 60,000+ Karakol, tonight’s destination, is Kyrgistan’s 4th largest ‘urban’ center, and, with a 9 month season geared to both skiing and summer trekking much more prosperous than Cholpon Ata, which sees tourists only in July and August.

The wooden church in Karakol from back in the day when it was 50% Russian

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The guesthouse, run by U.’s Dutch friend and his Kyrgiz wife, is a cut above. For $8 the bed and the breakfast (home – made bread and honey with the eggs) are a dream. A map in the living room confirms the major visitor demographic as Russian, Kazakh and European. Just one pin from New Jersey a few from Michigan, and mine, the first from Boston.

The view from my window at the perfectly lovely Dutch/Kyrgiz B & B.

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Sadly though, no beer to go with the traditional lagman noodles at the hole in the wall dinner. Even more sadly there will be no more beer for the rest of the trip.

The best lagman noodles in Central Asia. They look like pasta but are much more chewy. Unfortunately any meat that looks like beef is usually horse.

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Karakol to Kochkor

 It turns out that Karakol is also the Alamanov ancestral seat, and so we make a quick detour into the wilderness to the family graveyard and U. adds another wreath of artificial flowers to his mom’s grave.

The view from the Alamanov family cemetery.

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Next to a bank to transfer money to a friend whose father has just died, so he can buy a horse. When I inquire as to the ‘so’ I learn that the death requires the family sacrifice a horse for the mourners to boil and eat. On further inquiry I also learn (with a quick demonstration) that every Kyrgiz knows how to kill a horse for sacrifice. Horses being expensive U. has planned ahead – his father’s horse-to-be is already getting fat (but also old and presumably tough) in the backyard.

Funeral horses en route somewhere unpleasant

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Today is to be a major hiking day, and since U. doesn’t hike and I prefer to hike alone, we should both be happy except I have failed to factor in his abiding paranoia about my well-being. Fortunately the NYM hitchhiker we have picked up and he has coerced into taking me by hand to the top of the mountain and I manage to foil that bogus plan; as soon as we are out of sight I shoo him off. Upward he scampers and luckily enough goes further than me so he can rejoin me on the descent in the nick of time; and so we emerge innocently together into U.’s line of sight (albeit not hand in hand).

Some age-appropriate hiking after I ditch the millenial

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On the descent the millenial forces a photo just as it is starting to snow. I am wearing 7 layers, unfortunately the 8th, waterproof, one is 3000 feet below where Urmat said I wouldn’t need it.

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The second hike of the day couldn’t have been more different even apart from the weather: the south side of Issy Kul.

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Urmat allows me to do it without an escort but forces me to take my mac.

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Tonight we must stay part way into the high mountains. Unsurprisingly Kochkor village, pop. about 100, has no guesthouses. Fortunately U. has a favorite homestay with a grandma who unusually for a nomad will be both cheerful and friendly. But no! disaster has struck! Number 1 son, an erstwhile policeman has been arrested for corruption and fled to Russia. In order to pay the massive bribe that will allow him to return unmolested Grandma has had to sell all their worldly goods, and in spite has also turned off the heat and canceled the internet, much to her grand-daughter’s distress (with reason: her ambition is to earn a Presidential scholarship so she can study at the American University for free then escape to the States, neither of which can be accomplished without web access).

Mean grandma cut off the heating and the internet

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The living room, like the rest of the house, was absolutely freezing, I was too cold to take a picture of my bedroom.

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The saga continues at the only restaurant where we must eat dinner. I am struggling to cut up my chicken breast with a spoon (knives are not a restaurant feature, presumably for obvious reasons) when the waitress rushes over and cuts it up for me so energetically that the macaroni and cheese I hadn’t ordered (I had actually asked for black rice) shoots off the plate and onto the plastic tablecloth. No worries! She scoops it back immediately. U. is outraged and berates the hapless staff about how they will need to up their service game if they want to attract tourists or even other customers (apart from us the restaurant is empty). The staff are puzzled by both concepts and later as they all sit down to polish off the massive amount of food that hasn’t sold today, we see why.

At night I pile my bed with every blanket I can find, but it is still too cold to sleep well. I give granny $10 to pay for the internet as well as my room but U. wields GT for the Russian equivalent of ‘good luck with that’ (he speaks Russian much better than Kyrgi). The American University has 20 free places a year, a success rate of 0.0001%.

The American University in Bishkek. Tuition is $6000 per semester so only the very rich can afford it.

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Kochkor to Tash Rabat.

 On our final day we will drive quite far up into the Tien Shan mountains almost to the Chinese border. But what a surprise! We pull out of Kochkor and the China tributary to the Ferganian route of the Great Silk Road has been well and truly one belted. Seriously, this road into the bowels of China is the very best I have seen in all Central Asia and the trucks plying it assiduously show the 21st century Silk Road is alive and well.

One belt one road

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Predictably U. hates it and determines to approach our target Caravanserai the back way, no doubt up horrible craggy gorges, over heart-stopping river passages and through snow enrobed passes. Fortunately or not today’s complement of jailoo shepherds, already beginning to move their flocks upwards, firmly nix the idea; the pass is still too full of snow.

Of course Urmat  finds us a suitably hair-raising alternative

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The jailoo shepherds are having none of it and turn us back.

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U. sadly turns the car round and once back on the dream road to China suggests hopefully that I surely must want to drive for a change.

On the dream road to China through the Tien Shan valley

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But the caravanserai, about 15 km up a side road, lives up to expectations. U., a Game of Thrones fanatic, insists I send a picture captioned Westhill Castle or something to Jim (I proudly treasure being the only person in America who has never watched Game of Thrones, so I willfully forget the name and don’t, to his bitter disapproval).

En route to the caravanserai

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The photo I refused to send to Jim. What’s the name of that castle again?

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Probably a better view

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Originally an early Christian church it morphed to a travelers’ stopover and then to a winter sheep barn where over the years the shit hit shoulder height. It has been cleaned up now, but not attracting visitors today.

The caravanserai was originally an ancient church

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The accommodations rival last night’s effort in Kolchor

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There’s always a prison

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Note the stone that rolls on top with the neat little hole for food and drink

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U. permits me to walk back through the gorge alone provided I take my hiking pole in the unlikely eventuality there will be dogs. “It would make me feel better” he wheedles plaintively.

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Of course there aren’t any dogs but I do meet a frantic shepherd on horseback who has lost his yaks. Fortunately I have spotted them further up and therefore save his job, or more probably his life.

The shepherd brings his kid for a photo-op and meanwhile loses his yaks.

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Fortunately a herd of yaks are hard to actually lose.

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In Naryn our destination for the night, U. (no doubt feeling guilty about last night’s accommodations) insists we spring an extra $2 for a real hotel with en suite bathrooms and shower curtains (no heat, however they do supply space heaters which is clearly a false economy since they are quite full).

A celebratory goat dinner for a job well done. The guys in the back room are drinking vodka.

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It was delicious. Note the knife (but still no beer for me).

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Naryn to the Kazakh border

Our last day en route to the Kazakh border passes uneventfully except for that second speeding ticket (130km/hr in a 90km/hr zone). Unlike the first one, which could be palmed off with the standard 100 som (10c) ‘consideration’ this time U. comes back with an official form that promises he will be arrested if he doesn’t pay a more substantial fine within a week. Evidently in each 5 hour shift the police work 4 ½ hours ‘for themselves’ and only ½ hour for the government, so it all comes down to bad timing.  “You asked me how corruption can be stopped” he says philosophically “This is how. If I break the law, make me pay the government”. He shrugs. We have been round this issue of deep-seated corruption many times. Tellingly the problem is compounded because Kyrgistan is a functioning democracy. A strong man ‘reformer’ like those who did the trick in Kazakhstan and now in Uzbekistan is not in the cards.

Finally blue sky, but on the way to the border

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The trip comes to an end. Over the last 5 days we have talked about: Nomad culture ( a lot); Kyrgi politics and corruption (a lot); sheep husbandry (a lot but we do have a mutual interest); socialism and the end of capitalism; Syria; the Rohinga; #Me Too; Black Lives matter; child rearing; our families; religion in the 21st century; the geopolitical alignments of Central Asia; and many movie-related topics including whether Eddy Redmayne is the legitimate successor to Daniel Day Lewis.  I have taught Urmat several useful words like ‘hangry’ and ‘high maintenance’. He has taught me some poetic Russian phrases like ‘so many winters, so many summers’ (said when meeting an old friend after some time) that I may find less useful. When we have got fed up talking we have listened to his music that besides Kyrgiz pop (which isn’t bad) includes Motown, Sinatra, Irish step dance and once, surprisingly, ‘Hava Nagila’. We have agreed much more than disagreed except we have failed to find common ground on the subtle yet important difference between ‘horrible’ and terrible’. Without Urmat, Kyrgistan would have made no sense at all. At the border we promise to keep in touch and I refuse to promise to watch Game of Thrones. Then we part with a handshake, but although he grasps my hand with both of his there is no bear hug; honorable Kyrgi men will never touch a woman other than their wives.

On to Iran

A hop, skip and a jump and I am back in Almaty. In my absence the Iranian embassy has undergone an upgrade. The doors are locked tight and I am ogled by several cameras before being pinged in. The ugly plastic-covered furniture has been changed out for ugly non-plastic covered furniture and instead of a 1950s slide show the TV is playing the English version of ‘This Old House’ dubbed in Farsi. The only other person waiting is a Kazakh government lawyer, who presses his business card on me while fervently hoping I won’t need it. But Dr. Jekyll has run out of options and he knows it. “Have a nice trip” he intones reading from his “How to appear human” training booklet (according to the Iranians from Samarkand this actually exists) as he passes back my passport, knowing there is nothing he can do to stop it.

 

The kindness of strangers and other stories

Tourists usually ‘do’ the Fergana valley as a hectic day trip from Tashkent; even the Belgians from Samarkand who have sieved gold from the most unlikely places echo LP: “There’s nothing there”. I can be forgiven then, in anticipating the couple of days needed to move through Fergana to the border with Kyrgistan at Osh will be uneventful….

Revisiting Jahongir B&B in Tashkent en route felt like coming home. Upgraded to a softer mattress and favorite pancakes for breakfast. Then Feruza takes me down the road for a $6 haircut (not shown).

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Adina off to college. The Turkish-style hyper-hijab is all the rage this spring (with or without inappropriately short uniform skirt).

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Part 1 Kokand

It was never going to end well. The daily evening train from Tashkent to Kokand leaves at neither of the two different advertised times for departure (on the official website or the ticket) but rather 43 minutes early. This feint, as I have come to realize, is an enduring feature of Uzbek rail, and has been anticipated by all passengers, who have arrived an hour and a half in advance and are now milling around anxiously since there are no notice boards – the platform it will depart from is spread by word of mouth. So it is somewhat disappointing when we slow down to walking pace for several hours (more effective research might have revealed that this newly established route which avoids the otherwise inevitable detour through Tajikistan takes us through a 20 kilometer mountain tunnel, but not that a man on foot with a lantern appears to be guiding us much of the way). The upshot is it is pushing midnight when I arrive at the Hotel Istiqol (another only show in town option). Its resemblance to a state penitentiary making it  unlikely that the last Trip Advisor review (in 2015) contained even a smattering of truth. Even the taxi driver looks apologetic.

Cast of characters: a disheveled receptionist awakened from her lobby nap and (apparently) cursing the state of her mascara in Russian. Me.

Me: Is this a non-smoking room? I booked a non-smoking room. Why is there an ashtray?

The Guard: Why is there an ashtray? Does it smell? (of course right now it smells of odious room deodorant, it will be a different story later).

Me: OK then. It needs a top sheet.

Her: It needs a top sheet. What needs a top sheet?

Me: OK then, I need a top sheet.

Her: (Brings top sheet). Go to sleep.

Morning.

Her (still):  What you want to eat, toast?

Me: What do you usually serve for breakfast?

Her: Toast.

Me: OK then, toast.

From close inspection of the plate of sausage (the solitary component of the ‘buffet’) the last time anyone ate breakfast here was indeed around 2015.

The cell in question, from my bed. Note the cunning TV placement.

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The sausage in question. The photo angle doesn’t do its curliness justice.

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Kokand wasn’t totally a bust. The Shah’s palace was over the top as usual.

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Lots of exquisite decorative touches.

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This does look atmospheric. On closer inspection he was surfing the web.

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Part 2 Fergana

It seems unlikely but the best show in Fergana is a $24 hostel located above a pharmacy opposite the hospital. But what a hostel! The private rooms are decorated in authentic minimalist style and have unbelievable luxuries like bedside lights that can be switched on and off from bed and new satellite TV (the owner, Efrazar, proudly shows me BBC news on channel 16). Next day as we consult about options for getting to the border about 100km away (evidently there are two: expensive ($12) involves hiring a taxi [he wrinkles his nose with disapproval at such profligacy] or cheap ($5) involves two sequential buses but with a 500m walk in between) I allow that I am going to splurge since it’s my birthday and dragging my roly bag along a stony road [it will be stony] in 80° sunshine is remarkably unappealing.

What could this be? Some even more exotic mimosa?

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All is revealed as I pass by again after dinner.

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Fergana prides itself on its Wild West vibe. But these guys are definitely getting scammed.

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No takers for the photo-op.

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Its famous traditional silk factory

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Fergana is the vegetable basket of Uzbekistan. Spring produce at the pleasant, and massive, regional market.

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Along with other more unusual merchandise.

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Later there is a discreet tap on my door and Efrazar not only presents me with a lovely Ikat scarf as a birthday gift, but also proposes I spend the evening with his cousin and family who would like to practice their English. This delightful family and I eat dinner, stroll in the park and then pile onto the bumper cars at the fairground for a few energetic rounds in celebration of my turning 66.

The perfectly delightful Mamatov family. He is a policeman, she (unusually) an engineer. Their daughters  Ezoza and Shukrona bundles of energy

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Ushering in 66 with style

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Next day Efrazar drives me to the shared taxi stand, negotiates a bargain ($10) price  then checks in with the driver constantly while we are en-route to the border.

Moving through the Fergana Valley, all the fruit trees are in blossom

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Part 3 Osh

If the Kazakstan/Uzbeki border was the end of six lane highways then its Uzbeki/Kyrgistan equivalent sees the end of asphalt itself. Nonetheless it too fails to live up to its Internet hype: the Uzbeks are anxious to expedite my leaving (I have to stop them stamping my Indian visa) while the Krygis simply seem mildly amused I have chosen their country as a vacation destination (I am the only Westerner in sight). At the ‘unofficial’ currency exchange the witches have morphed into prowling gold-toothed wolves and although I only have about $5 worth of Uzbeki sum left I need to change it for the taxi on the other side. This time my unexpected Sir Galahad is one of the notorious Uzbek security services, who forces them to hand over the final 30c they had planned on pocketing, while shooting me a sardonic wink.

Once safely into stony asphalt-free Kyrigstan the inevitable taxi dilemma rears its ugly head: neither the drivers nor I know where my Airbnb is located and since I have no cell phone access until I can buy a local SIM, they will have to phone the host for directions, meaning I have little leverage. We are just squaring off when an NYL and her mom insert themselves between us, insist I share their taxi, tell me it’s a 144 (Uber equivalent) so I can’t help pay, and take me door to door.

The kindness of strangers.

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My AirBnB is a spacious apartment with all cons (mod and otherwise) including a complete set of Tolstoy in the bedroom and their own honey in the fridge. Welcome to Kyrgistan!

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A hot wind in Bukhara

There is a Heartbreak Hill* in every trip. Last year it was cycling round 25 square miles (or was it 75) of Pagoda ridden Burmese desert on a bike with flat tires in 90° heat. This year it’s the temperature hitting 94° in Bukhara and the relentless desert wind depositing sand into every orifice and developing either a brutal allergy or a brutal cold or most likely both. A year older and wiser, I give up the ghost immediately and retire to the sofa on the shady upper terrace at my B & B with a nice soft toilet roll, a couple of liters of tepid water and a good book. Mine host, Nazira, sends the resident millenial up with tea on an hourly basis and the next day the temperature has dropped 40° and the wind has given up and I am fully restored.

* A notorious feature of the Boston marathon whose name speaks for itself.

A shady terrace oasis when its 94° outside.

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Nothing like a restorative tea with meringues to keep the blood sugar up.

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Its just as well because in terms of Silk Road romance Bukhara has it all. Of the more than 140 monuments ‘of significance’ only about 20% have been restored so there are plenty to go round. The faithful get their working medressas (I sneak into one by attaching myself to my very own grandma gang. The mullah charges 1000 sum (15 cents) each to sing at us while we assume the praying position with our hands, and then won’t let us go all the way inside after all, eliciting much grumbling. Later Gulnoza (our milenial) says it’s just as well I didn’t tell him he has a lovely voice).

My very own grandma gang is also staying at the B & B. They spirit me off on the abortive medressa adventure, out for dinner – a bowl of lamb bone soup (they thoughtfully skim the fat off mine) and then shopping. The pink lady “Hayat like the hotel chain” is from the Uzbeki restaurant in Brooklyn Olivia and I had lunch at last November.

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The less than faithful get de trop gilding as a background for their selfies and the (regrettably many) French and German purists can still stumble across a derelict monument where the janitor will open the padlock for an exorbitant 10,000 sum ($1) so they can commune in solitary and significant satisfaction with the piles of bricks.

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In the age of Genghis Khan this minaret was the highest structure in Central Asia. He was so impressed he left it standing for a change. Whoever decided to rebuild the medressas didn’t have a good plumb line.

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The oldest monument in Bukhara has Zoroastrian elements from 5 BCE inside. Right now it is  repurposed as a carpet museum ‘sorry no photos’.

The Ark of Bukhara – the Khans’ then Emirs’ fort (the inside looks just like any other Welsh castle).

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Negotiating for a camel ride. He never does get his pensioner’s discount.

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The infamous Zindon Prison: It is the era of the Great Game. Colonel Stoddard has been sent to reassure the Emir that the British intend to stop their invasion at Afghanistan. Unfortunately he has neglected to bring appropriate gifts. What’s an Emir to do except throw him in the Bug Pit? Three years later and Captain Connolly arrives to plea for mercy. Not hard enough, and down he goes too. Later the Emir beheads them both outside the Ark.

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A ghostly shadow down the Bug Pit which appears to have been cleared of the bugs, scorpions and vermin thrown down there to keep them company.

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My own unrestored Bukhara. Mister accosts me in the street and demands 1000 sum (15c) to see his ‘house museum’. Who can resist?

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The salon.

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He is particularly proud of his oven. I give him $1 and he is thrilled, but renovations may take a while at this rate.

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No walls or parkland in Bukhara, it has put its energies elsewhere, or to be more accurate it has kept its focus: Let’s not forget that the purpose of the Silk Road was to introduce consumerism to the world, and in that enduring tradition friendly little merchants are perched in every available alcove (and there are many) willing, no determined, to show off their wares and force us to open our purses to their inevitable profit. The Grandma gangs (who vastly outnumber the grandads and are therefore without oversight) sensibly leave the praying for Samarkand in favor of going toe to toe for a bargain. It is only slightly frenetic and a good time is had by all (apart from the French and Germans who are appalled how Bukhara has been despoiled by commerce).

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A nice little mosque emerging from the neighborhood; Bukhara doesn’t bother walling things off.

Four rather underpowered minarets, one for some reason sporting a fake nest of storks.

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No commercial opportunity shall be passed up.

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Madam the master and her apprentice teach me a brilliant new way to do chain stitch.

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The original Silk Road trading halls are still in business.

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The bona-fide house museum belonged to the guy who conspired with the Bolsheviks to topple the Emir. His glory was short-lived: Once Stalin arrived on the scene he was murdered in a trice.

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Another teenage bride arrives for her wedding photos like a lamb to the slaughter.

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Bukhara also loves a dance party, and so we launch into 3 full days of merriment in honor of that goof-ball Mullah Nazruddin, who exists to be the butt of all jokes but then inevitably saves the day with the killer bon mot. All the troupes are embraced most enthusiastically no matter how amateur. Mullah wannabes in performance are justifiably met with considerably less enthusiasm. The three flavors of police are an extensive yet stoic presence, but the only guns are wooden and carried by the little boys, none of them are armed with more than a stick.

All Bukhara loves a dance party.

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A mullah band with donkey (baseball cap optional)

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The stage moms are cropped out.

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Stylin’ Tajik girls.

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Then there’s always the likely lads.

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Its not a party without food (and evidently a donkey). I skip the Uzbeki sushi.

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Thanks to ‘One Belt One Road’ Bukhara will soon be forced into the future. Back in the day this whole area was renowned as a fertile plain. Then, in an ill-considered effort to thwart the pre-Soviet and even pre-Great Game Russians, one of the Emirs dammed up the Aru Darya wantonly turning it all into a desert. Releasing the dams years later had little effect; unforeseen silting made the massive river into a delta with an ineffectual dribble of meager tributaries. The Chinese, manifest at my B & B by Lina and Lena, are here for the long haul and taking the irrigation problem firmly in hand. But will this attempt to damp down the mean desert winds come too late? There was very little snow again this year and all the rivers whatever their size are running depressingly low.

Lena and Lina (or Lina and Lena). One Belt One Road comes to Bukhara.

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On my way out of town back to Tashkent I am eagerly anticipating luxuriating in my 1st class compartment (seats only 2) for the 7 hour journey.

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But here comes Ekaterina, and she has two friends, Svetlana and Evgenia, and they have brought dinner for 4. So the party goes on, and the train, of course, is late.

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Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells

How on earth does Samarkand live up to ten centuries of hype? And yet here we all are, lapping it up: friendly gangs of gold-toothed Uzbeki grandmas taking all the opportunities a pilgrimage offers for a few days away from the kitchen; equivalent numbers of severe Uzbeki grandads comporting themselves importantly, prayer hats all firmly set – let it be understood they’re not here to have fun; multigenerational Uzbeki families with shell-shocked teenage brides clutching at their newborns – their talisman against mom-in-law, the usual imperious grandsons and experienced aunts smoothing things over with ice-cream. And every single one of them wants to be photographed either with me or by me.

The grandma gangs are all out for a good time.

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Grandads take it all more seriously but can sometimes be persuaded to crack a smile. Uzbekis are always laughing. They rapidly sober up in the presence of a camera lens.

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Where would we be without the aunt willing to give mom a break.

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The more mobile green grandma comes hurtling across the path and insists I take their photographs, twice (the first one doesn’t pass muster). Unfortunately she doesn’t have an email address I can send it to.

 

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Internationally, uptight Russians muttering bitterly to each other about how things were and could still be; a smattering of supercilious Turks – the women caked in makeup with elaborate couture hijabs; a few officious Pakistani mullahs having the way cleared; invisible Kazakhs, Tajiks, Armenians. Here and there an Italian or two, some Dutch, no English and certainly no Americans.

Samarkand handles us all so sensitively: The magnificent monuments are swathed in manicured parkland that takes care of the logistics of shuffling us from one to the next just beautifully. The odiferous old city has been tactfully walled away, and the modern city, where life is actually lived, is kept at a respectable distance behind the trees. It is all very relaxing but not at all redolent of centuries of romantic Silk Road history. In fact romance is the last thing on Samarkand’s mind, and it becomes clear how the purists’ lament of the blurred line between restoration and renovation is so much more complicated in such a place of active worship.

The three monuments of the Registan, note the scale.

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Ulug Beg Medressa

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No you weren’t imagining it, this is Uzbekistan’s answer to the leaning tower.

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Tila Kari (Gold covered) Medressa

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Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa

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Shockingly the Sher Dor Medressa has pictures of both animals AND humans

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Just a short parkland stroll away, the Bibi Khanym mosque.

 

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And its domed roof seen through the trees.

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The Mosque containing Timurlane’s tomb. Mullah for scale.

qCK4WHjyTvSYue+8E+LT+w_thumb_4771.jpgThe way to the Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) goes through the cemetery. The faithful aren’t amused by the pictures plastered on the graves, and especially the pompous sculpture up top.

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The stunning Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) note the ice cream.

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The blurred line between restoration and renovation.

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Samarkand is also key to Uzbek national pride; established by the local hero Timur Amir (Timurlane) as the original capital when he set the area to rights after the Mongol devastation, it holds a place in their hearts Tashkent, with its Soviet overtones, can only aspire to. The only non-religious monument is his grandson Ulug Beg’s. Ulug Beg, polymath and avid astronomer (the astrolabe he designed was later ripped off by the moguls in Rajahstan) and a star in his own right –  calculated the exact length of a year with such admirable and unique precision his was the go-to text right up to the Age of Enlightenment. Its ruins and the usual incomprehensible museum are packed to the gills with an audience so bursting with pride and yet so flummoxed it is clear that the loss is not simply in translation.

Our local hero Ulug Beg in photocopy. There is some confusion about how a photograph works; many people evidently believing that it itself dates from the 15th century.

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This $25 find – Antica B & B – is a particularly convivial caravanserai despite being run by a couple of irascible sisters who truck no nonsense from us mere guests. Its two houses are in the old style – rooms opening out onto a central courtyard. One is set up for us, the other – down the lane – houses the family and serves breakfast.

Spring is springing in our courtyard, from my room.

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Dawdling in the courtyard, Portuguese brothers-in-law Luis and Jose –  my age – who traveled everywhere in the 80s, another, Spanish, Luis, who traveled everywhere in the 00s, a couple of Belgians, who are traveling everywhere right now, and two delightful Iranians. Silk Road fanatics with forty years-worth of combined travel horror stories between us and we bond instantly. At the house dinner the others get the short straw (a bottle of the local wine) while me and the Portuguese go for quality over quantity and elect to share the single bottle of beer. The food is famously inedible so the sisters usually have no problem throwing their guests out at 10. No such luck! It is well after midnight and we still cannot agree on the best route to Kashgar.

Courtyard views at the Registan medressas. Students’ cells, none currently occupied by students.

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The Bibi Khanym mosque is done up differently

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But the prize for (unrestored) tile-work goes to the Avenue of Mausoleums.

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Scenes from village life firmly walled away from more glamorous Samarkand. Our street, taken 3 minutes apart. Some of us are destined to do the bucket run, while others get dressed up to go to school.

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The smell of gas coming from these particular installations (in yellow) was indescribable. Alarmingly I was the only one who could smell it.

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All that is left of the Jewish community in Samarkand: The remains of the mezuzah on the shuttered synagogue door.

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The bazaar: Nothing is going to make these end of season potatoes look good.

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The cheese ladies making sure its really fresh. The lap incubation is key to flavor.

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Opinions are being passed on the pomegranates

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Really rocking that apron lady!

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Comings and goings on the avenue. The stressed teenager on the left is the mom.

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More ice cream

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Timurlane’s tomb. After a suitably pugnacious life he ended up dying of pneumonia.

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And from the outside, a full 100 steps (and through the gate in the wall) from my $25 a night B & B.

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Khiva – last man standing

The Amyru Darya river delta takes the edge off the harshness of the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts that sandwich Khiva, the last intact Silk Road town. Agriculture is possible and since it is now officially spring any field not yet washed with a fuzz of green is rapidly acquiring precision furrows. Grumpy old men and their hyper-focused bandy legged wives provide most of the action while grandchildren resolutely shirk their responsibilities: Sulky teenage girls stare off into the distance, longing for a better present, a different future; younger brothers, kick balls or each other, neither use nor ornament.

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The sheer romantic impact of the vast adobe mud walls, here since the 5th century, is marred somewhat by a pervasive and alarming smell of gas (A Turkmenistani engineer staying at my B & B explains the rather ad hoc appropriation of domestic gas from the over ground main line encircling the town (seen in the photo); his wife and I open our windows before we go to sleep). The rich remnants of 600 years of Islamic architecture are solid evidence of Khiva’s significance well into the 19th century.

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Layers of history at the in-town necropolis.

Except that Khiva is not quite what it seems: We are seeing the fruits of the rigorous Soviet renovation that shored up the buildings while divesting the nearly 100 (each) of mosques and medressas of their religious roles.

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Some 10th century columns are still standing, the others are renovations. We can tell because the older columns were soaked in chicken shit for 5 years to smooth the wood. The Russians didn’t bother.

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The inevitable middle schoolers

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And awkward bridal party.

Still, the citizens adapted and even though the Soviets are long gone the call to prayer remains anemic.

But Khiva has its eye on the future as well as the past. A quick sortie outside the East Gate (in search of crackers, my single line of defense against the ubiquitous fatty food) reveals a bomb site.

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The East gate with gas line

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The future is being planned outside the walls

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Madame and daughter of the cracker shop.

More iconic views of Khiva, first from my hotel roof

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The Sacred well medressa.

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‘Three coins in the fountain’ is a different proposition when all the currency is in notes.

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The museums are always vaguely disappointing

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Inquiries to the millenial-behind-the-desk reveals big plans for the future – a new bazaar! (the current one is a mere shadow of its Silk Road self although when I hear a Russian guide tell his group “Don’t buy anything it’s all made in China” it feels like plus ça change); more hotels! (land can’t be bought and sold inside the old city, only inherited, and most inhabitants it seems are content with their cows and sheep, at least for now); a fast train! (2 hours instead of 18 from Tashkent is coming this year already). Khiva clearly has theme park aspirations.

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Hotel Zukhro’s milenial at the desk (the heir apparent) is only 14 but already has well formed social opinions. He will go to Korea to study English at university, while his sister will stay confined to the house. At breakfast I learn she has other plans.

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These book stands are still made on site. The master, Hasan Bey, can trace his ancestry through 18 generations. He shows me how they’re carved from a single piece of wood and insists I take a video of how they can be opened (nine ways).

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Plus ça change indeed.

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Hearts and minds folks.

I swear though, Uzbekis are the chat masters of the universe! No sooner are they all sat down than  favorite stories are brought out to rapt attention and just the right quota of encouraging questions. A long train journey is the perfect crucible and this one is my last overnight of the trip from Khiva to Samarkand (the worst possible, I failed to notice we only stop briefly and at the ungodly hour of 2:45am – it will be impossible to sleep soundly).

My compartment mates  – a nice young cardiologist who is a dead ringer for a young Barack Obama, and an enormous old guy with a full set of gold teeth who prays enthusiastically as soon as he sits down but then puts away his hat and pretensions for the duration) and the inevitable shy Tajik on the top bunk are soon frustrated by our lack of shared words (Google translate [and the internet] gives up half an hour after departure as usual, just when the cardiologist has used it to announce ‘I am Mexican’ to everyone’s confusion).

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Barack Obama

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My fat friend saved our bacon with dinner (so to speak) but refuses to open his mouth for the photo op so his magnificent dental work goes unreported.

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The redoubtable Russell. Goldman Sachs class of 2020.

We are saved by the appearance of ‘Russell’ the milenial (of course) a student of finance at Singapore University with aspirations to a distinguished career at Goldman Sachs. He speaks impeccable English. As soon as news of a bona fide translator spreads, the compartment floods with inquiring minds. It is standing room only and I am forced to become an expert on both Western Europe and the Americas. We segue from economics to politics to soccer (briefly) and on to medical horror stories. Poor Russell is run ragged for 6 hours with a brief break for dinner (hard boiled eggs from the Tajik, bread and delicious sausage from fatty, tea from Barack Obama, cookies supplied by me) before we all collapse with exhaustion. I get up quietly at 2:30 and at 2:40 fatty lumbers up from his bunk opposite and insists on carrying my luggage the 20 feet to the carriage door. He has put on his hat so he can bless my travels.

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Uzbeki humor

 

Paka Shymkent, Salaam Tashkent

I have made the sensible decision to reduce my stay In Turkestan to only night, but visa considerations mean I now have to be in Shymkent (of which Lonely Planet opines ‘there is little here to interest the tourist’ – an almost criminal exaggeration) for three. The customary amble on day one is pleasant enough –  I stumble on the Museum of Soviet Repression which explains handily why Soviet history is so hard to find and why when I cheerily ask the waitress whether our GT conversation will be ‘Russkiy o Kazakh’ she puts her head down to hiss ‘Russkiy’ in my ear, but by 6pm and despite the balmy weather I have exhausted all options and retreat to my Airbnb to binge watch McMafia.

We get the message at the Museum of Soviet Repression

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A monument to the 145,000 Southern Kakahs who died in the Second World War. Not mentioned: a significant number of others defected to the Germans.

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Spring is trying hard to arrive in Shymkent

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Sheer desperation on day 2 forces me into a tortuous 2 hour bus ride to Sayram in an effort to locate the area’s only Silk Road ruin that survived the Soviets, presumably because they too walked right past it. Still Shymkent serves its purpose,  I finish McMafia and am raring to get on the road again.

The 30 foot Silk Road minaret that the Soviets missed. According to LP one can ‘climb to the top to get a view of the mountains’. Omitted: on your hands and knees.

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Downtown action in Sayram, ignored by the Soviets for all the right reasons.

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The transition from Shymkent to Tashkent involves an international border awash in internet hysteria – the Kazakhs will scrutinize my passport for the correct number of stamps (I’m one short thanks to my lackadaisical military friend on the train from Russia) and documentation of registration (don’t have it, aim to play the dementia card) while the Uzbeks will comb my luggage for anything they deem offensive (they are apparently easily offended). Visions of internment in no-man’s land disturb my sleep, however the day starts off well: The NYP (nice young people) who have rented me the apartment convey me to the gladiator circus where the 2 hour shared taxi rides to the border are transacted and negotiate me a coveted front seat for the local price ($3). The road to the border is a swish 6 lane highway. We arrive tout de suite.

A straight shot to the border

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Uzbekistan is a resolutely credit card and ATM free zone, and its currency (som) is closed so I will need to carry my whole 3 week Uzbeki budget as well as a buffer for entering Kyrgistan in the boondocks, in cash. I can’t top up dollars in Shymkent but the NYP reveal an ‘unofficial’ option for changing Kazakh Tenge to som at the border. I land up on the highway median where Macbeth’s witches with gold teeth huddle into the wind. Calculators are whipped out. Cash is stuffed into grocery bags (my hastily acquired Tenge will transform into about 1,800,000, the largest note is 10,000). Simultaneously, duplicate forms are being filled out in Russian declaring all cash, assets and strangely, medication (antibiotic, antidiarrheal and ibuprofen). Huddled into the wind myself, It is all very disorienting and ripe for a scam. Later, when I realize I am $20 short I console myself with the thought that they could have given me plain paper and in the moment I wouldn’t have noticed.

As calculated, in light of the massive bundles of who-knows-what being energetically ‘imported’ in both directions, the border officials have bigger fish to fry than me. They are in no mood to engage in GT conversations to confirm I am demented, and my reading material, luggage and medications are of no interest. Sadly, once safely in Uzbekistan I must tackle the gladiators on my own. My taxi driver is so irate I am only willing to pay 1½ times the going rate ($3) for the hour ride to Tashkent he refuses to take me further than the Metro station and I am reduced to collaring a random pedestrian to phone my B & B for directions. They send their 12 year old son who manfully shoulders my roly bag. All in all a very successful day.

Salaam Tashkent

 Jahongir B & B is in the old town, an area so residential that the predominant nocturnal noise is the sheep the neighbors evidently keep in their courtyard.

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Jahongir B & B. There are definitely sheep behind one of those walls.

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Another $25 bargain, especially now I’ve wheedled an extra pillow.

Mine hosts are an extremely traditional Uzbek family – all females headscarved even indoors (daughters up to their elbows in laundry or scrubbing the stairs) and no evidence of dad except for his singlets drying on the washing line. But mom is speaks fluent English and is eager to explain the new president’s goals to open Uzbekistan to the world (visa reform! ATMs! Credit cards! Faster internet! Massive ugly building projects!) while simultaneously trying to justify why her daughters will be just as well off getting married as going to university. Beneath the polished sweetness a spine of steel.

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Muhammed and his sister Alazira. He wants to play for Real Madrid, and practices daily in the lane. She wants to be a doctor and only ever leaves the compound to go to school.

But LP is so wrong about Tashkent, its civic architecture is astounding! I emerge from the Metro to a city center in which glorious pre-Revolutionary and Soviet buildings have been deployed in extensive parkland packed to the gills with flowering trees.

The previous president’s vanity project with my photo-taking friends. Old folks don’t do selfies.

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Pre-revolutionary home of one of the Romanovs.

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Another glorious opera theatre

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The story behind the negotiations behind this plaque would be worth hearing.

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A Soviet favorite

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Don’t expect a warm welcome at the Uzbekistan Hotel.

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There has to be a Lada

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The Russian second hand book market. Samizdat is out. Test prep and text books are in. Russian schools are still the pathway to higher education. Striver Uzbeks grit their teeth and suck it up.

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No takers for the Soviet memorabilia still for sale.

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On the run-up to Nowruz there is little traffic only decorous families wallowing in the opportunity to be out eating ice-cream in their winter clothes (it is 70° today, it will be 115°C in the summer).

Bad art for (almost) everyone.

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Not overwhelmed with customers today

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If only the megalomaniac previous president hadn’t cut down all the plane trees in Republic Square we could have checked out the chess players too. In the absence of shade they have taken themselves elsewhere.

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Republic Square. At a time when it wasn’t cool a (luckily anonymous) dissident castrated the horse to protest cutting down the trees.

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He cut them down so we could all see his building behind.

The chess players have moved elsewhere.

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A 5-hour stroll takes it all in and then another execrable dinner of fatty shashlik and an inadvertent mayonnaise salad in the restaurant across the road. Uzbeki cuisine begins to take its toll. Off to Khiva on the night train tomorrow.

A raw, raw day on the Western Steppes

The overnight train from Almaty draws into Turkestan just after dawn, frightening the birds hoping for an early start on the sheets of standing water left behind by the snow.

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The animals are out too – compact woolly cows toughened up from the winter, burly brown and black steppe sheep and the inevitable hairy, neurotic goats. Their shepherds will catch up with them later on horseback, or less ideally, on donkeys. The sky is leaden and the wind is damp. There will be no sun today.

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Crows’ nests. It is exactly as dank as it looks.

Hotel Edem, the best budget option in town (there are no non-budget options) is unfortunately already living up to its mixed reputation, but as usual there is a NYL at the desk prepared to bond over my passport: ‘Wait, you’re the same age as my MOTHER!’ her GT tells me. She hustles me off for breakfast, checking in to make sure I’m eating enough protein. No tourists in the bustling dining room, and the notorious nightclub seems to be located outdoors; surely no all-night disco in March?

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One of the many design flaws at Hotel Edem. The gate is padlocked. Getting onto the entrance stairs involves sidling around the banister.

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In this case the design flaw is not, as you may think, that there is no way to keep the water within the shower, it is that concreting over the drain means it has no place to go once it is on the floor.

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But I have scored famous room 215!  – the farthest room from the notorious all night disco. Of course I have to pay for the privilege ($30).

In a rare flash of prescience I have given myself only one day in Turkestan, so a car and driver are needed post haste. NYL will find me one. It will be twice what I’d pay if I go out on the streets and negotiate myself, but I’m willing to forego the extra $10. In short order I am introduced to Roma, my driver to be, another hulking Uzbek. Roma has selected ‘business casual’ for our excursion and I am so transfixed by his natty blazer and sparkling shoes, I neglect due diligence on his car, which I will regret later. I myself am swaddled in many of the clothes left after mailing my Siberian wardrobe back home, somewhat prematurely it seems.

Our destination is an hour and a half out of town through the relentless steppe, scarred here and there by dry river beds – the snow just melted, will they ever run full? A couple of villages, a tiny town. Texas on steroids.

Though Irkutsk too stood at a trade route crossroads between west and east, Sauran is my first official Silk Road site,  its crumbling city walls pierce the flatness like a mirage.

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It is so flat any topography is due to ruined walls and buildings.

One of very few surviving ancient ruins in Kazakhstan, Sauran was built in the 12th century, developed strong diplomatic and trading ties with China, survived Genghis Khan and eventually become capital of the White Horde, only to be abandoned when the nearest river abandoned it a couple of centuries later. The walls encircle a huge mound of rubble more than a kilometer in diameter.

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The virgin ruins weep exquisitely decorated pottery fragments .

Only one house has been excavated.

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I amble round, completely alone except for birds and a shepherd on a pony more than a kilometer away. I am studiously ignored.

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The shepherd is also circumnavigating the walls.

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The brickwork melts into the landscape.

After nearly 2 hours I spot Roma fastidiously picking his way over the debris and agree reluctantly to call it a day.

We have achieved Sauran via the main road west out of Turkestan, a well-maintained four lane divided highway crawling with police presumably to protect the flocks meandering from side to side, or the shepherds who like to share their lunch on the median, since there is little traffic. Motorists warn each other with complicated hand signals and Roma responds by slowing to a crawl. But wait, why he is actually leaping out of the car, surely we can’t have been nailed? In a manner of speaking: one of the four mismatched wheels has a serious flat. Fortunately he has a spare. Less fortunately nothing else.

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Roma’s tool box does not bode well for actually changing this flat tire

Fortunately again many of the sporadic cars stop to offer assistance. Less fortunately, most also lack the necessary combo of jack and appropriate wrench. A car passes every 3 minutes or so, about one in three stops, and we hit the jackpot when the lucky number of stops is seven. The wind has come straight from Siberia and Roma has had to remove his best jacket. I can huddle in the car, at least until the wheel change is imminent.

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Our Sir Galahad is deeply skeptical of the whole endeavor.

When we are on our way I firmly turn the heat up and the Uzbeki pop songs off.

Next up the most famous monument in Kazakhstan, the mausoleum of Kozha Yasaui, still an important Sufi mystic.  Designed and built on a visionary scale by Tamurlane, he died in 1405 before he could complete it. There are no tourists today, only a couple of Sufi groups making furtive pilgrimages (their Sufism is controversial). They are pleased when I leave them alone.

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The Yasaui mausoleum: Figure on left for scale.

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The unfinished front.

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The back.

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The tile above the door is much more free-form than I expected.

I finish the day with a whistle-stop tour of the Turkestan museum. A fine display of pre-history artefacts from 10,000 BC but interestingly, the whole Russian and Soviet era is completely elided. Outside, for the first time in Kazakhstan, the call to prayer.

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The guide loses interest in me at the 12th century so I can surreptitiously snap this ‘Turkestan of the Future – mock up’ despite the stern no photos warning.

Dinner at the best restaurant in town (Hotel Edem where else?) is shashlik advertised as beef, but from its texture, patently horse.  The disco sputters into life at 11, but pulls the plug at 11:15. I sleep like a log and Roma comes the next morning to drive me to the bus station, more appropriately dressed as a car mechanic and with a sheepish grin.

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Baden-Baden or Bruges? For a sedate weekend in Central Asia, try Almaty

Like Yangon, Almaty has had the rug pulled from under its feet: the seat of political power has been diverted to an unpopular mausoleum of unfortunate modernist architecture several hundred miles away, leaving only the physical relics behind. But unlike Yangon, which responded by descending into feral chaos, Almaty doesn’t seem to mind one bit. It has exhaled slowly, repurposed its Soviet-era bureaucratic behemoths, helpfully pedestrianized its resplendently wide boulevards (recall Stalin’s paranoia about the insurgencies plotted down narrow lanes) and settled into a sedate middle age.

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Plenty of Soviet era behemoths, all gently decaying

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Moday: Only one car parked outside the mayor’s office (formerly seat of national government).

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Monday evening rush hour: not many takers for the Metro

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The Kazakh State Circus features in many books on ‘important’ Soviet Architecture.

On this balmy weekend where the prevailing color is nonetheless still monochrome, serene ‘passeggiatas con gelato’ are in progress, and in the piazzas the serious children are playing sedately. It is no place for disaffected youth, so there aren’t any. The millenials are pleasant and unfailingly helpful. Their English is excellent and they are planning to go to Europe for further studies (no-one is interested in the USA).

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Sedate passeggiatas down the pedestrianized boulevards.

Three of my goals for this weekend in Almaty (long showers, laundry, eat vegetables) are handily achieved thanks to my nifty little Soviet era apartment, courtesy of Airbnb. Fantastically located in the middle of downtown it is decrepit enough the developers should be circling; but since every road has 3 names – its Soviet name, its current name, and what people actually call it – it has probably simply slipped through the cracks. So its pensioner tenants, who are within a 5 minute walk of anywhere worth being, are left in peace.

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Dinner in my Soviet era kitchen: Rosti with salad and mushrooms. Note the bread, but she was right, I didn’t need an egg.

I amble around, shop for Tashkent tomatoes at the farmer’s market, take in the ballet and a museum or two, eat a gelato and am restored.

Pig and cow feature prominently in the farmer’s market, but horse isn’t similarly advertised.

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Just so you don’t think its chicken.

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Another ambitious opera theatre.

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Everyone was still awake in Act 2, so unlikely to be Sleeping Beauty (as advertised).

And just as well because task 4 is picking up my visa from the Iranian Embassy. Since I have in my hand a document from the Iranian government indicating that at my convenience I will be persona grata for a period not exceeding 20 days, this should be a formality. I have set aside the whole of Monday in case it is not.

A tragicomedy in two acts: Act 1.

Cast: Me; A security guard; Two gents; A secretary; Dr. Jekyll; Mr. Hyde; A Bank Cashier; 8 Uber drivers.
Scene 1: It is early on a dank morning in a ramshackle subdivision about 40 minutes from the center of Almaty, identified from Google maps as the location of the Iranian embassy. The curtain rises on a vast compound that covers a whole block. The walls are at least twelve feet high. Somewhat surprisingly, only one door is not padlocked. The buzzer is not wired up. After much banging the door opens.

Me: I’ve come to pick up my visa

Security guard: Unintelligible

Me: (proffers Google translate which says ‘I’ve come to pick up my visa’).

SG: Unintelligible, mimics not having glasses.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

SG: Shakes head.

Me: Where is it then?

SG: Unintelligible.

Me: Well can you call someone to help me because I’m not understanding you at all.

SG: Points to the basement of what appears to be a deserted building in the middle of the compound.

Scene 2: The only room occupied is on the 2nd floor – two gents with jihadi beards and their Central Asian secretary.

Me: Is this the Iranian embassy?

Gents: No, it moved 10 years ago. We’re (they exchange glances) a Chinese oil company.

Secretary: Looks surprised. (The secretary retrieves a sheet of typed directions to the actual Iranian embassy).

Secretary: Would you like an Uber?

(Aside:  Every second car in Almaty is a taxi and Almaty Uber is the cheapest in the world. Over the next few hours I will take 8 Uber rides for a total outlay of $14).

Uber driver #1: Iranian embassy?

Scene 3: 30 minutes later. It is still dank but this subdivision is marginally less ramshackle, as is the compound. This gate is wide open and astonishingly there are no metal detectors (even the malls in Almaty have metal detectors). At the end of the empty, appallingly decorated room is a wall of bullet proof glass. The gun slit to peer through is inconveniently located at upper chest height.

Me: (through gun slit) Hello, I’ve come to pick up my visa.

Dr. Jekyll:  Passport.

Me: (proffers passport and Iranian Government letter).

Dr. J. : No

Me: What no? I have the letter.

Dr. J: Yes, and we have the visa (pulls down a ledger, and there I am inscribed within ).

Me: So what’s the problem?

Dr. J: No application form. We need online application form.

Me: What do you mean? I don’t have that form, you have it. Did you approve the visa?

Dr. J: No, Tehran.

Me: So Tehran has it.

Dr. J: Your tour organizer made mistake.

Me: What mistake? Tehran approved it.

Dr. J: Go back and fill in again online.

Me: You want me to go home and fill in the online application form again?

Dr. J: Yes.

Me: And then come back?

Dr. J: Yes. Then you pay 360 Euros and we give you visa today.

(I contemplate bursting into tears, but a strategic retreat seems wiser, given we are at a yes)

Uber driver #2: The name (of my apartment) is not Nazerbaev 112, it is Furmanov 112.

2 hour interlude. Via email my internet dude tour organizer offers his best suggestion: ‘do anything they ask’.  But I am unable to complete the online visa application. Finally the Iranian government confesses its website is down for maintenance. I screenshot the message and, preparing for battle, gird my laptop in a plastic grocery bag.

Uber driver #3: Iranian embassy?

Scene 4: 40 minutes later, the same room. A few unhappy Kazakhs are lounging on the ugly, plastic-covered sofas. On the other side of the gun slit sits Mr. Hyde.

Me: I just need to tell you I couldn’t fill…

Mr. Hyde: Yes, yes, obviously anyone should realize if you already submitted a successful application you can’t submit another one.

Me: (Bites lip). OK. So what then?

Mr. H:  Go to the State bank of Pakistan and pay 180 euros. Visa is ready after 5 business days.

Uber driver #4: State Bank of Pakistan?

Scene 5: 30 minutes later in a strip mall, the State Bank of Pakistan.

Pakistani Bank cashier: 180 Euros is 71,475 Tenge.

Me: Can I pay with a card?

PBC: No

Me: Do you have a Bankomat (ATM)?

PBC: No.

Uber driver #5: Bankomat?

15 minutes later

Uber driver #6: State Bank of Pakistan?

20 minutes later

Uber driver #7: Iranian Embassy?

Scene 6: 30 minutes later. The same room. The Kazakhs have left. Through the gun slit Dr. J. is back. He looks sullen, even after lunch.

Me: Here’s the receipt. For 180 Euros.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: (opens laptop and indicates calendar) I’m coming back on April 12th. I will pick up my visa then.

Dr. J: Yes

Me: Will you write me something to say that will be OK?

Dr. J: No.

Uber Driver #8: The name is not Nazerbaev 112, its Furmanov 112.

It has taken over 8 hours.

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The Iranian embassy, Almaty

I have 2 gin and tonics with dinner at the Korean restaurant round the corner.

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Gin and tonic number 1

Act 2 will be performed on April 12th.

Farewell Taiga!

I finally get my Pasternak moment on the 057 Irkutsk to (somewhere unpronounceable but way past Rostock on Don) when Lara parks herself opposite on bunk #11. Larissa is a dumpy, chunky babushka, but she is not grumpy! Not at all! In fact she’s so good-natured and charming that within 20 minutes she has us all wrapped round her little finger. Her week’s supply of food is deposited in the prodenitsa’s own fridge and the prodenitsa herself has cheerfully provided us both with real china plates and proper cutlery so Larissa can load them up with a delicious selection of home-made salads for our lunch.

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Larissa will be on the train for a week. Fortunately she has brought food for a month

A few hours later and even the fierce Tajiks on the top bunks are happily showing us photos of their grape harvests. In a final coup de main on our morning constitutional she even has the train driver getting down from his compartment for a photo-op.

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The most good-natured train driver in Russia

The sun is still sparkling on the taiga and our Google Translates remark simultaneously that it feels like spring. It is a lovely, if short, 30 hour train ride and we part, appropriately, with a heartfelt bear hug (she and the Tajiks head on to Rostock).

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The bright blue skies make all the difference. Massive stands of trees try unsuccessfully to break the wind.

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Spring is on its way to Novosibirsk too, so the grey film on the hard packed snow and ice that covers the sidewalks is beginning to melt treacherously. I am focusing on keeping my footing when it occurs to me the reason the air feels so balmy on my legs is that I’ve neglected to put my snow pants on top of my long underwear. Fortunately, Novosibirskians are far too polite to indicate they’ve noticed. My goal is some prep for Kazakhstan tomorrow: Scene, a bank. Cast: Me via Google Translate; A bank clerk.

Me: Is it possible to change Rubles into Tenge?

ABC: No. Do you have dollars?

Me: Oh! Is it possible to change Dollars into Tenge?

ABC: No.

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A night at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet to see Peer Gynt, in this modern iteration an  odd combination of both opera and ballet.  I would have preferred the piano and the chorus on stage and the dancers in the orchestra pit. But the acoustics were absolutely sensational, the best I’ve ever heard.  Caviar and champagne helps too.

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Hello Steppes!

All bets are off! The last stage of this marathon train expedition, a 48 hour, two night trip, will not be on one of the Russian Railways marvels I now so smugly consider myself expert in. The 369 from Novosibirsk to Tashkent stopping in Almaty Kazakhstan, is a decrepit Uzbekhi Railways imitation. Truth be told, it isn’t an imitation at all, but a slightly unhinged parallel universe.

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Novosibirsk Railway Station. The palm trees are obscuring a grand piano. The pianist is playing Rachmaninoff.

Clue number one: most of the train is composed of open bunk ‘plazkart’ carriages to accommodate a full cohort of ‘importers’ laden down with plenty of who knows what (whatever it is they come by from time to time trying to sell it).  The single ‘kupe’ carriage of elite 4 berth compartments has an oriental rug, but is half empty.

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All of the action is at the rear of the train which is packed full of ‘importers’. The sniffer dogs are very interested.

Clue number two: all the prodenistas are men, and none are prepared to deploy air freshener in the bathrooms or vacuum between our feet. No-one has a clipboard. After the border and when they have acquired enough who knows what from the ‘importers’ they let a subset sleep in the kupe carriage, though not, fortunately, in our compartment.

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Our prodenista sports elaborate dental work and what looks like a military band uniform. He insists I take a picture of him with this dried-up pomegranate. Meanwhile his junior associate (glimpsed partially) cackles “No photos! No photos!” hysterically from the side. Neither of them prioritize cleaning the bathrooms.

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The samovar is coal fired.

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But bunk #9 will be cozy under the Uzbekhi railway blanket. Just as well since all the lights and heating fused on the second night.

Clue number three: there is no little elf with free dinners (how we laughed but how we miss him now) only a hulking great Uzbeki who tries to strong arm us into buying greasy plov on a 3 hour rotation. Ludmilla (Luda, this trip’s bunk #11) keeps up a whispered commentary on everything she disapproves of (it is constant) and manages to whisper him away but I make the mistake of saying ‘patom’ (‘later’) so he puts me and his rapidly congealing bowls on a half hour rotation. Google Translate is not effective in Uzbeki.

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Plov extortion. Out of self defense I tried to figure out when it might be fresh and ordered then. I was wrong.

At just before 6am I am engaged in the daily ritual of calculating how long I can put off going to the bathroom when all lights come on and three different breeds of sniffer dogs expertly nose their way down the carriage, followed by 5 members of the Red Army Ensemble who align themselves beside my bunk. ‘Passport’ they chorus. They are so transfixed with last year’s Burmese visa they take the passport away, presumably to show the tenors. An hour or so later a trio with slightly better vocabulary demand my full itinerary in detail (they are visibly disappointed it won’t include Burma). I omit Iran and substitute Istanbul as an imaginary final leg but It doesn’t help. Finally, and after another hour, a well-scrubbed millennial with perfect English (of course) presents me with my passport, inexplicably freezing cold, ‘I’m so sorry’ he says unexpectedly. ‘It’s quite all right’ I tell him. Of course, we’re stopped, so the bathroom is locked.

But all is not done. The Kazakh half of the equation awaits. Its single military representative, while decidedly spottier and much less spruced up than the RAE has several more lights on. He immediately spots my proffered UK passport lacks the Russian exit visa (the dilemma – my Iranian visa, which I’m going to pick up in Almaty, will go in my UK passport, so I need my Kazakh visa there also, but my Russian visa is in my US passport). I surrender my US passport reluctantly (I have not yet made it to the bathroom). ‘Two passports?’ he asks. ‘Yes’ I concede. He immediately stamps the appropriate one. ‘Welcome to Kazakhstan’ he says with a grin.

By the time it gets light we are into the steppe. The horizon is flat in all directions and will stay that way until nightfall, 12 hours away. We stop at one tiny town and see only a handful of isolated villages, all beside the tracks. Their houses feel braced into the landscape.

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An unusual blast of color.

There are no full size trees. Only the wind has sliced and etched huge swirls in the snow, which, caked with ice, glisten in the sun.

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I had thought the landscape would be scarred with Soviet mines, but it is not. It is pristine; harsh and majestic.

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The graveyard at the end of the world

I idly follow some snowmobile tracks as they meander out of a village and beside the railway for over an hour. Along with the electricity poles they end up at a single farmstead. There are no other tracks or electricity poles as far as the eye can see.

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The electricity poles stop here.

Outside the farmstead a young boy without gloves is hauling a steel milk can on a sled. He stops to wave at the train, which passes this way three times a week.

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Unusually at dawn a far house-light.

Irkutsk Siberia, bitcoin capital of the world

An Irkutsk joke:

“I’ve heard you have bears and wolves walking the streets in Irkutsk”

“Don’t be ridiculous, we don’t have streets in Irkutsk”

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Babur, the  mascot of Irkutsk, combines the worst elements of bears and wolves.

Under leaden skies, more snow, and a damp, biting wind Irkutsk definitely isn’t a contender. Not only are the sidewalks not at all free of snow or ice, but underneath they seem to be made of polished granite. Plus, the frozen grey slush seems to mask unsurfaced roads.  I rebuff the usual phalanx of aggressive taxi drivers hogging the front of the station in favor of a 40 minute ride on the ancient tram at 5mph (25 cents). Not for nothing has Irkutsk been described as a ‘boom or bust’ gold town. This particular bust cycle must have been really protracted.

The Matreshka hotel, evidently built during some earlier, fleeting boom, aspires to the ‘Neo-Soviet’ pre-IKEA style of charmless interior décor. But we must look beyond décor to cleanliness (5 stars) millennials-at-the-desk (A+ particularly after one hauls my roly bag up three flights of stairs) and breakfast (over and above – a la carte homemade yogurt supplementing a lavish buffet). A piping hot shower (note for later, a real bath tub) and a change of clothes and I am willing to give Irkutsk a second chance.

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The Neo-Soviet pre-IKEA dining room at the Matreshka.

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Note to self: there is little point reserving a ‘queen sized bed’ for extra room if it is actually two twins shoved together, with a twin duvet.

At 2pm and courtesy of Katarina, that NYL from Moscow, I am handed off to her friend in Irkutsk. Over the next couple of days Anastasia (Masters in International Relations, Human Rights Watch alumna, social entrepreneur) will walk me off my feet in the service of upending these so facile stereotypes. Can all Russians actually be sweethearts? I’m certainly batting 100% up to now.

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Anastasia is an Irkutsk and Baikal booster

In the first place, we are not in fact in a bust cycle. Indeedy not, thanks to, of all things, Bitcoin. It turns out that various international shady characters have ridden into town and taken advantage of fantastically low electricity prices to install massive numbers of Bitcoin servers in rented apartments, making unlikely Irkutsk the Bitcoin capital of the world.

In the second place, despite its resolute location in Asia, Irkutsk is more appropriately known as the Paris (rather than the Dodge City) of Siberia (more plausible when the snow stops sufficiently for the elegant pre-revolution architecture over this side of the river to reveal itself in the gloaming).

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Irkutsk can strut its stuff once the snow stops

LvVaLzJTTgSSAHeyXOUGpA_thumb_4442Even the Stalinist buildings aren’t bad. Unknown Warrior duty is no fun at -25°C.

In the third place, the Matreshka hotel is not simply a clean if unfortunately decorated $40 find on Booking.com, but an exceptionally dangerous place tourists, especially of my age, should avoid. It all seems related in some way to its proximity to the market and the bus-stop outside, which evidently is frequented solely by pick-pockets (if this is the case they are expertly disguised as babushkas). When I ask the millenial-at-the-desk whether I can safely make the 6 minute walk to the restaurant up the street for dinner she is not amused. “It may look dangerous but it isn’t” she says. ”In any case there’s a police car parked outside”. She’s right and it will be there tomorrow too, still empty. I cunningly disguise myself as a pickpocket babushka and make it there and back uneventfully.

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The notorious Hotel Matreshka. Taken from in front of the police car.

I’ve just finished washing my malodorous train clothes in the bathtub and am settling in with the New Yorker when I get an anxious text from Anastasia wondering whether I need an armed escort.

Another upended stereotype: I’ve yet to see a Russian drink; when I ordered beer with my dinner the waitress had to run to the grocery store across the road. Everyone else was drinking herbal tea.

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The fish is listed as ‘Omul’ – a Lake Baikal specialty. However Omul is protected, so this is in fact another kind (Peyul) that looks and tastes completely different. It is the same price whether listed as Omul or Peyul. Thanks to Anastasia for the insider info, but who knows what all that’s about.

Day 2, Baikal

Everything has changed. The clouds have blown out, the skies are bright blue and here in the Paris of Siberia the sun is sparkling on the sidewalks. Even the roads are now clearly asphalted. It will be a perfect day for the 12 hour trip Anastasia has organized to lake Baikal. First order of business – getting there – is itself a challenge involving a complex sequence of marshrutkas (mini-van buses): Neither where they stop nor when they go is obvious, even to a native Russian speaker who lives in town.

First off, the grandly titled ‘ethnographic museum’ which truth be told is the main reason I am in Irkutsk at all. Various ancient Siberian taiga villages and stockades relocated to a different taiga in service of a hydroelectric dam, and, as hoped, just like Old Sturbridge Village, although the live re-enactments at OSV are better (here the roles of the peasants are played by disconcertingly looming papier maché models). I insist on spending hours inspecting everything, but Anastasia is able to tell me all about it, hence a good time is had by all.

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Absolute bliss: Old Sturbridge Village in Siberia

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Probably not many live re-enactment volunteers given the houses mostly aren’t heated.

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Ancient hunting blind: a nice cozy place to hole up while waiting for the bears and wolves.

Apparently if we ran out of water tomorrow Lake Baikal could keep the entire planet supplied for the next 40 years. It is not surprising then that it has a 2000km shoreline (of which I hope to see only a fraction, Anastasia is very energetic). Tomorrow she plans to ski across to the other side. It will take 6 hours, much out of sight of either bank, all sounding and looking like a really poor idea.

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Shamanist prayer flags on the shore of Baikal. Ostensibly from the Buyan indigenous people, but more likely from cross-country skiers.

Fortunately today it is only -20°C so we can take a long (long) walk on the ice and then circle back to buy smoked fish at the village market and take it into one of the cafés to eat. The notion of bringing one’s own food to a café is somewhat counter-intuitive, and Anastasia warns me we will need to buy something, which turns out to be a couple of pitas to wrap the fish in. But we even drink our own thermos of tea, while the family beside us tucks into their own full 3 course meal.

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One of these is actual Omul, the fishermen themselves are less inhibited about the prohibition.

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Pita and actual Omul for lunch.

At about 4pm, having taken each other’s measure, we can finally start on politics. I am interested why Putin enjoys between 80% (Anastasia’s figure) and 90% (Katarina’s) support. He has made internal improvements (like shutting down the paper mill that was polluting Lake Baikal), but not enough and he is getting tired. People are restless but afraid of chaos when he steps down. Navalny, his only viable opponent, is a consummate politician who espouses eliminating hush-money subsidies to states (like Chechnya); this may restore equity (the money is funneled into the pockets of corrupt politicians, and even the Chechens themselves are fed up) but is a risky path. International politics are not on the radar screen, even for this International Relations expert. She is interested in whether there is a link between Trump and Putin. I offer that more than half the USA is praying for one, and that it surely involves kompromat based on shady financing of his business deals. But Putin is surely too clever to have his fingerprints on anything. She thinks his acceptance of the most recent sanctions show he’s hanging his inner circle out to dry. As he reaches the end of his career he is seeking to establish his legacy. and he wants it acknowledged that it is he who saved Russia. They need to realize the price he has paid for greasing their wheels.

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The local history museum, a bridge too far.

At 6pm I decline the final museum and insist on declaring victory. Although I rarely actually feel cold, being out in it all day is exhausting. At the hotel I am so tired I settle for a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water for dinner; I can’t even make it into the corridor to get hot water for tea.